Opinion

Takata Shame Deflates Japan’s Engineering Pride

A casualty of ingrained groupthink

Embarrassment is the one thing Japanese fear above all else. They will go to great lengths to avoid it. But when unavoidably faced with it, they grovel, even over trivial matters. When my train into Tokyo runs even a minute late, that’s why the shocking news is announced with profuse apologies. It’s a defining facet of Japan’s “shame culture,” which anthropologist Ruth Benedict famously contrasted with Western “guilt culture.”

So, no surprise that the Subaru call center guy groveled for nearly a minute before getting down to the business at hand: the Takata air-bag recall notice that arrived over the summer. For a nation so intensely proud of its engineering prowess, the Takata debacle is about as shameful as it gets: 16 deaths and more than 100 million vehicles recalled worldwide at a cost estimated at over $24 billion.

Endearing though they are, Japan’s self-flagellating apologies have a nasty flip side: the tendency to bury embarrassing issues instead of facing the intense shame of revealing them – especially if they embarrass your superiors.

honda global headquarters
Courtesy of Honda

As foolish as the townsfolk who admired The Emperor’s New Clothes might seem, if a Japanese CEO tried the same stunt, chances are that all his underlings would do likewise and ignore his lack of underwear. This explains how some of the world’s best engineers get embroiled in technological blunders that seem to defy all logic at companies like Takata and Mitsubishi Motors. Each time a scandal erupts, it invariably emerges that everyone knew but no one said boo.

That’s exactly what happened with the Fukushima nuclear meltdown, which shook the world’s already tenuous confidence in atomic energy. After all, if Japan’s meticulous engineers can’t safely run a reactor, who the hell can? But as discovered by the independent inquiry commissioned by Japan’s parliament, many staffers at Tepco, the plant’s operator, were fully aware of the danger. They knew a 38-meter tsunami had hit the Fukushima coast in 1896 and that a wave of the same magnitude could swamp the critical back-up generators unwisely located in the plant’s basement. Yet nothing was done. Everyone just kept repeating the corporate mantra: “Nuclear power is inherently safe.”

Toyota Japan headquarters
Courtesy of Toyota

While working on drafting the English version of the investigation commission’s report, I saw first-hand how the obvious but embarrassing conclusion was to be downplayed. At least until the inquiry’s outspoken chairman, Dr. Kiyoshi Kurokawa, dug in his heels and insisted that the English executive summary include this:

What must be admitted – very painfully – is that this was a disaster “Made in Japan.”

Had other Japanese been in the shoes of those who bear responsibility for this accident, the result may well have been the same.

What Kurokawa’s diagnosis points to is a congenital disease that afflicts almost all large Japanese organizations: once the course is set, no one questions it and everyone toes the line – even when it’s clearly wrong or even suicidal.

While we don’t have an Access Hollywood video to illuminate the deliberations behind Takata’s air-bag screw-up, you can bet the root cause is a mirror of Fukushima. Lots of people likely knew, but no one dared blow the whistle.

Here’s the really crucial point of this rant: to varying degrees, every one of Japan’s automakers has the inherent capacity to screw up with the same magnitude as Takata or Fukushima. It’s the Achilles heel on the phenomenally disciplined engineering culture that has made Japanese technology respected around the world – and it badly needs to be healed. A more diverse workforce is one promising cure. But Japanese also need to learn how to blow the whistle.

First, though, they need to replace my ‘firetrucking’ air-bag inflator.

Directed by the guy at Subaru’s call center, I drove 45 minutes up the coast to a dealer in Mobara, 34 miles east of Tokyo. For your benefit, I took my camera along in order to document the replacement procedure step-by-step.

In the end, though, the obligatory apologies took longer than the procedure itself. All they did was disconnect a wiring harness tucked inside the passenger-side dash of my 2005 Outback, which took only a minute.

“What about my new inflator?” I asked. “Oh, you’ll have to come back in six months or a year once we get the part,” the cheerful service guy told me. “We’ll call you when it comes in.”

To that I responded in Japanese with what roughly translates as, “Oh, shit, you gotta be freaking kidding? You mean I’ve blown half a day just so you could pull a damn plug?”

That of course prompted a deep bow and yet another deeply sincere apology. You gotta love the Japanese.

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