Technology and the Japanese Soul
Japan has achieved tremendous industrial growth since World War II, developing new technologies that attract the curiosity and admiration of people everywhere. What made it possible for Japan to become a technological giant? Finding answers to this question gives us an inside look at the Japanese mindset.
Written by Aida Yutaka, professor at the Faculty of Environmental Information, Keio University
Photo credits: JTB Photo
The first Japanese car ever driven on a major highway in the United States had a small, 1000cc engine. The driver pushed the accelerator to the floor, but he couldn't make the car go fast enough to join the stream of traffic. The engine made so much noise that conversation was difficult without shouting. He finally got the car moving fairly quickly, fast enough to merge with the other cars on the road. But then the steering wheel began vibrating. The vibrations got progressively worse, until the whole car began shakinghe had a hard time holding onto the steering wheel! Then suddenly, he couldn't see where he was going. The vibrations had become so severe that the catch holding the hood gave out, letting it flip over onto the windshield. This was because the engine and the car body were vibrating in sympathy, a phenomenon no driver wants to experience.
A small car engine does not provide enough power for high speeds unless the crankshaft rotates very quickly. But speeding up the rotations creates a lot of noise. In a big car, there's enough space to insulate the car interior and keep the sound out, but a small car doesn't offer this advantage. The answer for car manufacturers in Japan was obviously to develop a quieter, faster engine.
That other problemsympathetic vibrationsalso had to be solved. This meant designing a new type of car body. Automotive designers and technicians conducted one rigorous experiment after another, guided by trial and error, making many modifications until they had a compact car that performed as well as a large one.
I met some of the technicians who worked on that development project years ago. I still remember what one of them said: "In those days, many Japanese homes had rooms measuring only 4½ tatami matsjust a few square meters. To live comfortably in a compact space, people tried to use every cubic inch effectively. We had a "4½ tatami mat" mindset when developing the compact car. Solving one problem before moving on to the next wouldn't work. We had to look carefully at every detail while working towards an overall solution. Our goal was to make a small car that was as comfortable and easy to drive as a large one. It took a lot of patience, but we did it!"
Years later, when I was gathering information for an article on the semiconductor industry, I heard something similar. Every Japanese factory aims for a 100% yield from its production linesin other words, a defect rate of 0%. In the West, factory managers think a fairly low defect rate is good enough. For example, they assume that because the mass production of semiconductor chips involves hundreds of steps, a zero defect rate could be achieved only in a perfect world.
Japanese technicians aim for that perfect world. I found it strange that the approaches are so different, so I asked a Japanese technician what he thought. His response: factories in Japan aim for the ideals promoted by the philosopher of farm technology, Ninomiya Sontoku (1787-1856). Ninomiya taught that farmers should aim for the highest possible yields. In a rice field, the more you care for your plants the greater your harvest will be. For centuries, the Japanese people depended on rice production, and the efficient farmer was held up as an ideal for all citizens. Even today, this value system extends to factories manufacturing advanced products like semiconductors, and inspires the never-ending competitive drive for zero defects.
This was his explanation. At any rate, there can be no doubt that made-in-Japan semiconductor memory devices were able to dominate the world market because of their extremely low defect rate.
But rice farmers must work together as a group. In a farming village with, say, 100 houses, if a farming family from one house decides to ignore the insects in its fields, they will multiply and migrate to the other fields as well, and the hardworking familiesall 99 of themcould end up with nothing to harvest. This example shows why a rice-farming society tends to stifle individual traits that do not fit in with the plans of the community as a whole.
The problem is that working as part of a group can inhibit the development of new products. Why stick your neck out and try to make something different, if nobody else in the community is doing so? In the West, developers are driven by the commonly held notion that if they think of something new, and if, through their own efforts, they create something no one else has thought of, they will deserve all of the profit. In Japan, people are not motivated in the same way. The big challenge facing the Japanese in the 21st century is to embrace two seemingly contradictory mindsets: a respect for the traditional values of an efficient communal farming society, and a desire to let individual creativity flower.
Note: Ninomiya Sontoku stressed the benefits of agriculture. During the first half of the 19th century, he showed how agricultural yields could be improved through hard work, thrift and cooperation. His methods helped revive the economy of farming villages. Born into a poor farming family, he studied on his own from an early age. His dedication and achievements have earned him the admiration of many Japanese people.