“Made in Japan” used to mean something
Ok, every country has some past glory to hang on to but I look back to the heyday of Japanese economy and experience a very mixed feeling about it. Here is my short story on how I feel about it all.
When I first left Japan in my early teens, partly for wanting to blend in with my British co-boarders, but also for the sake of rebelling, I grew critical of Japan. I am afraid this trend still continues. My relationship with Japan is a strange love and hate type. When someone asks the question, do you want to go back to Japan eventually? My standard answer is this; “I would love to, only if I don’t have to work there.”
I started my career in a Japanese firm. Although I have nothing to compare to as the first employment experience, it was a minor culture shock. I found myself reverting to my rebellious teen mode. Out of respect to my former employer, I shall not take the mick out of any of my colleagues there, but I would like to share a few stories.
Bowing when on the phone – yes, absolutely true. You thought the story of Bloomberg sales people standing up to take calls was extreme. I was taught to bow when on the phone to show respect to the…. phone?
Rubber chops – In Japan, people don’t sign, but use their chops instead. Now, this being a very Japanese tradition, you need to be very careful where you land your chop. This is difficult to explain – stay with me. 1) You must not “chop” above your superior’s chop. If your superior has not “chopped” yet, you must leave plenty of space above yours to let him “chop” above you. 2) Your chop must be aligned towards the place where the most senior guy is going to “chop”. In a Japanese company, a document of any description requires many layers of approval and by the time your ultimate line boss “chops”, there will be a good dozen chops on the piece of document. So, you need to be sure, as a lowly being, to be careful that your chop is “looking up” towards this big cheese’s chop’s landing area. I once had to “chop” on the bottom corner of an A4 sheet, before collecting about dozen chops from my seniors, all “chopping” above me, all aligned towards this box at the top of the sheet, where there was a huge space reserved for my paymaster.
On a serious note, though, I miss the fabulously wealthy Japan. Every time I returned to Japan, the minute I stepped out of the aircraft, I found something new and shining. It seems that most of the new and shining stuff in Japan these days are made elsewhere. Is this because of the strong Japanese Yen? Perhaps. I think, however, it is more to do with what this article is partially highlighting. Japanese engineers and small businesses still produce top quality components. Take a walk in suburb of any large city in Japan and you would come across these small family business factories everywhere. Large corporations responsible for assembling these fabulous components into finished goods, have been asleep for the last 15+ years, almost without any exception.
Make it in Japan
As I repeatedly experience, more so recently as I am now part of a start-up tech company, you cannot afford to be afraid of making mistakes. Making mistakes is not the same thing as losing face, which many Japanese are truly afraid of. I keep noticing this movement in Japan about returning to its crafty roots and call to recall the lost arts. I think, comparing its GDP or some sort of economic statistics against the world is quite pointless now. Any country will soon look silly against the statistics produced by China. Yes, Japan is becoming the Galapagos of Asia, but that is not bad at all.