I was standing on the corner by the Hachiko exit of Shibuya Station, looking at two giant television screens hawking the latest gadgets, trends and fashions, while thousands of light bulbs seared into my retinas the benefits of zillions of products. But having read this book, I felt I finally understood, even as the cell-phone toting masses stormed numbingly by, the technological revolution Japan has unleashed on itself.
“Assembled in Japan” explains not only how technicians and entrepreneurs went to great lengths to import high-technology, but how they adopted the revolutionary techniques needed to market those products to people who could barely afford them.
How had I been persuaded of the overarching utility of my cellular phone despite its extravagant cost? A half-century ago, the same question arose over things taken for granted today: washing machines, radios and TVs.
Author Simon Partner presents case after case showing how Japan was wowed by foreign technology and then proceeded full-speed ahead to copy it. But he does more than parade a stereotypical view of Japanese as copycat adapters of all things foreign. His story tells how Japanese society was radically remolded from the very roots of family structure on up, and how Japan has positioned itself in relation to other countries.
Partner, an assistant professor of history at Duke University and author of “Saying Yes to Japanese Investment,” provides a highly readable narrative with insightful comments from the people who made history happen.
By the early 1870s, Japan had a national and international telegraph service (with the help of a British engineer); by the 1880s, a telephone system; and by the turn of the century, radio, used primarily by the military.
By 1920, 7 million of Japan’s 11 million households were electrified (though perhaps only with one light socket apiece), and rail and phone lines criss-crossed the country.
By the start of the Meiji era, Japan was a world leader in the use of high-technology, overcoming years of isolation.
The country was rightly proud of its advances. One observer, Basil Hall Chamberlain, noted, “To have lived through the transition stage of modern Japan makes a man feel preternaturally old; for he is in modern times . . . and yet he can himself distinctly remember the middle ages.”
But pride in its technological prowess derailed the progress made to that point. Partner explains that in the 1930s, the government’s “kokusanka” campaign to encourage local production was one of the main factors contributing to Japan’s defeat in World War II. “The Ministry of Commerce and Industry, for example, in 1932 designated 65 product categories for priority purchase from Japanese makers — even if quality was inferior. The kokusanka campaign also included songs, slogans (‘By All Means Kokusan!’) poster campaigns, even a kokusan postage stamp series bearing the slogan: ‘Imports in Meiji, Kokusan in Showa.’ “
In particular, Japan’s failure to keep pace with developments in radar technology and slowness to realize its military applications led to significant losses in the Pacific. A personal gift from Adolf Hitler to the Emperor of a Wuertzburg radar machine arrived too late (December 1943) and had by then been surpassed by Allied technology.
In the rubble of defeat, Japan realized how far its short isolation had set it back.
Researcher Hiroe Nagafune told an NHK documentary maker about his serendipitous introduction to the transistor by a U.S. military officer while guiding him on a tour of Nippon Denki’s facilities in 1948.
“As I was showing (the officer) round, he asked me, ‘How might the army use transistors in a land battle?’ Of course I didn’t even know the word ‘transistor.’ So rather than answer the officer, I had to ask him, ‘What is that?’ . . . Once I understood that this was something totally new to me, I was really surprised.”
Japan would never close itself off again.
Prominent researchers and entrepreneurs from Japan visited the United States to learn from the power that beat them and discovered it wasn’t just technology that fostered prosperity — it was a vast middle class.
One visitor, Konosuke Matsushita, founder of Matsushita Denki, came back with new visions of how the Japanese should progress.
“Newly hired female factory workers are paid $55 for a five-day week, or $230 a month. If you calculate that in yen, it comes to 82,800 yen, equivalent to the salary of a company president. Right now in America, about 80 percent of the people belong to the middle class. I feel now that I understand well what this means, and I feel painfully that I would like Japan to get to that point as soon as possible.”
Getting there was not easy. For example, while the development of Japanese television was aided by the Americans, who saw it as a propaganda medium capable of thwarting enemies at the start of the Cold War, individual sets were awfully expensive for consumers.
“The tradeoff between a television and a home is not as far-fetched as it may sound. Even in the six largest cities in Japan, a modest home with land could be purchased for 200,000 yen . . . . By contrast, a television in 1955 cost about 140,000 yen.”
Thus the 1950s saw the wholesale import of U.S. marketing techniques, complete with the American family structure, that put the housewife at the center of the household as the main purchaser of durable goods.
Partner explains that the introduction of the “bright life” campaign (“akarui seikatsu”) came at a bitter time for Japan, in the 1950s, when the word “seikatsu” was more often associated with the word “mondai,” or problems.
“Victims of wartime bombings were still crowded into urban housing with returnees from the lost empire. Families of six or seven lived in a single room, with no running water and only communal cooking and toilet facilities.”
Therefore, advertisements had to focus explicitly on rationalizing the Japanese way of life to make luxury items seem affordable.
A Hitachi advertisement from the July 1955 issue of Denki Shohin I said: “Washing is a major issue for the improvement of lifestyles. For a 100- to 200-watt washing machine, the cost of electricity is 1 yen to 1.60 yen an hour. On the other hand, if you do your own washing, you will use 150 to 200 calories an hour, which if you look at the current cost of food comes to 20 yen to 25 yen, or 15 to 20 times the cost of electricity.”
Similar campaigns broke down the cost of attending numerous sumo and other sports events in person vs. watching them on television.
Even the “transistor girls,” junior high school dropouts hired cheaply by large electronics companies, spent much of their salaries on the latest gizmos their sweat and tears went into producing.
And while the consumption of electronic products fueled an economy that pulled salaries up, land prices went punishingly higher. Partner cites this as one of the regressive traits brought about by the technological revolution.
“While incomes more than doubled between 1950 and 1960, urban land prices rose a horrifying 15 times. . . . Of course, this trend benefited the large proportion of the population who owned property, but it also served to widen the gap between haves and have-nots of Japanese society — a gap, that, despite the ‘middle mass’ rhetoric, remains wide today. It is ironic that the very phenomenon that gave the appearance of affluence — mass purchases of electrical goods — served to fuel the boom that helped put the security of a home forever out of the reach of many.”
Partner remains ambivalent about the ultimate benefits of technology.
“In discussing Japan’s rapid assimilation of advanced technology, it is useful to look at what did not change. The glamorous new technologies of the promised age of prosperity tended to throw forth a glare, blinding many to the enduring essentials of their own society. By the end of the 1950s, the lives of many Japanese remained fraught with drudgery, toil, and discomfort — and remain so today, for that matter. Technology did not make the Japanese home any larger, nor did it significantly expand lifestyle or career choices for most Japanese. Indeed, some would argue that technology has been used to preserve long-standing rigidities in the Japanese social order.”
As I stand in Shibuya, watching thousands pass me by, seeing girls who pay for cripplingly high cell-phone charges on wages that are lower because they are women, I think that what’s needed is not more of a technological revolution, but a human one.