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A bumper-car experience in Toyota-land

by Jeff Kingston

NOTES FROM TOYOTA-LAND: An American Engineer in Japan, by Darius Mehri. Ithaca, New York: Cornell University Press, 2006, $26 (cloth).

Toyota is booming, but its PR department has had its hands full with a high-profile sexual harassment lawsuit in the United States — and now this damning insider’s revelations about coercive work practices, unsafe production lines and mismanagement.

Darius Mehri, an Iranian-American, worked for three years at a subsidiary of Toyota as a computer-simulation design engineer. His story is one of growing disenchantment as he discovers the grim realities of work in Japan’s industrial heartland. Along the way he challenges many shibboleths about corporate paternalism, harmony, consensus, kaizen (continuous improvement) and the vaunted Toyota Production System.

This keenly observed account imparts considerable firsthand information about current workplace practices, one that is reminiscent of Satoshi Kamata’s bleak assessment in “Japan in the Passing Lane” (1973). Thirty years on Mehri observes that “the same unsafe work environment, the same oppressive mechanisms of worker control, and the same power manipulations.”

Mehri finds much of the literature about Japanese management practices and production processes way off the mark. He believes Japanese management is deeply flawed and conveys his experience of blatant disregard for workers’ well-being, disorganization and authoritarian practices. Intrusive monitoring of workers, bullying and public humiliation is standard practice among ladder-climbing executives eager to squeeze as much work as possible out of their subordinates. The “diligent and disciplined Japanese worker” is here portrayed as corporate cannon fodder.

“Notes from Toyota-Land” asserts that rigid hierarchies and institutionalized overwork are the bane of Japanese firms and their employees, stifling communication, imposing top-down consensus and substituting perspiration for inspiration. Overwork resulting from mandatory sabisu zangyo (unpaid overtime) saps productivity and undermines morale and health. Better designs are routinely ignored by upper-level managers because “Rank was more important than reason.”

Clearly Nizumi (the fictitious name of his firm) is not a very congenial place to work. Unless of course you are a Romanian refugee; his colleague said he felt at home in the factory because it was just like the communist dictatorship at home where everyone watched each other and forced each other to abide by the regime’s orders.

The ideology of firm as family does not jibe with Mehri’s observations about inadequate concern for worker safety. Many of his foreign friends on the production lines regaled him with horror stories about unsafe workplaces and dangerous practices. Because foreigners can be hired at a pittance under the fiction of “training visas,” many manufacturing firms employ as many as possible. Unfortunately, there is not much training going on, subjecting these “trainees” to considerable risk.

In an interview, Dr. Shinya Yamada, a leading occupational health and safety expert, explains that “hiding injuries is a long-standing, pervasive and hidden rule at most corporations in Japan.” Firms wish to burnish their safety records to avoid being named and shamed by the government and to minimize medical expenses. If the injured employee is awarded worker’s compensation, meaning that the injury is not the worker’s fault, then the company is responsible for all medical expenses.

Workers thus face pressure not to file injury reports knowing that they risk losing both their claim and their jobs.

Mehri depicts enterprise unions as lapdogs of management. He witnessed the outcome of negotiations that resulted in one additional vacation day per annum. Satisfaction with this rare “victory” evaporated when he realized that the extra holiday was implemented by making daily work hours 5 minutes shorter. Since these official working hours were routinely ignored, management could win kudos without making a substantive concession.

“Every last person I interviewed, including the union leader Kurasawa, said the union was weak and in no way represented the voice of the workers,” Mehri writes. “It was universally acknowledged that the primary role of the union was to rubber-stamp management decisions.”

Mehri is unimpressed with how Japanese engineers solve problems. He notes: “They had been educated to engage in an inductive process, while as an American-educated engineer, I had been trained to use deduction. Deductive reasoning and abstract ideas were crucial to who I was as a Westerner . . . . It occurred to me that the inductive process, along with the authoritarian hierarchy and a disinclination to engage in debate, was one reason why Nizumi was rarely innovative. When it came to the details of the design, the Japanese were brilliant, but when it came to creativity, they were disappointing.”

This lively narrative resonates with a compelling sense of injustice on behalf of exploited and unhappy workers. Yet, Mehri’s conclusions of miserable management and lagging innovation in the Toyota empire leave the reader wondering why it is doing a better job producing good, reliable cars than everyone else. There is perhaps some consolation in assuming that workers in Detroit are not getting the shaft to such a degree, but the absence of comparative analysis leaves this to the imagination.