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Commentary: My Other Car Is A Garbage Scow

News: Analysis & Commentary


First, a confession. The interiors of my two Japanese cars are crusted over with the rich effluvia of childhood. Just as rock strata reveal the passage of time, so do layers of baby formula, bananas, apple juice, Cheerios, and Chicken McNuggets catalog the progression of my two daughters from infancy into girlhood. I know I'm not alone in this.

Therein lies the official explanations out of Tokyo for the U.S. recall of 8.8 million Japanese-made cars with Takata Corp. seat belts. Americans, it seems, are messy. Tests by Japanese carmakers on vehicles driven in America revealed the presence of animal hair, food, and soft drinks in the belt latches, interfering with the mechanism. That means, insist Honda, Nissan, and the Japanese Transport Ministry, that the "voluntary replacement" of belts is a convenience for consumers and emphatically not a safety matter. It's the customers' fault, you see.

"IRRELEVANT." Yet the American subsidiaries of Honda and Nissan readily admitted on May 23 that the problem is a defect in the belt mechanism. The release button sometimes splinters and jams the entire gizmo. "I guess there could be food contamination, but that's irrelevant to the issue of button breakage," says a Nissan North America Inc. spokesman.

So here again is the essence of Tokyo's argument for the cause of America's $66 billion merchandise trade imbalance: a profound clash of cultures. Or, as the Japanese put it: Nihonjin-ron--the unique attributes of the Japanese people and their land.

As always, economics, not culture, is the true cause. But the issue of absolute Japanese singularity crops up frequently in trade talks. For years, Tokyo trade officials insisted that Japanese intestines are longer and therefore unable to digest foreign beef. Japanese snow is "different," they said, making non-Japanese ski bindings unreliable. And the dirt at Kansai Airport could be moved only by Japanese construction companies familiar with its peculiarities.

Now, add a new attribute to the list: Japanese car owners are neater. It's true, the cars in Tokyo are cleaner. But here again, the reason is less cultural than economic: Japanese cars, which have to undergo a $1,000 inspection after three years and ev-ery two years thereafter, don't stay on the road as long as they do in the U.S. It's cheaper just to trade that cream puff in for a new one. Used cars are shipped to the rest of Asia.

Japanese trade officials fault U.S. carmakers for not trying hard enough to crack its market. They note, for instance, that only Jeep Cherokees and Ford Probes are available with right-hand drive. Fair enough. But how about this: In return for well-placed steering wheels, let's see a seat-belt buckle from Japan that can stand up to the corrosive effects of bubble gum, lollipops, and Fruit Roll-ups.Magnusson reports on economic and social trends from Washington.

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