Worried about broader fallout, Japan moves to contain air bag crisis

Tue Dec 2, 2014 5:51pm EST
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By Mari Saito and Maki Shiraki

TOKYO (Reuters) - Japan's auto recall enforcement division, whose 16 members work from a cramped office on the eighth floor of the transport ministry building in Tokyo, only found out about safety issues with Takata Corp air bags in late-2008 - more than three years after the company says it first learned of problems.

The ministry, which doubles as Japan's safety regulator, then took a largely passive approach to the crisis unfolding in the United States - Takata's biggest market where more than 10 million cars have since been recalled - rubber-stamping recall filings by automakers after incidents reported abroad.

"We had no idea there were already accidents in the United States, so there was no reason for us to be concerned at the time," said Masato Sahashi, director of the recall office.

To be sure, Japan's automakers are not obliged to report overseas accidents to officials in Tokyo unless it leads to a recall. And, while defective Takata air bags have been linked to at least five deaths, all in Honda Motor cars, there have been no reported fatalities or injuries in Japan.

But more than half a dozen air bag inflators have ruptured in cars at Japanese scrap yards, officials have said, and one of those incidents, in a 2003 Toyota WiLL Cypha, is being investigated and could prompt a wider recall. There have also been four explosions of Takata air bags in cars that were in use between 2011-14 that led to recalls.

Now, the ministry, concerned about a broader reputational fallout for the entire Japanese auto industry as recalls escalate, is finally scrambling into action.

Late last month, it set up an eight-person task force to speed up recalls and learn more about why Takata's air bags can explode with dangerous force in accidents. Honda, Takata's biggest customer, opened its own investigation into the air bag problems in 2007.

The task force is in daily contact with Takata and holds regular meetings with a company representative, demanding information as the ministry weighs up whether to order an expanded recall in Japan - as the U.S. regulator has done - said a person with knowledge of the closed-door proceedings.   Continued...

United States Air Force First Lt. Stephanie Erdman, from Destin, Florida, testifies before a Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee hearing on "Examining Takata Airbag Defects and the Vehicle Recall Process." in Washington November 20, 2014.  REUTERS/Gary Cameron