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Why Japan's monozukuri continues to thriveWestern emphasis on competition versus Japanese embrace of co-existence

March 11, 2014  Hiroyuki Tsuruoka

 This article first appeared in Japanese on JBpress on February 3. You can read it here.

The high quality of Japanese goods is world famous, with consumers choosing Japanese cars or electronics over cheaper or locally-made alternatives. This quality stems from the Japanese culture of monozukuri. The word simply means making things, but is infused with a deeper impression of skilled craftsmen pouring heart and soul into their work, striving for perfection regardless of time or cost. Picture a watchmaker spending hours working with a magnifying glass and tiny parts; that is the essence of monozukuri. JBpress' Deputy Editor-in-Chief Hiroyuki Tsuruoka speaks with Kazuyoshi Suzuki, an expert in the history of monozukuri, to explain how Japanese industry has avoided the ‘hollowing out' that has plagued Western economies.

Japan's National Museum of Emerging Science and Innovation is holding a special exhibition called THE SEKAI-ICHI – Unique Inspirations "Made in Japan" until May 6. The exhibition is displaying some 200 artifacts representing the best of Japanese monozukuri and technology, from ancient traditional techniques such as the art of Tatara iron making, to innovations developed by Japan such as Cup Noodles instant ramen and the Walkman, to massive projects such as the construction of the Tokyo Skytree.

THE SEKAI-ICHI – Unique Inspirations "Made in Japan" exhibition (Photo credits: National Museum of Emerging Science and Innovation)

"We want more people to learn about how Japan's natural features, culture and history cultivate our spirituality and aesthetics and connect to our leading position in manufacturing," explains the Museum of Emerging Science and Innovation's Mahoro Uchida. By showing the cultural and historical background to the special features of Japan's modern technology the exhibition showcases the essence of Japan itself.

The artifacts of this exhibition are all about being the best in the world: world's first; world's only; best in the world; largest global share, etc. Although the decline of Japan's global competitiveness in manufacturing has long been lamented, seeing this exhibition will encourage Japanese and help the country regain confidence.

I spoke with Kazuyoshi Suzuki, Head of the Division of History of Science and Technology at Japan's National Museum of Nature and Science, to hear what is special about Japanese manufacturing, and where those unique characteristics come from.

Why quality of Japanese monozukuri is too high

Kazuyoshi Suzuki: "Although high quality is a characteristic of Japanese monozukuri, the quality is actually too high. We raise our quality standards so high that other countries wonder why we go to such lengths. This is why we lose out to countries that make things more cheaply.

However, the reason we make things with too much quality isn't because we desire more profit, but because we want to make better things and things that people find useful. There is a feeling of wanting to make the best things we can for the same cost. Japanese monozukuri is infused with that philosophy."

Japan and the West walking different paths

Exhibition staff and Kazuyoshi Suzuki (center). On the left is Keiko Suzuki, in charge of event planning at the Museum of Emerging Science and Innovation, and on the right is Mahoro Uchida, who planned the event.

Tsuruoka: "Most advanced countries are experiencing a ‘hollowing out' of their manufacturing sectors."

Suzuki: "That's true, but the Japanese manufacturing base is experiencing nothing of the sort.

Actually, Japan is the only advanced country that maintains an annual steel production of over 100 million tons. Steel and concrete are primarily produced in countries that are in the process of developing and constructing a lot of buildings, yet even with Japan as built-up as it is, it is still producing over 100 million tons of steel per year.

This is because Japanese monozukuri has not faded away. And this is why steel makers are still viable as providers of materiel and continue to produce.

For instance, a company called Kono Seisakujo has developed a needle for medical use only 30 microns thick. This ground-breaking needle makes it possible to suture tiny capillary blood vessels, hitherto nearly impossible. Because Japan continues to make things like this steel makers can continue to produce.

Since the 1980s the West has been aiming to develop a post-manufacturing economy. They held on to only the core and proceeded to standardize and mass-produce the rest, creating a structure for increasing earnings without holding onto their factories. Mass-production also advanced in electronics and semiconductors. For example, around the year 2000 Japan had a nearly 100 percent share of the global DVD player market, but with mass-production everyone became able to make them and Japan's share quickly fell to around 20 percent.

But some of these suffering electronics makers are refocusing on sectors where they have advantages to become a unique, 'only one' in that field."

Japanese monozukuri doesn't crush competitors

Suzuki: "Rather than wanting to be number one, monozukuri companies in Japan have had an extremely strong desire to be the 'only one.' The exhibition introduces a lot of unique companies like this.

Because industries with markets worth over 10 trillion or 100 trillion yen are hotly contested around the world, it is impossible for one country's companies to take it all. There's no way Japanese auto makers could make all the world's automobiles.

However, among the companies introduced at this exhibition, and especially the SMEs, many have dominant shares in sectors with market values less than 100 billion yen. They have built up and are surviving in their own specialty areas.

So far, I think that the desire to be the ‘only one' has suited the Japanese people. To put it bluntly, the West's method is to crush your competitors until you become number one; mass-produce and take the market in one go. In contrast, Japanese monozukuri doesn't aim to destroy competitors, instead preserving each company's identity and competing in co-existence. This is why Japan has been able to foster so many auto makers.

Today, all Japanese makers, whether large companies or SMEs, want to have their own unique technology. I believe that this is due to the attitude and values held by Japanese manufacturers."

A country that uses cutting-edge technology for fun

Tsuruoka: "Historically, what have the characteristics of Japanese monozukuri been?"

A karakuri automaton, circa 1800. British Museum. (Wikipedia)

Suzuki: "Manufacturing was originally something done for a small number of influential people. In war, the people with better manufacturing technology were the victors, which meant that wars usually stimulated technological development. Looking over world history, in the Western world technology for the common people was born with the industrial revolution in the 19th century.

In Japan, however, it began to be popularized in the 16th and 17th centuries. Japan's Edo period was peaceful, so guns were discarded as unnecessary. Because the craftsmen who made guns needed work, they made spades and hoes instead. By making different types optimized for various users and applications, Japan came to have the world's widest variety of spades and hoes. This made Japan a very rare example of a society with popularized technology in that era.

If you look at karakuri ningyo mechanical dolls you can see what Japanese in the Edo period were thinking. They used technology to make people smile. I don't think there are many countries besides Japan that have used cutting-edge technology for fun."

How to retain characteristics of monozukuri that shouldn't change

Tsuruoka: "Will these characteristics of Japanese monozukuri change?"

Suzuki: "The characteristics of Japanese monozukuri include elements that change with time, but we have to keep in mind how to retain the elements that should not change.

There is a reason why the artifacts on display at this exhibition were made in Japan. There is obviously the cultural and historical background, but the direct reason is that the materials and technology were all present here in Japan. If an SME is able to make things at the micron level it is because there is good steel, cutting implements and manufacturing technology in Japan.

We must treasure our manufacturing base. I believe that if we can, Japanese monozukuri will be perpetually needed in the world."

Hiroyuki Tsuruoka is Deputy Editor-in-Chief of JBpress.

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