NIHON LIFE: How an automaker deals with scandal in Japan

Because of the various demands of Japanese society, the shame of such an event manifests itself in strange ways. As you may have heard, Mitsubishi Motors experienced a little scandal last year, in which it was found guilty of cheating government fuel economy tests. It sent stock plummeting so badly that Nissan was able to gobble it up and grab a controlling stake. Two visits to Mitsubishi Motors’ Tokyo headquarters, pre- and post-scandal, revealed two very different companies. 

In fall of 2015, in happier times before the scandal, we visited the Mitsubishi head offices in the Minato Ward of Tokyo. The setup was typical of Japanese automaker headquarters. For starters, a proud display of the latest models was visible from the street to any passers by. There were even flags advertising the newest addition to the lineup, in this case the Outlander PHEV (Plug-in Hybrid Electric Vehicle).

Though important auto-making business took place in the upper levels, the lobby was open to the public. Inside, you could get up close and personal with a variety of JDM models we were guaranteed not to see stateside for at least 25 years. All the cars remained unlocked so visitors could climb inside, and since it wasn’t a dealership the staff left you alone and never went for the hard sell.

Brochures covering every JDM model were free for the taking, and yes, there’s even a Starbucks inside so you can grab a snack or recaffeinate after an intense bout of car shopping.

A gift shop section offered a variety of Mitsubishi trinkets, stickers, apparel, and more. Most of these items are not available anywhere else, so true fans of the marque can pick up a special souvenir for their collection.

Our favorite was a series of notebooks, tote bags, and furoshiki printed with a pattern that depicted the front of practically every Mitsubishi model ever made, from Galants to buses.

And of course there were enough models that if you were to collect them all would equal the value of a new car. These ranged from a rainbow of 1:64 scale Mirages to 1:43 scale Lancer Evos of seemingly every race livery imaginable to radio control Pajeros. There were even models of Galant Sigmas and Galant Lambdas.

A stage showed off the latest model (again, the Outlander PHEV), while an audio-visual system on continuous loop blared a video clip of its features accompanied by exciting music and an upbeat narration.

For die-hard Mitsubishi otaku it was a Triple Diamond Disneyland, a fun-filled extravaganza fueled by marketing budgets, brand propaganda, and coffee.

Then this happened. And by this, we mean Mitsubishi’s family of kei cars, the eK Space and eK Wagon. The company over-inflated the tires on these models before sending them into the Japanese government’s fuel economy tests. More tire pressure equals less contact patch equals less friction equals better mileage. Sadly for them, Mitsubishi sold nearly identical, rebadged versions of these kei cars to Nissan. Nissan realized the discrepancy and narced to the authorities in April the following year.

When we returned to Mitsubishi Motors headquarters that summer, the view was quite different. Gone were the cars and flags in front of the building. At first, we weren’t sure if we had happened to arrive on a holiday, or if the company had moved altogether.

Inside, cars were still present, the tone of the showroom was much more subdued. Something seemed off. There was a lot more empty space, and the carousels of brochures were empty. The eK cars, the culprit that landed Mitsubishi in such hot water, were nowhere to be seen.

The gift shop area had been cleared out, no more shelves of baseball caps or glass cases of diecast cars.

Even the screen and speakers proclaiming the attributes of the newest models had gone dark, resulting in an eerily quiet environment.

Why had the showroom gone from bustling brand experience to gloomy ghost town? Apparently, in Japan, when a company does a bad thing, like lying to customers about how many kilometers per liter their kei car gets, a show of remorse is expected.

It becomes unseemly to promote oneself while an aura of impropriety still lingers, so Mitsubishi voluntarily ceased all its marketing activities. That’s right, this Game of Thrones shame march was entirely voluntary. Meanwhile in the Europe, Volkswagen not only continued to advertise after their much bigger scandal, but put out ads that blatantly mis-described the very thing they were caught red-handed doing.

Of course, actual commerce did not stop. It never does. Cars were still being sold, and as it turns out, though the gift shop had vanished from view you could ask the sales reps for a list of merchandise and buy your Mitsubishi trinkets. We bought a diecast Starion.

It’s not entirely clear how long the voluntary halt of marketing lasted for. Presumably, by now normal operations have resumed so you’ll probably get the full experience when you visit the Mitsubishi Motors showroom now. As we’ve mentioned before, no visit to Japan would be complete without a visit to the headquarters of your favorite marque. Just hope they’re all on their best behavior.

Mitsubishi Motors HQ is located at 5 Chome-33-8 Shiba, Minato-ku, Tōkyō-to 105-0014, Japan. Take the JR Yamanote Line to Tamachi Station, exit north and turn right at street level. Walk approximately 5 minutes. The Mitsubishi Motors building is on your right, just past the Morinaga headquarters. 

 

 

 

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4 Responses to NIHON LIFE: How an automaker deals with scandal in Japan

  1. nlpnt said:

    GSV’s last pass – the link drops you on a side street, “look” to the right, go to the main road and take a left – was February 2016 and the cars were lined up out front then. Too bad Google’s first pass was in 2013, it would’ve been nice to see in headier times when the Evo was an active program.

  2. Jayrdee said:

    “It becomes unseemly to promote oneself while an aura of impropriety still lingers, so Mitsubishi voluntarily ceased all its marketing activities. That’s right, this Game of Thrones shame march was entirely voluntary. Meanwhile in the Europe, Volkswagen not only continued to advertise after their much bigger scandal, but put out ads that blatantly mis-described the very thing they were caught red-handed doing.”

    I think that right there sums up the reason why Japanese companies make top-quality products.

  3. Brett said:

    It is the difference, in a corporate sense, between something that approximates genuine contrition as opposed to regret that they were caught. The contrast with the behaviour of VAG is stark; and it shows that responsibility is still a strong factor in the Japanese corporate culture, even though it has been largely abandoned in the West.

  4. Randy said:

    Looks like a last-gasp for a company that’s going under… I wonder how many people got exactly that thought, and bought something else, thereby further hurting Mitsu…

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