Honda has decided to stop using airbags 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 U.S. 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.
It's the opposite of what was supposed to happen.
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 bonds Honda and Takata like mother and child.
Yet in announcing its decision to stop using Takata, Honda made a point of telling the world that Takata had "misrepresented and manipulated" its test data to Honda.
In other words, Honda believes it has been lied to. And not by just any old company but by its close and trusted supplier partner.
This sort of thing wasn't supposed to happen in the cozy family-relations corporate world of the keiretsu. And if it were to happen, it certainly wasn't supposed to end up being fumed about in public statements dripping with anger.
Something's not right here. At least, not right with the general perception of things.
Such seemingly token ownership positions as Honda's holding in Takata 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 secret backroom handshakes that unfairly kept U.S. suppliers from winning contracts from Japanese automakers. At one point, the U.S. industry was so suspicious of Japan's friendly interlocking trade groups that Congress was asked to investigate. Industry interests attempted to portray keiretsus as some sort of sinister anti-competitive practice.
But now? Well, 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, an automaker owning a small piece of a supplier was supposed 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, 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 state of 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?