Toyota, Nissan, Honda and Mazda, announcing in separate statements the recall of a combined 3.39 million vehicles, all cited the same malfunction of the Japanese-made passenger-side airbags.
A Toyota spokesman said his company was calling back 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.
The airbags were made by Tokyo-based Takata Corp, which said it deeply regrets the recall. "We will fully cooperate with the carmakers in replacing the parts by sharing some cost burden," a spokesman said.
Honda, which is recalling 1.135 million vehicles, said it was "a global recall that affects all regions where we do our business".
Mazda said 45,463 units worldwide came under the recall, around a tenth of which were in Japan.
"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.
But the news barely got 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, 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.