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.