Consumer news

Proposals for consumer protection from both the governing party and the opposition are making news lately. It remains to see what will be the actual result in terms of policy change. Mainichi claims that on January 18, Japan's prime minister will announce the creation of a Minister for Consumer Affairs as part of his speech as he opens the regular session of the Parliament. The Democratic Party of Japan has also proposed creating a "consumer ombudsman" to assist consumers with legal issues.

Ombudsman (オンブズマン) is a Swedish term that means "representative man". It implies that an appointed person can act on your behalf. I wonder why Japan cannot find a Japanese word for this concept. If the point is to empower ordinary citizens and make Japan more "consumer-friendly", then using a foreign loan word seems rather silly.

In Europe, there are two Consumer Commissioners that handles public health issues, food safety, and issues like e-commerce, redress, and financial services (There are a total of 28 commissioners in Brussels). On a national level, it helps to have a minister for consumer affairs and Japan could probably benefit from creating such Ministry. However, I wonder if this means they will also make large changes in the current structure, where the Ministry of Health, Labour and Welfare handles public health issues.

Food safety is currently the responsibility of at least three different ministries, as well as the Food Safety Commission. Mainichi mentions that Chief Cabinet Secretary Nobutaka Machimura is not too happy about the proposal. Clearly, Yasuo Fukuda and his cabinet will have to do some deep thinking if they really want to change this massive bureaucracy with its long historical ties to producers and farmers.

In Sweden, we have a consumer ombudsman system where the ombudsman represents consumer interests in relations to private companies, and can pursue legal action in the consumer interest. However, the ombudsman is not a minister but rather the head of the Swedish Consumer Agency. If Japan follows this model, and creates a Consumer Agency, it could simplify things for ordinary citizens. Japan already has a high level of consumer protection, and a better strategy could be to strenghten the current National Consumer Affairs Center and its network of 490 consumer centers run by local governments across the country. I have been invited to give talks and lectures at several such centers, and their level of expertise is very high. If you remember, a catch phrase from the Koizumi era was, "from the centre to the regions". I hope Fukuda remembers that during the days ahead.

The Cabinet Office is currently in charge of general consumer issues and legislation such as consumer contract laws and product liability. With 120 million consumers, better policies can have a great influence on health and the environment not only here in Japan, but also in Asia and around the World.

What Fukuda might want to do with the current Cabinet lineup is anyone's guess, but Shinya Izumi is already minister for food safety. It would be simple to just expand his portfolio to also include "consumer affairs".

(Hat tip to bloggers Observing Japan and Janne in Osaka who first commented on this story last week!)

Yomiuri: Govt eyes consumer agency

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