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Date: Thursday September 28, 2006 10:43:00 am | Views: 103
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    Japan in stew over recalls
    — 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.
    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.”

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