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Ex-Kobe Steel workers say data tampering going on for dozens of years

Kobe Steel Chief Executive Officer Hiroya Kawasaki and another company official bow at the beginning of a press conference held in Tokyo's Minato Ward, on Oct. 13, 2017. (Mainichi)

Data fabrication by Japanese steel giant Kobe Steel Ltd. dates back at least several dozen years, despite the company officials' claim that it had been going on for about a decade, former employees and others involved with the company told the Mainichi Shimbun.

The new revelations have again bolstered suspicions of systematic company-wide efforts to tamper with data regarding the strength of its products.

A former employee who worked in a Kobe Steel aluminum factory in the 1970s told the Mainichi, "At least as far back as 40 years ago, we were commonly using the term 'tokusai'," which is short for tokubetsu saiyo, or "concession" products that do not initially meet criteria but are reassessed and given the green light. "It's not something that just started recently."

The same former worker said that "tokusai" aluminum boards that did not meet clients' criteria were shipped to clients without their approval, and added, "Inspection data appears to have been falsified in such cases."

Another former employee said that in the 1990s, they delivered alloys with fabricated data to a client, only to be questioned by the client -- a parts processing company -- about the quality of the products. Because Kobe Steel was able to immediately deliver replacements to its customer, the problem of falsified data was not exposed.

"There were cases in which the factory chief and the factory's quality-control official were aware of the data tampering, and such fabrication was carried out systematically," the former worker revealed.

Meanwhile, a longtime employee who lives in the Kansai region said, "The tampering of inspection data on iron and steel products has been going on for at least 30 years." Iron and steel products that are used for automobile parts and other purposes require heat treatment, but the quality of the end product can vary depending on how the treatment is done. "If we can obtain data saying that part of the product meets the criteria during quality-control inspection, it is shipped as a product that meets standards." Such activity, the employee pointed out, amounts to data tampering.

Kobe Steel announced that it had shipped aluminum, copper and other products that did not meet standards to a total of some 500 companies. Kobe Steel's Executive Vice President Naoto Umehara told a press conference on Oct. 8 that the fabrication of product quality data began about 10 years ago, but systematic data tampering appears to have been the norm for much longer.

The company's data fabrication scandal has led to the launch of investigations overseas. The company announced Oct. 17 that the United States Justice Department asked Kobe Steel's American subsidiary, Kobe Steel USA Inc., to submit documents related to the data tampering scandal. Kobe Steel released a statement that read, "The company and its subsidiaries will sincerely cooperate with the investigation."

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