Honda, Toyota, Nissan and Mazda have decided to stop using airbag components supplied by Takata Corp.
That’s a catastrophic turn of affairs for Takata after a run of quality glitches that have resulted in 19 million vehicle recalls and as many as eight deaths.
But it’s also a dramatic twist in what the auto industry has long assumed about Japanese keiretsus.
This sort of thing wasn’t supposed to happen in the cozy, family-relations corporate world of the keiretsu.
Honda Motor Co. owns 1.2 percent of Takata. That makes it one of Takata’s biggest shareholders, and in the traditional Japanese business world, even that small ownership stake bonds Honda and Takata like mother and child.
Such token corporate ownerships have existed for decades all over the Japanese industry. American companies were hot under the collar about them starting in the 1980s, claiming that complicated keiretsu arrangements were sinister backroom handshakes that unfairly kept U.S. suppliers from winning contracts from Japanese automakers.
But now -- so much for sinister.
For Honda to walk away from Takata suggests that somebody in the keiretsu world wasn’t doing his job.
In the most benign explanation of the system, owning a small piece of a supplier was supposed to obligate you to look after its welfare. The supplier was supposed to uphold its obligation to serve the automaker well. Keiretsu-family suppliers were supposed to advance innovations on their own. They were supposed to protect the automaker’s flanks from competitors. They were supposed to share the automaker’s values about product quality and customer satisfaction and safety.
In turn, the automaker would make sure the supplier prospered. The automaker would provide guidance and strategic clarity: “This is where we are going. This is what we want. This is what we don’t want. This is who we are. This is who we are not.”
None of that appears to characterize the current affairs between Takata and Honda. The relationship is instead -- judging from the crisis -- dysfunctional. And so the question is, how special could it have been in the first place?