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Home > Media Reviews > News Review Last Updated: 14:54 03/09/2007
News Review #350: June 8, 2006

Japan Orders Nationwide Inspection of Schindler-Made Elevators

Reviewed by Hitoshi URABE

Japan Orders Nationwide Inspection of Schindler-Made Elevators


A high school student died last Saturday in a condominium building in Tokyo due to malfunction of an elevator. The elevator was sold and installed by the Japanese arm of Switzerland-based Schindler, and the maintenance was being performed by an independent maintenance firm.

Japanese police Wednesday searched Schindler Japan (formal name being Schindler Elevator K.K.), along with the housing authority who owned the condominium and the elevator maintenance firm.

The real cause of the accident is still to be determined, and who was responsible to what extent, especially in legal terms, will obviously need to be sorted out after all the facts are cleared. But what has been revealed so far contains interesting facts that may have some relevance to the accident, perhaps in indirect and remote ways.

Schindler's share of elevators installed in Japan is 1%. Four Japanese companies, Mitsubishi, Toshiba, Hitachi, Fujitec, and the Japanese arm of Otis add up to more than 90% of the total. Despite being a latecomer, Schindler has been successful in increasing its share in the recent years. It is said that their sales increase is largely from the installations in public buildings, and this is because most of the public buildings are required to procure their facilities through competitive biddings, where Schindler was often reported as the winner with the lowest prices.

One of the reasons Schindler was able to offer the lowest prices, as has been reported, was, aside from its aggressive marketing strategy, that the most of the system was manufactured in China to save cost. It has also been reported that Schindler elevators were involved in the similar type of accidents in China as well as in the other parts of the world.

Japan's deregulation has been advancing for quite some time and is still being promoted vigorously under the current regime. This has in fact forced to separate the installation and maintenance of elevators, especially in public buildings. Until a little while ago, it was customary to assign the task of maintenance to the manufacturer itself or its close affiliate depending on the company's setup. Currently, maintenance of many elevators, especially those of publicly owned buildings, are performed by independent firms chosen through competitive biddings. The old practice did have its problems such as dumping the price of installation with the anticipation to recover the cost through maintenance agreement. But some say deregulation could have degraded the level of safety, considering the intricacy and complexity, and uniqueness of each make, of elevator systems.

What raised the eyebrows of many Japanese with regard to the accident, however, was the attitude of Schindler after the incident. Schindler has not made any official announcement, and its executives have not appeared in public at all. The only messages it has provided are on its website, four up to this point. The first was posted on 5th, the first business day after the incident. It is a brief, four-line note with the standard expression of condolence and that the company has nothing to say. The second, posted the following day, states the company "believes the incident was not caused either by the design, manufacture, or installation of the elevator." Then the third, posted on Wednesday says, "Schindler is the second largest elevator company in the world, its products are sold in over 100 countries, used by 750 million people a day, and its products are designed with high technical standards." The fourth was posted on the same day, which says, "the company is annoyed by its name appearing in media in such a massive scale, but has no intention to make any announcements until the cause of the incident is determined, except to express condolence to the family of the victim, and believes the name of the company would disappear from the headlines once the cause is determined." [Expressions quoted here are casual translations from Japanese by the author.]

Incidentally, it is possible that the company has a standard format for what to say in cases such as this. Following is a statement made by Schindler U.S. upon an accident about a month ago, on May 1, in Memphis, Tennessee, USA, where a 3-year-old boy died when he fell nine stories down an elevator shaft after an outer door gave way. The company said, "Schindler Elevator extends its deepest sympathy to the family and the friends of the young boy who died following a tragic accident at the Pinnacle Apartments in Memphis Monday night. The matter is under investigation and it would be inappropriate to speculate about the cause."

Schindler's attitude is arguably very business-like. Perhaps it should be commended - especially by those so-called legal experts - for not being carried away by the clamor. But its behavior is definitely a world apart from what is expected in Japan's cultural framework including business. This is why such reports by Kyodo News survey, that at least 265 accidents involving Schindler elevators were reported in Japan from 1999 to this month gets around, and becomes a topic of conversation. It is quite possible that the cause of the incident would be determined as something other than what the company is responsible for. But even so, the reputation of the company being very alien to Japan would be imprinted among the Japanese, especially since its product is a commonplace facility used everyday by ordinary people.

A declaration by the company on its website - to be sure, of Schindler Japan, not of HQ - is perhaps very telling. It says, in both Japanese and English, "Subject to the terms and conditions set forth herein, any use of this website and all legal disputes arising in connection therewith shall exclusively be governed by Swiss law."

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