Safety Scandal Shames Mitsubishi
New Cover-Up Allegations Hobble Japan's Fourth-Largest Automaker
By Anthony Faiola
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, July 6, 2004; Page E01
YOKOHAMA, Japan -- Shiho Okamoto was killed while walking home from a neighborhood video store with her two young sons when a 220-pound wheel fell off the front axle of a Mitsubishi truck moving behind her. The wheel crushed Okamoto's skull and spine.
To the Kanagawa Prefecture Police Department in Yokohama, a port city 19 miles south of Tokyo, the detached wheel seemed too odd to write off as an accident. Mitsubishi Motors Corp. -- Japan's fourth-largest automaker -- was implicated in 2000 in a cover-up scandal that resulted in the belated recall of about 600,000 cars and trucks, but company officials said they had resolved problems and repeatedly blamed poor maintenance by the trucks' owners.
Police investigating the January 2002 death of 29-year-old Okamoto, however, said they learned of a similar incident with a Mitsubishi bus in the southern city of Hiroshima and had evidence suggesting that company representatives were fanning out across Japan, replacing parts and begging vehicle owners not to go public with their experiences.
A raid on Mitsubishi offices five months ago yielded the evidence that exploded into one of the largest corporate scandals ever in Japan. Authorities say seized documents, and subsequent admission of fault by Mitsubishi Motors Corp. (MMC) and a spinoff, Mitsubishi Fuso Truck & Bus Co., indicate that since the 1980s, the automakers systematically hid defects involving 800,000 vehicles. Among the hidden flaws were defective front axles on the same type of truck as that involved in Okamoto's death.
"I will never forgive Mitsubishi," Okamoto's mother, Yoko Masudo, 54, said at her lawyer's office in central Yokohama. Mitsubishi Fuso finally admitted responsibility in the Okamoto case in late March. MMC and Mitsubishi Fuso since have also admitted long-hidden defects in clutches, brakes and other car parts collectively involved in dozens of accidents that resulted in several injuries and at least one other death.
"They lied to the public," Masudo said. "They hid defects which they knew about for years. My innocent daughter paid with her life. We still don't know how many more people have been hurt by this company."
Most of the defective vehicles were sold in Japan, but some were shipped to Europe and other parts of Asia. The companies say none of the defective cars or trucks were sent to the United States.
Corporate pride is a pillar of the national identity, and the scandal has shocked Japan. At least 40 prefectures and local governments banned the purchase of Mitsubishi vehicles, and the Japanese press is issuing almost daily reports on fires and accidents involving Mitsubishi cars and trucks. Mitsubishi sales are plummeting, and analysts say the company may not survive.
National regulators, stung by criticism that the discovery of the company's second cover-up in four years came only after an investigation by a local police force, are now randomly stopping Mitsubishi trucks and buses for inspections and demanding weekly updates from the automakers on internal reviews.
Investigators are reviewing data regarding Mitsubishi vehicle accidents -- including some claims that Mitsubishi cars, trucks and SUVs spontaneously caught fire on Japanese roads and highways. Twelve former top Mitsubishi auto executives -- including former chief executive Katsuhiko Kawasoe -- have been arrested on charges of negligence or falsifying documents. Five of the arrests were connected directly to the Okamoto case cover-up.
© 2004 The Washington Post Company