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May 20, 2005

Japan’s Different.

Martin Jacques continues his stunning run of articles explaining the obvious. Japan’s different. Gee, really? Two minor points:

Even the preferred choice of car reflects the differing ethos: whereas in the US and Britain, the fashionable car of choice is a 4x4 - the very embodiment of a "bugger you and the environment" individualism - the equivalent in Japan is the tiny micro-car, much smaller than a Ford Ka - a genre that is neither made nor marketed in the UK.

It would help if he explained two more things. The incredible density of population in Japan. As a country it doesn’t look too bad, but when you take out the mountains and the agricultural land, it’s one of the highest in the world for a large nation. There’s also a huge tax differential between the micro-cars and regular ones. I think (this is form memory, sorry) that you have to prove you own a parking space to buy a regular sized car. You don’t for a micro-car. So, crowded urban areas, huge price differentials...and this shows that micro-cars are successful because the Japanese are less individualistic?

Not least, it finds expression in the success of Japanese companies. This has wrongly been attributed to an organisational system, namely just-in-time production, which, it was believed, could be imitated and applied with equal effect elsewhere. But the roots of the success of a company such as Toyota lie much deeper: in the social relations that typify Japanese society and that allow a very different kind of participation by the workforce in comparison with the west. As a result, non-Japanese companies have found it extremely difficult to copy these ideas with anything like the same degree of success.

Again, further explanation might help. If these successes have been built on Japan’s vision of the individual as being part of the whole rather than, as he says, the Anglo-Saxon model of more extreme individualism, why are these very same Japanese companies so successful at operating plants in Anglo-Saxon countries, with a local workforce? Nissan’s Sunderland plant was declared their most efficient in the world a couple of years ago. Toyota and Honda do similarly well in the UK and the US. Carlos Ghosen, a Frenchman, runs one of the Japanese car companies.

Sorry, it may well be true that western companies have struggled to replicate the Japanese corporate model (although Dell is a counter-example) but the success of the model using Anglo workforces shows that it is not something innate to Japanese culture that makes it work.

May 20, 2005 in Trivia | Permalink


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Tracked on May 20, 2005 2:38:14 PM


hmm, I just spent a week out there and don't remember seeing too many micro cars. I do remember seeing monster 4x4s. I wasn't paying too much attention, but I don't recall the mix of cars being too different from here in the UK

I love some things about the Japanese working culture. My Japanese friends tell me there is a great communual work ethic, but there's a hilarious focus on looking busy as opposed to actually being productive. They all work long hours, but there's a lot of faffing around. The Brits working in Japanese firms also complain that individuals are often very reluctant to take decisions and reponsibility. It's quite acceptable to fall asleep in meetings, which is definitely an innovation I would like to see introduced over here. Also there's a special word (Kobashiri?) for trotting around the office making little running motions with your arms, on the way to the photocopier for example, to make it look like you're frantically busy.

Posted by: Paddy Carter | May 20, 2005 10:47:53 AM

I can't find a web link, but I understood that the Japanese economic miracle of the 50s-60s was built upon American management theory. Of course it ended up having a particular Japanese flavour.

Posted by: JohnM | May 20, 2005 10:53:37 AM

I wonder if he opens his eyes as he walks about? If he did he might have spotted plenty of Nissan Figaros around and about. They were a limited run of 20,000 1950's style retro cars from the early 1990's. They're dinky and relatively popular. A quick google brings up quite a few importers. Handy that the Japanese drive on the left.

Posted by: Mark Holland | May 20, 2005 11:02:23 AM

"The idea of alternating parties in government is almost entirely alien. Real power is exercised by factions within the ruling Liberal Democrats rather than by the other political parties, which, as a consequence, are largely marginal."

Just replace Liberal Democrat with Labour and factions with personalities, and you have the Guardian's idea of heaven. Sigh.

On a linguistics note, in Japan backchanneling (sybil fawlty esque "yes, I know...ooh I know" affirmation that you are listening) is considered mandatory for polite conversation. So much so that were you on the phone with a Japanese person and they were talking and you did not audibly react, they would stop and ask if you were still there. FACT.

Posted by: Katie | May 20, 2005 11:14:41 AM

Funny, that. Ask IBM if they consider their implementation of 'just in time' production to be a failure. Many large companies introduced this production method in the eighties with great success.

Just because we don't stand in the car park singing the company song before starting work does not mean we cannot replicate some Japanese business methods successfuly.

Posted by: Nik | May 20, 2005 1:15:20 PM

Lived and worked in Japan for a year and a half. Yes there is a higher percentage of small cars (and mopeds) than in say, the US (though not significantly to my recollection).

Of course when most of your streets in the city are single lane one-way and filled with pedestrians, higher gas prices, huge taxes and licensing fees, along with toll booths every 5 feet on the freeways - its not too surprising that they like the mobility of a small car.

Posted by: Agammamon | May 20, 2005 3:11:40 PM

Maybe he also likes those tiny shoe-box hotels, where you slide into a bed on a rack like a corpse in a morgue - but hey, lookee! A TV and a soda-dispenser, and here's the Hello-Kitty catheter, and those multiple-deck driving ranges - does he golf?

An extremely homogeneous society like Japan is able to implement structural changes more radically and efficiently than a diverse and less homogeneous and society. There is just less "push-back" and this is indeed a Socialist ideal, homogenization and conformity breed-out difficult and messy people and situation...

Also, not terribly known for pure, raw, innovation, Japanese business management took a **BIG** page from W. E. Deming's Total Quality Management ideas, (which also happened to have been adopted by the U.S. Army about the same time) in the late 40-s through the 50's, and its concommitant Continuous Quality Improvement module. The Deming Prize is the highest industrial quality-award in Japan, and in 1960, The Emperor of Japan awarded Deming the 2nd Order of the Sacred Treasure, Japan's premier Imperial honor. Google "Deming Japan" for a lot of hits, also W. A. Shewart who was a statistician from Bell Labs was a big influence with, "The Economic Control of Quality of Manufactured Product."

Posted by: -keith in mtn. view | May 20, 2005 7:42:37 PM

4x4s? Japanese? Never!! The Toyota Landcruiser is not the world's best selling 4x4, and the Mitsubishi Pajero doesn't exist. Nissan once thought of making models called the Pathfinder and Patrol, but decided against it on the advice of a Guardian correspondent.

The Subaru Impreza is reknowned for its fuel efficiency, second only to the Nissan Skyline. The Toyota Supra and Honda NSX are wonderful examples of cars which meet the basic requirments of an environmentally conscious driver and no more.

The Kawasaki Ninja, Honder Fireblade, and Yamaha R1 are all designed with the underpriviledged in mind, and the Lexus brand was created in order to satisfy the enormous demand coming from those supergreens for whom the Toyota Celica was just far too inefficient.

Posted by: Tim Newman | May 20, 2005 8:54:00 PM