'Made in Japan' no longer what it used to be?

by Yonggi Kang, Reuters

Posted at Apr 17 2014 04:05 PM | Updated as of Apr 18 2014 12:05 AM

Toyota, Sony, Nikon. Three of Japan's proudest brands, all making international headlines for the wrong reasons -- apparent problems with their products.

"Put simply, Toyota's conduct was shameful," US attorney general Eric Holder said.

Toyota's contending with its second-largest recall ever due to faulty parts from steering to seats.

Sony's warned that the batteries of some of its flagship VAIO computers could catch fire.

And Nikon's come under fire from China's state broadcaster for issues with its lenses and allegedly poor after-sales service.

The companies have reacted quickly. Nikon issued an apology on its Chinese website and offered to repair or replace faulty cameras.

But the bad publicity has taken a toll. Nikon shares are hovering at their lowest in more than two and half years.

Shares in Takeda Pharmaceutical have also tanked after a U.S. jury ordered the firm to pay a record $6 billion in damages for allegedly concealing risks associated with its diabetes drug.

The incidents are a bad sign for Tokyo's troubled stock market, and for Japan Inc's reputation for quality.

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is counting on Japan's companies to support the next stage of the country's recovery by boosting hiring and investment.

But so far, they've proven reluctant.

Experts say while Japan's manufacturers still churn out quality goods, they're not always prepared to anticipate or react to local market developments.

"In the global market, Japanese companies must change the way they respond to consumers, in line with local culture and conditions. I think it's necessary to increase local staff and make full use of local consulting firms in order to decrease risk. The worst thing that can happen in recalls is for companies to become overly bearish as products are temporarily removed from store shelves and consumers stop buying them. Any short-term losses will be covered by long-term revenue as long as they deliver information accurately and quickly," Atsushi Osanai, business professor at Waseda University, said.

For Japan's next stage of growth to take off, it seems the mindset of its traditionally conservative companies will have to change in more ways than one -- especially as the market shrinks at home.