Nearly 3.4 million Japanese-brand vehicles are being called back worldwide because of airbag problems, the companies announced Thursday, in the latest safety blow for an industry beset by recalls.
Four carmakers -- Toyota, Nissan, Honda and Mazda -- separately said they would recall a combined 3.39 million vehicles globally, all citing the same malfunction of the Japanese-made passenger-side airbags.
The transport ministry, which received reports from the manufacturers, said the number of vehicles affected would reach 2.92 million. There was no explanation for the discrepancy in the total.
A Toyota spokesman said his company alone was recalling 1.73 million vehicles, manufactured between November 2000 and March 2004 in Japan or abroad.
A statement issued by the firm's US arm said: "The involved vehicles are equipped with front passenger airbag inflators which could have been assembled with improperly manufactured propellant wafers.
"Improperly manufactured propellant wafers could cause the inflator to rupture and the front passenger airbag to deploy abnormally in the event of a crash."
A company spokesman in Japan said this abnormal inflation "could also burn part of the vehicle's inside and cause fire". However, he said, there were no recorded instances of this happening.
Nissan and Honda released statements giving similar explanations.
A Nissan spokeswoman said the company was recalling a total of 480,000 vehicles globally, all of which were manufactured in Japan between August 2000 and January 2004.
Toyota and Nissan said the airbags were made by Tokyo-based Takata Corp, while the ministry said the airbag parts were supplied by a single company but declined to disclose the name.
"This is a global recall that affects all regions where we do our business," said a spokeswoman with Honda, which is recalling 1.135 million vehicles.
Mazda said its recall target would reach 45,463 units worldwide, including 4,384 at home.
"We will recall the cars at home while taking the same action in accordance with local regulations of each country," a company spokeswoman said.
Shigeru Matsumura, an auto analyst with SMBC Friend Securities, said: "It was a typical incident caused by the use of common parts for cost-cutting efforts. All companies must be always aware of this risk."
Matsumura said it was difficult to assess what impact the huge recall would have on the companies and their reputation with consumers.
"It may cause safety concerns among customers, which could damage their brand image," he told AFP.
The news was barely given a second glance in a bullish stock market on Thursday, when the benchmark Nikkei index closed at its highest level since July 2008.
Shares in Toyota gained 5.81 percent to close at 310 yen, Nissan rose 4.40 percent to 1,043 yen, Honda was up 3.13 percent to 3,945 yen and Mazda added 3.96 percent to 315 yen.
But Takata, the airbag manufacturer at the centre of the recall, plunged 9.00 percent to 1,819 yen.
The recall is the latest in a series that have hit Japan's auto industry, which once traded on its reputation for quality and reliability.
In January Toyota said it would recall nearly 1.3 million vehicles globally over airbag and windscreen wiper problems. The glitch announced Thursday is not related to the earlier airbag problem.
At the end of last year the company it said it had agreed to pay about $1.1 billion to settle a class action lawsuit launched by US vehicle owners affected by a series of mass recalls.
But despite its travails, Toyota recaptured the title of world's biggest automaker from General Motors in 2012, selling 9.75 million vehicles around the planet.