Back in 2008, my then-65-year-old and US-based father was about to buy his very first car. He wanted a Ford Mustang, which I thought was a little impractical for his age and motoring requirements. I tried to persuade him to get a Japanese sedan (like the Toyota Camry) or SUV (like the Honda CR-V) instead. His reaction was one of disgust. He looked at me as if he would rather walk than drive a Japanese vehicle.
I told my father that Japanese cars had long overtaken their Western counterparts in terms of quality and reliability. He wasn’t convinced. In his mind, the Japanese cars of his youth were the same Japanese cars today. In the 1950s, of course, Japan-made cars were like Chinese vehicles now: inferior imitations of American and European models. You’d be crazy to pick one over a Ford or a Volkswagen.
My father refused to believe that the Japanese had improved their manufacturing processes and leapfrogged the competition in technical innovation. So he bought an American car.
Unlike my old man, I grew up in a world that already had a charitable view of Japanese product quality. As a kid, I remember receiving battery-operated toys from relatives in the US, proudly stamped “Made in Japan.” Add to this the super robot (Voltes V, Mazinger Z and company) craze in the late 1970s, and I went on to regard the Japanese as the very best engineers and inventors on the planet. That they were also particularly good at pornography was just a bonus during my adolescence.
Predictably, when I became an adult, I was biased toward Japanese products. If it says “Made in Japan,” I’m sold. I got myself a Japanese car. I didn’t mind that this hatchback had been assembled in Thailand. I also collect Seiko watches (after Casio G-Shocks), even if most of them are really made in Malaysia. As far as I’m concerned, as long as the blueprint is Japanese, the production methods are Japanese, and the factory supervisors are Japanese, they can take my money.
But something’s happening to the Japanese manufacturing industry of late. In recent years, automotive firms have been caught tampering with safety audits. They have also lied about fuel-economy figures. And a leading air bag maker has churned out faulty products with potentially fatal consequences.
And then last week, Kobe Steel, which supplies metal (steel, copper and aluminum) to Honda, Nissan and Toyota, officially admitted falsifying quality certification on materials sold to clients. In a nutshell, this means that the sheet metal ordered by a car maker doesn’t conform to R&D-stipulated standards and specifications. Which then means that certain vehicles rolling out of the production facility do not possess the structural integrity and build quality intended for them. And this has serious repercussions on the cars’ capacity to withstand crashes. Metal specs play a major part in such safety features as crumple zones. Mess with them and you mess with people’s lives.
What’s happening in Japan? Why are Japanese manufacturers suddenly becoming cheaters? How long has this been going on?
As I collect my thoughts on this topic, I realize now that I’ve had complete faith in “Made in Japan” not because of technological advancement, but because of the knowledge that the Japanese are honest, honorable people. The knowledge that they’d rather take their own lives than lie to their customers. The knowledge that you could trust them with the smallest nut and bolt on your car — even when no one’s watching.
I still believe that. I still want to believe that. I’ve had no unpleasant experiences whatsoever when it comes to Japan and its products. Okay, there was that one Seiko 5 watch whose day-date complication was broken when I received it. But like a dyed-in-the-wool Japan fan, I simply put it down to the drowsy Malaysian worker who had put it together.
I hope Japanese manufacturers get their act together sooner than later. With all the bad press they’ve been getting, I don’t know how much longer before my bubble bursts. A trip to Yoshinoya next week during my Tokyo Motor Show visit may no longer suffice to keep me mesmerized.
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