“I tried everything I could think of,” Mrs. Sakai, 64, said, as she recently recalled the accident that happened six months ago.
Her car surged forward nearly 3,000 feet before slamming into a Mercedes Benz and a taxi, injuring drivers in both those vehicles and breaking Mrs. Sakai’s collarbone.
As shaken as she was by the accident, Mrs. Sakai says she was even more surprised by what happened after. She says that Toyota — from her dealer to headquarters — has not responded to her inquiries, and Japanese authorities have been indifferent to her concerns as a consumer.
Mrs. Sakai says the Tokyo Metropolitan Police urged her to sign a statement saying that she pressed the accelerator by mistake — something she strongly denies. She says the police told her she could have her damaged car back to get it repaired if she made that admission. She declined.
The police say it was a misunderstanding and that they kept her car to carry out their investigation.
But veterans of Japan’s moribund consumer rights movement say that Mrs. Sakai, like many Japanese, is the victim of a Japanese establishment that values Japanese business over Japanese consumers, and the lack of consumer protections here.
“In Japan, there is a phrase: if something smells, put a lid on it,” said Shunkichi Takayama, a Tokyo-based lawyer who has handled complaints related to Toyota vehicles.
Toyota has recalled eight million cars outside Japan because of unexpected acceleration and other problems, but has insisted that there are no systemic problems with its cars sold in Japan. The company recalled the Prius for a brake problem earlier this year.
Critics say many companies benefit from Japan’s weak consumer protections. (The country has only one full-time automobile recall investigator, supported by 15 others on limited contracts.)
In a case in the food industry, a meat processor called Meat Hope collapsed in 2008 after revelations that it had mixed pork, mutton and chicken bits into products falsely labeled as pure ground beef, all under the noses of food inspectors.
A 2006 police inquiry into gas water heaters made by the manufacturer Paloma found that a defect had resulted in the deaths of 21 people over 10 years from carbon monoxide poisoning.
Paloma initially insisted that users had tampered with the heaters’ safety device; the company ultimately admitted that the heaters were at fault — and that executives had been aware of a potential problem for more than a decade. Executives are now being charged with professional negligence, and a court verdict is due in May.
When it comes to cars, the rapid growth of the auto industry here and of car ownership in the 1960s and ’70s was accompanied by a spate of fatal accidents. A consumer movement soon emerged among owners of these defective vehicles.
The most active was the Japan Automobile Consumers Union, led by Fumio Matsuda, a former Nissan engineer often referred to as the Ralph Nader of Japan. But the automakers fought back with a campaign discrediting the activists as dangerous agitators. Mr. Matsuda and his lawyer were soon arrested and charged with blackmail. They fought the charges to Japan’s highest court, but lost.
Now, few people are willing to take on the country’s manufacturers at the risk of arrest, Mr. Matsuda said in a recent interview. “The state sided with the automakers, not the consumers,” he said.
It has become difficult for drivers to access even the most elementary data or details on incidents of auto defects, says Hiroko Isomura, an executive at the National Association of Consumer Specialists and a former adviser to the government on auto recalls. “Unfortunately, the Automobile Consumers Union was shut down,” she said. “No groups like that exist any more.”
For the government to order a recall, it must prove that automobiles do not meet national safety standards, which is difficult to do without the automakers’ cooperation. Most recalls are done on a voluntary basis without government supervision.