Only one or lonely one. This may be the question that nations start asking themselves in the aftermath of Japan’s threefold disaster.
Global supply chains are being disrupted in very serious ways because of Japan’s increasingly critical inability to deliver the parts, materials and other resources that constitute vital underpinnings for finished manufactured goods.
But then, we have always known the one about the nail and the kingdom, haven’t we?
“For want of a nail the shoe was lost. For want of a shoe the horse was lost. For want of a horse the rider was lost. For want of a rider the battle was lost. For want of a battle the kingdom was lost. And all for the want of a horseshoe nail.”
Long before notions such as supply chains and global divisions of labor came into force, people were wise enough to know that the most glorious of achievements can be undermined at a stroke due to the lack of one little detail.
The Japanese have also known from time immemorial that the most incongruous yet inevitable chain of relationships can bring about the most improbable results.
This is the one about the wind and wooden barrel makers. The story tells us that when the wind blows strong, barrel manufacturing craftsmen are apt to make a fortune. It goes as follows.
When the wind blows, a lot of dust goes flying. When dust flies, a lot of people damage their eyes and go blind. When people go blind they become “shamisen” (traditional guitar) players to make a living (as was the custom in times of old).
As the demand for shamisen increases, cats decrease in number because cat skin is what shamisen skins are made of (Animal rights protectors please note. This is about the Japan of around 200 years ago or more.)
When the cat population declines, rats run free. Rats eat anything. They will chew wooden barrels to bits. Therefore production of wooden barrels soars, leading to much higher incomes for their producers.
In like manner, manufacturers in the most unlikely places around the globe are having to face factory shutdowns due to the disasters in Fukushima.
Yet none of it should come as a surprise. This, after all, is what globalization is all about. We are all a part of a long and complex mosaic structure that straddles national borders. That structure has brought a lot of people a lot of prosperity. United we stand, and therefore united we fall. And therein lies the potential danger of the lonely triumphing over the only.
What if people and companies start to think that being a part of that vastly extended mosaic is not a terribly good idea in the world of nuclear disasters?
What if they begin to feel that relying on the only one manufacturer in the world who can deliver a certain type of bolt or nut is too risky an option?
What if companies all decide that they would be better off going it alone with full in-house capacity to produce everything for themselves? Better to be lonely than to be at the mercy of the only.
But that would be the end of globalization as we know it.
The end of globalization as such may not be totally bad. Yet when nations decide to go the lonely way, it does not stop there. They all soon want to be lonely in plenty. Then they begin to covet other people’s property.
The battle of the lonely ones is not something we would want to see in the 21st century. For as the great Roy Orbison tells us: “Only the lonely know why I cry.”
Noriko Hama is an economist and a professor at Doshisha University Graduate School of Business.
IN FIVE EASY PIECES WITH TAKE 5