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Tokyo prosecutors scrutinize Kobe Steel's data doctoring

Criminal case opened over falsely labeled products

Kobe Steel shipped material of questionable quality to more than 600 clients, including over 200 outside Japan. (Photo by Kento Nakabayashi)

TOKYO -- Japanese prosecutors have begun investigating Kobe Steel's quality data scandal, a step that could lead to charges.

The Tokyo District Public Prosecutors Office's special investigative unit decided on Tuesday to work with the Tokyo Metropolitan Police Department on a joint probe. Tokyo prosecutors have already subpoenaed documents from Kobe Steel, which is suspected of criminally misrepresenting data, a source familiar with the matter told Nikkei.

Kobe Steel has admitted shipping aluminum, copper and other below-spec materials to more than 600 clients around the world. Such materials have found their way into automobiles, aircraft and even shinkansen bullet trains.

A total of 23 plants and units in the Kobe Steel group altered quality assurance documents to wrongly claim that products met client specifications for such factors as strength. A company-commissioned investigation linked five current and former executives to the cheating, which involved more than 40 employees. Data tampering and similar practices went back to the 1970s, according to the review.

Kobe Steel maintains that 98% of the suspect materials received additional safety checks after the doctoring came to light. But Tokyo prosecutors say the shipping of mislabeled materials to clients may have violated product misrepresentation laws.

The scandal has shaken trust in Japanese manufacturing. A third of the clients are overseas, including American aircraft builder Boeing. The U.S. Justice Department has already requested documents from Kobe Steel in a separate investigation launched last year.

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