JANUARY 1986 TOKYO Business Today
T'was a time, not so long ago, when if in the streets of Tokyo you saw someone well-dressed
and prosperous you knew immediately without even looking at his face that it was
a foreigner. In those days the Japanese were not necessarily scruffy, but they certainly
didn't look like something out of the pages of a fashion magazine. Today it is very
differrent. If you see someone of unusually scruffy description, the chances are
that he or she is a foreigner.
The barometers of change and prog- ress in Japan are many; dress happens to be one
of them. But even more remark- able is the change and progress itself. In just two
decades - the extent of my own involvement with Japan - we have seen a nation go
from Asian semi-poverty to an affluence (and in many areas a good taste) that should
make the rest of the world a little more humble. We are being beaten at our own game,
and should be even more impressed than we are.
How have the Japanese done it? In the endless debates about the nature and reasons
for Japan's progress, the cliches trundle themselves out endlessly - Japan In- corporated,
the Confucian ethic, all-wise and all- powerful bureaucrats, devious cunning, the
pressure to work hard to overcome natural handicaps, and so on. But do any of them
really make sense?
Japan Incorporated, for example, does not explain why the Japanese couldn't get
their act together long enough to standardise VCR productions, instead of confusing
us with VHS and Betamax. Nor does it explain MITT's many well documented failures.
Nor should we be too impress- ed by those all-wise bureaucrats. They manage to get
themselves into some very unwise situations at times - the Narita airport waste and
the KDD scandal are examples. There are many more just waiting to be exposed.
For a devious and disciplined people, the Japanese also manage to show remarkable
naivity and lack of dicipline at times, and not just in the way they go out and get
themselves drunk, but whenever the rebellious spirit moves them. Nor are the Japanese
necessarily hard workers, as anyone who has attended to their education at the university
level can easily confirm.
Finally, we have the Confucian connection which, on the face of things, makes a
lot of sense. Confucianism urges social responsibility, education, improvement of
one's position, and diligence. None of these characteris- tics are a disadvantage
in a developing country. Besides, it can't be simply coincidence that the fastest
growing economies of non-communist Asia today all share the Confucian ethic.
But by the same token, Confucianism can't be the entire answer. Indeed, when this
writer first ventured into Asia 64 some 25 years ago, the wisdom was accepted very
differently. It was thought that the pure Confucian ethic harmed, rather than helped,
progress. Confucian- ism put too much emphasis on elite scholarship and bureaucracy,
and looked down on humdrum economic activities. So, if Taiwan and Korea do well today,
it is because they dilute their Confucianism. They have taken to the more pragmatic
Western ethic of indus- trialization and making money. And if Japan has done better
than Taiwan, Korea, Vietnam or pre-1949 China, it is precisely because it is the
one area of East Asia that has only been mildly influenced by pure Confucianism.
More importantly, Japan has been able to fall back on other and more "Japanese"
factors to propel its growth.
What were and are those factors? Give the Japanese the chance to answer and they
will tell you all about their unique rice culture, homogeneity, island isolation
or climate. The correct answer could be much simpler. For what we see in Japan is
really no more than a refined version of the same simple village communal ethic that
once underlay Western, i.e., north European/American, industrialization.
We Anglo-Saxons like to see our past progress as the result of the rationalistic
brilliance of our scientists, economists etc., but the key factor was our ability
to come together cooperatively in that expanded village called the factory. Today
we are losing that ability. We want hard reasons for why we should work--money, promotion,
intelectual challenge. But at our more communal best, we took it pretty much for
granted that the individual didn't get too involved in such rationalistic reasoning,
not in the work place at least.
So instead of explaining Japan we should try to explain ourselves. Why did we lose
the simple village/communal approach to the workplace? Maybe it has something to
do with our love affair with the rationalistic ethic. The Japanese dislike of this
ethic produces all manner of illogic and irrationality at times, but it also creates
some all-important advantages; and not just in the area of work ethic. It also underlies
the delightful practicality of the Japanese. Unlike the rest of us, they don't waste
time on theoretical arguments about the true nature of free trade, God, communism,
principled democracy or the future of mankind. They simply concentrate on the problem
at hand. We have a lot to learn from them.
As for why a nation with more than 2,000 years of history should cling to something
that the rest of us until recently regarded as backward, I bow to the historians
and the sociologists. But it has little to do with Confucius.
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