The Fall of the Japanese Manufacturing Industry; It’s Because They Stopped Manufacturing Stuff (We Want)

The once-mighty Japanese manufacturing juggernauts have been in a slow death spiral for two decades. Hitachi, Sanyo, Toshiba, Casio, Panasonic, and even Sony. I have the feeling that people born after 1990 do not even know those brands, except the last one.

People wonder what happened to those zombie companies. The companies themselves provide the same answer every time (for two decades now).

  • Everything has shifted from hardware to software.
  • People do not care much about craftsmanship any more (but we keep our timeless industrial heritage).

In short, it's the customer's problem.

I might have a bit more sympathy for the manufacturers if we were in the 19th century and they were producing horse carriages or ice blocks. In those days few people foresaw what was coming, and changing the business model from building wooden carriages to assembling gasoline engines wasn't…straightforward, I guess.

But that's not the case for the aforementioned Japanese companies. They have the tools (state-of-the-art factories), resources (thousands of obedient and diligent workers), and knowledge (all hail the Internet). They are simply not reaching out of their tired mindset. They bury their necks in the sand, mumble the craftsmanship mantra, repeat what they already know how to do, and wait for retirement day. Eternal masturbation, I might say.

Enough about theories. Let's have a look at a real example, Sony's e-book reader. Slick design, light weight, rugged structure, easy viewing. Looks like the Japanese craftsmanship spirit is very alive in this device. So is Sony making a great product? It’s not selling more than a Kindle or an iPad; is this beyond our understanding?


Take a closer look at how it works. In a nutshell, this is what you need to do in order to buy a book online and read it on Sony's e-reader.

  1. Install Sony's proprietary software onto your computer
  2. Purchase an e-book
  3. Download the e-book to your computer
  4. Connect Sony's e-book reader with your computer through a USB cable
  5. Transfer the e-book from the computer to the reader
  6. Read

Lord knows how many steps (missteps) and minutes I need to spend for the whole procedure.

This is what I currently do with my Amazon Kindle.

  1. Purchase an e-book in Kindle
  2. Read

Two steps, one minute. No cables, no installation, nada.

As a hardware device, the Sony Reader might have higher quality than the Kindle. But who cares? Show these two devices side by side, with a live demonstration of book purchasing and reading procedures, and see which becomes the darling of users. Clearly Sony has learned nothing from that blinking 00:00 VCR display.

To rub salt in the wound, Kindle is cheaper than Sony Reader ($139 vs. $149). I am surprised that Sony even bothered to sell that reader in the first place. But that's exactly what masturbation is about, isn't it? The only difference between real (?) masturbation and Sony's is that the latter never reaches a climax, thus avoiding the inevitable self-doubt.

P.S. The same situation is happening everywhere in Japanese industries, even in the once-mighty Toyota. Why does a company that pulled off the impossible—fusing an internal combustion engine and electric power train into one–have to team up with a company with an almost zero traction record of mass production to build an all-electric car? There's even FEWER parts than a hybrid engine. Toyota might be a technology expert, but it doesn’t know how to take shortcuts.

Behind the Communication-Less Japanese Communication Style

I know, it doesn't matter anymore. Long gone are the days of "mysterious Japanese people" getting front page coverage from The New York Times. "China" is where the spotlight is on. We cannot blame the media; its attitude remains neutral (so they say), but what pays their salaries is covering what's hot. As George Orwell said, all news subjects are equal, but some are more equal than others.

But maybe focusing on Japan still matters, because understanding Japan should indirectly lead to understanding China, considering the long and tangled history shared by these countries. The recent feuds between them are sibling rivalries, after all.

Today I would like to focus on one of the deepest chasms that divide the East from the West: the expression-less Japanese expression. Imagine you are a first-time foreign tourist in Tokyo. You have asked a question to a friendly-looking local person in a way that deviates from textbook English expressions, such as "Do you have the time?" Or you might have made a request that does not exist in the Japaniverse: "Can you make a vegetarian version of the deep-fried cutlet? And please leave the garlic out." Congratulations, you have just received a blank stare as a reward.*

What happened is that you have stepped onto a tipping point: Expectation (the East) vs. Expression (the West). Maybe in the place you grew up, when you face miscommunication, you simply speak out. The responsibility of clarifying the situation and maintaining a healthy communication falls on you, the initiator: You need to make the other side understand.

In Japan, the responsibility falls on the other side: the receiver. You are expected to understand the given message and act properly, as a listener. In order to maintain a healthy communication, active listening skills–including reading non-verbal cues of the speaker (who is usually more senior than the listener)–becomes important.

Mix the above two scenarios, and you'll get this picture: The (Western) speaker waits for the (Eastern) listener to speak up, and the (Eastern) listener waits for the (Western) speaker to explain more. A Zen-like silence might dominate the scene. Quite contrary to the tranquility on the surface, the inner worlds of these two people become chaotic. One side is questioning "Why don't you say what the problem is?" and the other side "What does he (or she) want?"

This is what is going on in their mind (watch from 1:30).  

This Catch-22 situation is like a computer showing nothing but a blue screen–we think it is frozen, but in fact the computer is running as fast as it can–inside the same subroutine loop, endlessly.

Who holds the key for escape? It's the speaker, for now. Isn't it much easier to change the topic than to wait for a solution to come up? So if you're in the said situation, maybe you can simply point a finger toward your left wrist to ask for the time, or randomly pick an item in the menu and mutter "Kore Kudasai (Give me this)." Life is a box of chocolates.  

* Being  Japanese myself, I am going to stand up for those poor waitresses who have to endure fussy requests from fussy customers. Girls, you have two perfectly legitimate options:

  • A: Shove this message into that dude's mouth: Dear customer, with all due respect, you are in a CUTLET restaurant.
  • B: Keep staring at him. When you smell danger, the best way to save your ass is to pretend you don't understand a thing. It's universal.

P.S. Blogging will be a weekly stuff – I will see how disciplined I have become during this hiatus.