Thursday, May 19, 2005


The resurgence of Japan

Even a casual observer who cannot understand Japanese will almost immediately notice the differences: the absence of antisocial behaviour, the courtesy displayed by the Japanese towards each other, the extraordinary efficiency and orderliness that characterise the stuff of everyday life, from public transport to shopping. For those of a more statistical persuasion, it is reflected in what are, by western standards, extremely low crime rates. 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. From The Guardian
Japanese CEOs are deeply shocked at how callous US CEOs are towards their people. Very few Japanese CEOs would even think of paying themselves forty to fifty times what their lowest-paid worker makes; yet in America it's all too common to see CEOs making 500 times or more what their lowest-paid employees make -- and not just because they don't pay their people very well (though in many cases they don't).

Emulating Japan was all the rage when the right-wingers thought it meant that employers got to wring every last drop of blood out of their employees. But they glossed over the fact that in Japan, loyalty is a two-way street: Employees have the right to expect and demand decent pay and treatment from their bosses.

Having seen the system a little bit from the inside, Japanese management tactics are a little bit medieval. Worship and obey the boss or else. One fellow who was a computer programmer at a Japanese automotive manufacturer as they began their march to take over the American market told me the company told the computer guys that if the system went down, the costs were coming out of their paychecks. I still remember a young man nearly weeping about the severity of the hours and the sense of human alienation.

But Japanese, I think, have a better sense of where the line is. I have had American bosses literally try to work me to death. Not metaphorically, as in "worked me until I was dead tired." Literally, as in I believed with cause that I would not live out the month.

I don't know if it's still true, but Japanese seemed to have a better sense of reality, that if you destroy one employee, you demoralize a hundred. So, they're not morally superior to American employers, just smarter.

I think this extends into larger things. The Japanese are ruthless competitors, but they don't want to bankrupt their customer. Americans-- think Argentina-- don't care. Japanese are willing to crush nature to make it conform to their desires, but they understand that they also rely on it for a livelihood.

Unless it comes to whales, which they seem determined to hunt to extinction.

I do think Japan will see a resurgence of power. They have only suffered a setback because they had difficulty levying the costs for the bubble economy onto the various banks. And maybe-- I hope-- the rising generation will be less willing to accommodate the tactics used to rebuild Japan from the ashes. But the United States should be forewarned: if it allows lunatics like the neo-cons a free hand with their fantasies of world domination, reality will bite back.
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