Date: Tue, 23 Feb 1999 16:02:08 -0600 (CST)
From: (Rich Winkel)
Organization: PACH
Subject: JAPAN: Tired of Silence, Consumers Speak Up for Rights
Article: 55722
To: undisclosed-recipients:;
Message-ID: <>

/** ips.english: 485.0 **/
** Topic: JAPAN: Tired of Silence, Consumers Speak Up for Rights **
** Written 2:36 PM Feb 22, 1999 by newsdesk in cdp:ips.english **
Copyright 1999 InterPress Service, all rights reserved.
Worldwide distribution via the APC networks.

Tired of Silence, Consumers Speak Up for Rights

By Suvendrini Kakuchi, IPS, 19 February 1999

TOKYO, Feb 19 (IPS)—On any given day, Maika Suzuki answers the telephone at least five times, only to hear someone badgering her to get a new house, try a different cosmetic, bank or insurance policy, or even sign up for a graveyard plot for her husband and herself.

It's such a nuisance to be bothered all the time, says the harassed 44-year-old housewife. I wish there was a law to stop people for trading my telephone number, address, and details of our personal lives, a system that blatantly ignores our right to privacy.

Unfortunately for Suzuki, there is still no law in Japan that makes it illegal for companies to trade consumer lists and information.

But consumer activists and legal experts say there may yet be one soon, given growing consumer consciousness in Japan that could well result in a drastically altered society in the next millennium.

We are working hard to make Japanese society more fair to the ordinary consumer, says lawyer Shuzo Tanai, the ombudsman in the movement for better protection for citizens. And there is no doubt that we will succeed.

Tanai says he bases his assessment on the slowly growing desire shown by the Japanese to challenge companies and authority when they feel they are being cheated.

A poll by consumer groups in 1996 revealed that complaints against manufacturing companies had risen 30 percent from the previous year.

Shigehisa Ozawa of the National Consumer Information Organisation says 80 percent of the complaints it recorded involve problems over business contracts and cancellations in which people have been forced to join schools or programmes.

These inevitably demand unreasonable fees that the clients must keep paying even after they terminate their contracts.

According to activists, young people are lured into such shady business arrangements through the telephone, when they are contacted and offered special deals that turn out to be false.

But only one percent of those who lodge complaints eventually sue. Tanai explains that many are reluctant to file suit because they believe they will not win against the more powerful businesses and the government.

And in many ways, they are right, he says, pointing out that only a handful of lawsuits have been ruled in favour of consumers.

This is largely because Japan's postwar miracle has been supported by a system that allowed the government to link hands with industry to achieve national prosperity—a policy that put developing individual rights on the back burner.

For such a system to work, public trust had to be solid. But that trust has been shaken up by tragedies such as the Minamata pollution case in the 1950s, where the government supported the company responsible for mercury poisoning of thousands of people.

Activists also cite the more recent HIV scandal, where tainted blood products were sold to hemophiliacs under the care of experts appointed by the Ministry of Health and Welfare.

Why the Japanese have been slow to slap companies with lawsuits despite such incidents can be traced among others to the fact that Japan has few lawyers, say some observers.

With only 300 to 400 new lawyers annually in a country of 120 million people, experts say it is no wonder that the Japanese have a rather underdeveloped litigious consciousness.

But the more important reason, says Ozawa, lies in the Japanese attitude. The focus in Japan has always been maintaining harmony and getting along, he observes.

But this is changing as we become a capitalist society. We need clear rules and an education system that will protect the individual, Ozawa adds.

Tanai says: We need to change the system of companies first and people second, and we are slowly moving ahead.

In December, a landmark suit was filed by a couple demanding 2.5 million yen (21,500 U.S. dollars) from the manufacturer and distributor of an electric hot-water pot they had bought, for damages incurred from its use.

The couple's 10-month old daughter had inadvertently pulled the pot's lever and burned herself when hot water was released.

Japan has a product liability law which holds the manufacturer liable for injuries from a defective product upon proof that it was defective, regardless of whether the manufacturer was negligent.

Comments Tanai: This kind of lawsuit would have been unthinkable a decade ago. This is a good example of changing attitudes.

Rising consumer awareness is making the government and politicians pay more attention to their demands and needs. Recently, Tokyo announced plans to standardise warning signs on products.

Manufacturers had begun attaching advisory notices on their products after the Product Liability Law was enacted, but many consumers have complained that the different warning labels have only confused them all the more.

Meanwhile, a new bill is being debated in the current Diet session that will address disputes over contracts deemed unfair to the public.

Lawyers working on this bill point to a great disparity in information gathering capabilities and bargaining power between consumers and companies. They say this has made the Civil Code, the basic law for settlements of non-criminal cases, practically unable to provide effective consumer protection.

Ozawa says the current economic recession is a plus in the fight for better consumer protection.

More and more people now realise they do not need to keep buying more products, he says. There is now a growing consciousness of buying products that are safe, can be used for many years.

(The Japanese) want to be like Scandinavian societies where life is not packed with materialism, he adds. This will force Japanese companies to respect this new trend in consumerism.