*NEWS*JAPAN IN STEW OVER RECALLS
*NEWS*JAPAN IN STEW OVER RECALLS
2006-09-28 at 10:42:00 am #16526
Japan in stew over recalls
TOKYO — Perhaps only in Japan could a television series like Project X have become one of the most popular TV shows. No, it isn’t a science fiction thriller. It’s about product quality.More specifically, it’s about a bunch of corporate engineers who invented the handheld calculators and ink-jet printers that helped turn this nation into an industrial powerhouse.So little wonder that a recent surge in recalls of defective products has triggered national hand-wringing and soul-searching in radio talk shows, on the front pages of newspapers and in the hushed corridors of government ministries. Even in local noodle shops, the conversation turns to the bruised pride and fears that Japan may be losing its edge at a time when South Korea and China are breathing down its neck.“Craftsmanship was the best face that Japan had to show the world,” said Hideo Ishino, a 44-year-old lathe operator at an auto-parts factory in Kawasaki, an industrial city next to Tokyo. “Aren’t the Koreans making fun of us now ?”“It took us years to build up this reputation,” Kazumasa Mitani, 32, a co-worker, chimed in. “Now we see how fast we can lose it.”This, after all, is a country that has been obsessed with perfection. Tokyo’s sprawling subway and train networks run like clockwork, accurate to the minute. Television factories supply workers with rags to wipe down every new set, lest Japanese consumers return them if they find a single fingerprint. In supermarkets, many apples and melons are individually wrapped in protective plastic foam.So in the past two months, the national angst increased after large-scale recalls of defective products made by Toyota and Sony, the country’s two proudest corporate names. In the United States, product recalls occur so frequently that most are barely noticed. But in Japan, they have triggered something of a crisis in a country where manufacturing perfection is part of the national identity.The finger-pointing has no main culprit. Some say young Japanese are too lazy. Others say American-style management is to blame.The spate of bad news has not stopped. Sony recently suffered another blow when Toshiba announced that it was recalling 340, 000 Sonymade laptop batteries, following last month’s recalls of 5. 9 million batteries. And Toyota, which has seen a soaring number of recalls in recent years, said Wednesday that it would hire 8, 000 more engineers to strengthen quality.Some in Japan admit that Americans may find the fuss perplexing. But Japan is the country that elevated the American quality guru W. Edwards Deming to virtual sainthood and conquered global markets with its eminently reliable cars, cameras and computers. For a time, American and European executives even flocked to the country to learn Japanese quality-control concepts like “kaizen,” or “improvement.”World-leading craftsmanship became so central to the nation’s self-image that many Japanese seem to have trouble imagining their country without it. The recalls are discussed in the same breath as Japan’s rising rates of crime and juvenile delinquency and other signs that the nation’s tightly woven social fabric may be starting to fray.In the news media, Sony’s and Toyota’s quality problems have frequently topped coverage of wars in Iraq and Lebanon. And Nihon Keizai Shimbun, the leading economic daily, began a front-page investigative series this month called “Can Japan Protect Quality ?”“Toyota and Sony have been a wake-up call that something is amiss in Japan,” said Takamitsu Sawa, an economics professor at Ritsumeikan University in Kyoto. “Japan seems to have lost something important on the way to becoming a developed country, and many Japanese want to get that back.”One of those is Toshihiro Nikai, Japan’s trade minister, who twice last month took unusually blunt steps in this nation that normally recoils from confrontation. He sent letters to Sony executives ordering them to report on quality-control improvements after back-to-back recalls by Apple and Dell of faulty Sony-made laptop batteries. Sony promised to comply and diligently sent employees to receive the letters by hand. It was the first time such orders had ever been issued to Sony.“This is very rare,” said Atsuo Hirai, assistant chief at the trade ministry’s information product safety section. Rarer still was the fact that a few weeks earlier, the transport ministry issued similar orders to Toyota.Hiroshi Okuda, the retired chairman of Toyota and elder statesman of Japan’s business world, called on his countrymen to do more about what he saw as the declining competitiveness of Japanese manufacturing.“Japan lacks a sufficient sense of crisis,” he warned last month.
The sense of crisis has moved even into the classroom.
Japan’s schools, once lauded for their hard-working students and sharp-penciled test takers, have seen test scores fall recently below such countries as Singapore, South Korea and Finland. So, dozens of educators at elementary and high schools across Japan are sounding alarms about declining standards.At Ritsumeikan Elementary School in Kyoto, the aim is more discipline and memorization, so students now stand at attention every morning to recite in unison parts of ancient Confucian texts and other classics. They are timed to see how quickly they can regurgitate multiplication tables.“More self-control leads to a better work ethic,” says the school’s principal, Hideo Kageyama, who has written more than 30 drill workbooks, of which he said 4 million copies have been sold since 2002. “Our society’s future is at stake.”Japanese companies continue to dominate production of many high-tech products, from digital cameras and color copiers to solar cells and the delicate optics used to etch circuits onto most of the world’s computer chips. And despite its problems, Toyota still appears on track to dethrone flailing General Motors as the world’s largest carmaker in the next year or two.“They’ll learn from their mistakes,” said Yuji Fujimori, an electronics analyst in Tokyo for Goldman Sachs.Still, Sony’s problems have not been limited to batteries. The company worked furiously over the summer to improve problems in production of its PlayStation 3, its widely awaited game console due out in November.“If asked if Sony’s manufacturing ability has declined, at this point today I have to say yes,” said Ken Kutaragi, chief executive of Sony’s video game division.Various reasons crop up as possible explanations for declining quality. Universities bemoan that new students are more interested in literature and the liberal arts than engineering. Applicants to engineering programs are down to 8. 7 percent of all university applicants this year from 12. 3 percent eight years ago.“In the old days, there were a lot of students who wanted to join the front lines of manufacturing, and really gave it their all,” said Chitoshi Miki, an executive vice president in charge of student education at the Tokyo Institute of Technology, one of the nation’s top engineering universities. “Now, no one even wants to break a sweat.”Others have begun to blame recent American-style management changes, like the end of traditional lifetime job guarantees. Fujitsu, the electronics maker, has backed away from basing salaries on individual performance, saying it hurt employee morale and undermined teamwork.As Japan wrings its hands, say some economists, Asian competitors have been closing in. Lee Kwang-hoon, an electronics analyst at Hanhwa Securities in Seoul, said that the recall of Sony-made batteries could offer an opportunity for the biggest Korean makers, Samsung and LG, to rival Sony in market share.“The biggest change may not be that Japan has dropped in quality,” said Masaru Kaneko, an economics professor at Keio University in Tokyo, “but that Asia is catching up.”