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Ailing Japan Inc. must combine tradition with a new world view

by Roger Pulvers

One of the clearest memories I have of my Los Angeles childhood revolves around a car. By the early 1950s, my parents had managed to eke their way into the middle class; and for Los Angelenos, nothing signified that social status more than the automobile. For my dad, the symbol of this par excellence was the 1956 Buick.

I will never forget standing with him, at age 11, holding hands, in front of a revolving platform on which stood a two-tone, banana-yellow and black version of that massively imposing vehicle. It was the fall of 1955, when the new models came out, and in my mind’s eye I can still see the tears welling in my father’s eyes.

We bought the car and kept it for a decade; but it suffered one mechanical problem after another. That model’s brakes came to be notoriously unreliable, for one thing. The color should have been designated “lemon yellow,” for the 1956 Buick was a classic lemon in every way. But you couldn’t tell that to my dad. I can still hear his raspy voice today:

“What’re talking about, eh? This car is a little gem. There’s nothing wrong with it. American quality is unrivaled anywhere in the world.”

In those days, “Made in Japan” was synonymous with “cheap and shoddy.” It didn’t take long, though, for Japanese people to apply their immaculate culture of craftsmanship and ingenuity to manufacturing; and by the 1980s the national brand had been turned around. Everybody wanted Japanese cars, motorcycles, cameras, televisions, video cassette players, Walkmans — you name it.

Japanese people came to believe, in the span of a single generation, that Japanese quality was unsurpassed, and that its creation was an indelible feature of the national character.

But this, too, turned out to be a myth.

Quality does not only depend on mechanical excellence. It is a design feature that encompasses ease of use and style.

By the late 1980s, Japanese manufacturers were resting on their laurels. They should have been approaching their products from the standpoint of their qualities — plural. How innovative is the product? How does it answer the needs of the shifting demographics in Japan and overseas? Complacent belief that you are the best merely heightens your vulnerability to attack.

Back in those frothy years of Japan’s bubble economy, I held a consultancy with a leading department store in Tokyo. They were remodeling a floor where household goods were sold. At one meeting I asked about barriers to access for disabled people. The managers exchanged embarrassed glances. This was long before such issues were considered as part of design. In addition, centuries of cruel discrimination against the disabled had left a legacy that was by no means a thing of the past.

“It won’t be long in Japan,” I said, “before department stores will be welcoming disabled people, showing to the world that all customers are considered equal.”

Whatever may be the quality of the goods on sale, if access to them is discriminatory, the reputation of the provider of the goods is sullied. In other words, quality of goods as a concept encompasses far more than mere functional excellence. Design is not merely aesthetic: It is demographic and individual specific.

From there, fast-forward to 2011, now that two decades have been spent by Japan in the economic doldrums. The demographics of design are now international and pluralistically complex. Japanese manufacturers may know the Japanese market best. But they have had to adjust their mind-sets on design to take in newly affluent consumers in the emerging markets of Asia, Africa and Latin America.

In this endeavor they are facing very stiff competition from manufacturers in South Korea and China, particularly over electronic goods and household appliances; and in India, when it comes to the enormous business of the outsourcing of services.

Though I am a fan of Japanese goods, over recent years I have come to prefer electronics goods from South Korea’s LG and Samsung brands to them. Japan clearly no longer dominates world markets, even in fields where it was once virtually unchallenged.

What does Japan still have going for it?

There are niche markets that can be exploited.

A product of Morioka in Iwate Prefecture, Nambu cast-iron ware boasts a tradition going back nearly 1,000 years. Nambu cast-iron teapots are elegant and long lasting. There is now a push to export them to China. The drive, cleverly aimed at rich Chinese people in Shanghai, pitches how perfect a Nambu pot is for their beloved aged Pu’er tea. That’s quality marketing.

Meanwhile, neighboring Aomori Prefecture in northern Honshu is also aggressively marketing its huge, sweet, juicy apples in China, where they fetch the staggering equivalent of ¥2,000 each. Last year the prefecture exported 300 tons there.

But the exploitation of niche markets, however important, does not amount to much in the larger scheme of things. Japanese manufacturers must reinvent their products with a quality (read design) edge that appeals to a very wide swath of consumers around the world.

Japan has iki going for it; and yuga; and shibui; and kanpekisa. These can be translated, respectively, as “chic style,” “elegance,” “understated beauty” and “perfection of craft.” These qualities are still recognized everywhere as part and parcel of the Japanese brand. To let these die out and return “Made in Japan” to the realm of the tacky would sound the death knell for Japan’s economy.

So, what to do?

Educate young Japanese people in the wonders of their cultural traditions, traditions that gave rise to the four qualities mentioned above in every form of creative life, from the intangible to the tangible. Who knows where inspiration for a new product or service idea will spring from? If young people can understand the roots of the cultural phenomena that gave rise to the chic Japanese style, elegance, understated beauty and perfection of craft, they are halfway toward the destination of creating goods that people all over the world will admire and desire to have.

The other half of the educational drive toward revival of the Japanese economy concerns learning about people all over the world. How can you design something for someone in Brazil if you don’t speak Portuguese and have never seen anyone dance the samba? The demographics of foreign markets are formed by the evolving cultures in countries that Japanese people must get to know intimately in order to sell to them.

I often write about cultural entrepreneurship, the skill of making and marketing goods to people around the world. This skill needs to be nurtured if Japan is to be the success it once was. It means widening the scope of Japanese education to include many languages and cultural studies.

My father didn’t live to see the day, in 2009, that General Motors — the company that produced his treasured Buick — went belly up. But he believed, till his dying day, that the 1956 Buick was the best car in the world. He had succumbed to the myth of American quality. He was a true believer.

I don’t know how many true believers in Japanese quality are left in Japan. But I do know that if something isn’t done soon to recreate that quality, in all its manifestations, for a rapidly changing world, then Japan Inc. may share the fate of General Motors. A culture cannot rely on the thin air of its myths and stay alive.