Quick lesson in METI ineptitude: The PSE Law explained

Yes, the PSE Law (which would have banned the sale of some used video game consoles and almost all vintage musical instruments) has been thoroughly declawed. Thank god. But weren’t you the least bit curious about how this all got started? I was, so it was especially interesting for me to come across this article in the 3/25/2006 issue of Japanese business weekly, Shukan Toyo Keizai (Weekly Oriental Economy, link opens PDF file). Some highlights (translated where it was easy, abstracted where it was a pain):

Something’s Wrong Here, METI! (Part 2): Used Goods Sold No More?! Analysis of METI’s teeter-tottering over the PSE Law

A scandal began when a used goods dealer asked a question to the Ministry of Economy, Trade, and Industry (METI).

It was October 2005 when a letter arrived at the headquarters of major used goods chain Hard Off Corporation. It said: “Pursuant to the Product Safety Electrical Appliance and Material Law (PSE Law), electric appliances without the “PSE label” can no longer be sold as of April 1. Please take note.”

The sender was Victor JVC. It was addressed to vendors stores selling the company’s products. Hard Off, though mainly dealing in used goods, sells some new items, so it was as if by chance that the letter made it there.

President Ken Nagahashi of Hard Off was worried: Does “can no longer be sold” include used goods? What are the stipulations for used goods? He looked on METI’s website, but no matter where he looked he could not find anything about used goods.

He then directly asked METI, but the person at the Product Safety Division who received his question could not give an immediate answer as to whether used goods were included. Hard Off was at a loss.

METI Reverses Earlier Statements, “Decides” at end of January

The PSE Law is a law requiring the assurance of electrical appliances’ safety. It came into effect superceding the previous Electrical Appliance Control Law in April and is serious business to an enterprise such as Hard Off. The company impatiently awaited a response, and in late January, METI’s Information and Communication Electronics Division replied, saying, “As it stands, used goods will also be subject to the law. We will consider exceptional measures, so please wait.”

According to Article 27 of the PSE Law, “The distribution of or attempt to distribute electronic products without the PSE label [is not allowed].” However, grace periods were decided based on the maximum amount of time by which makers would sell off their inventories. Since there is no reason to suppose that goods that had received the govt’s endorsement for safety under the old law (prior to 2001) would suddenly and substantially fall out of order, most likely the true intent of the law was: “goods produced from 2001 on require the PSE label.”

However, since there are no stipulations stating that used goods are not included, it could be interpreted that used goods are subject to the law. The legislation was deliberated in the Diet (Japan’s legislature) together with other bills, and [as a result] there were no questions or statements on the treatment of used goods. The topic of used goods was entirely left out.

The final decision was handed down by the Cabinet Legislation Bureau, and in January 2006, and in a reversal of METI’s late-January statement that it would “consider exceptional measures,” METI replied to Hard Off that “used goods are included.”

Yet Hard Off did not wait for METI’s response and on Jan. 11 had already decided on a policy to “stop all purchases of included goods from Feb. 11, and stop selling them from April,” of which it then notified its branches. Hard Off’s notice was then posted on Internet message boards such as 2-Channel, sparking massive resistance from used goods dealers and “recycle” shops. The resistance movement spread to pro musicians and music fans who regularly use vintage musical instruments.

Shin’ichiro Fukushima, Section Chief of METI’s Product Safety Section, retorts, “It’s not true that we changed our interpretation. Used goods were subject to the law from the time we drafted it.” But, what about the case of revised Gas Business Law, another law, like the PSE Law, intended to protect consumers?

The revised Gas Business Law requires a “PSTG label” on instant water boilers and gas stoves, and banned the sale of goods without it after the grace period ended on September 30, 2005. However, METI gave no warning or instruction to businesses that sold used or recycled gas goods.

That is because no used gas sellers asked. Meanwhile, Hard Off did ask about the PSE Law, and so METI was forced to decide one way or the other — this is most likely the true scenario.

MF Comment: and there you go. METI wrote a bad law, the Diet never bothered to read it, and it took almost 5 years after the law took effect for anyone to notice that something was wrong, resulting a mass hysteria that could have been avoided. This is a case not just of a weak civil society, but of a weak, coddled bureaucracy that is allowed to intepret the law at its own whim.

It’s not quite the “law for the benefit of makers” that Kikko-san speculated it was, but more of an “innocent” mistake that resulted from a government left almost completely to its own devices by a complacent public. I never thought I’d say this, but this calls for a bigger lobbying presence in Tokyo!

5 thoughts on “Quick lesson in METI ineptitude: The PSE Law explained”

  1. Thanks for the summary. I maintain that I am amazed that this had to go grassroots — some up-and-commer politician could have made this his pet peeve, gone public with criticisms, torn the Ministry a new asshole, and become a household name in the process.

  2. On an only slightly-related note, I almost spit out my tea the first time I saw a “Hard Off” sign (from a bus window speeding through Aichi, as I recall)

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