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On Bowing Back to Japan

April 27, 1986|JACK MILES | Times Book Editor

Recent books on Japan tend to read like a call to arms. Two such are Gary Jacobson and John Hillkirk's "Xerox: American Samurai" (Macmillan), to be published in May, and Robert Sobel's "IBM vs. Japan, the Struggle for the Future" (Stein & Day), published in February. Both seek to draw lessons from the experience of embattled American companies that seem to be winning their battles. Both, unintentionally, may teach another kind of lesson.

Xerox--once, if we are to believe Jacobson and Hillkirk, all but vanquished in the copier business--has stormed back by beating the Japanese at their own manufacturing game. The techniques that initially enabled the Japanese to pull ahead, Jacobson and Hillkirk say, were three: superior relationships with vendors, quality control right on the assembly line (as opposed to quality checking at the end of the line), and "just-in-time manufacturing," the computerized provision of parts so that staff and equipment always are used at 100% of capacity. Xerox has duplicated (or improved on) all three.

In Sobel's account of IBM's struggle with the Japanese, marketing strategy counts for more than manufacturing technique. The Japanese, Sobel says, "study the market, license technology when necessary, and then produce low-priced, high-quality goods, the aim being market share rather than immediate profits. This done, the Japanese upgrade, expand profit margins and await the inevitable complaints from the domestic companies. They counter threats of tariffs and quotas by establishing cooperative agreements and opening factories in the host country." IBM's relative success in holding the Japanese at bay, Sobel says, is that they have recognized this strategy in time, anticipated it where possible and matched it as a competitor within the Japanese market itself.

Both of these books make an honest contribution to the American understanding of the Japanese challenge. Both are written for the layman rather than only for those whose business it is to sell copiers or computers. Jacobson and Hillkirk's may be the livelier of the two, but Sobel, too, tells an interesting, even a gripping story, one that involves Europe as well as America and Japan.

And yet neither book, so far as I can tell, was written with any knowledge of the Japanese language or any acquaintance with Japanese culture apart from its business manifestation. And therein lies an enormous--if also an instructive--limitation.

"You don't have to know (fill in the language). They all speak English over there anyway." What American tourist has not heard these cheery words on the eve of his departure? But, when competition rather than recreation is in prospect, were more naive words ever spoken? No, friend, you don't have to learn the language, so long as you are content to know only what they want you to know. But bear in mind that if the Japanese had taken that attitude toward English, they would still be peddling wind-up toys. And if the Americans continue to take the same attitude, they may end up selling wind-up toys.

Jacobson and Hillkirk, otherwise sophisticated writers for two American newspapers, announce smugly in their preface: "We'd come 7,000 miles to see things relatively few Americans have ever seen before. 'Generally speaking, we keep things classified,' said Canon's Keizo Yamaji, chief executive for copiers. 'For you, we disclose everything. You are very unusual visitors. And you were shown many places we don't show.' "

The stream of journalistic books on Japan suggests that the American reporters were not such very unusual visitors at all. And as for the "everything" that was disclosed to them, one can only wonder: How would they know? Could they test what the genial Keizo Yamajis of the Japanese copying industry told them by interviewing employees, by doing the kind of independent field work that they would have done as a matter of course in the United States?

One has to doubt it; and what goes for journalists has, at least until very recently, gone for businessmen as well. In the late '70s, it was estimated that there were 10,000 English-speaking Japanese businessmen in America, but only 200 Japanese-speaking American businessmen in Japan.

Neither Sobel nor Jacobson and Hillkirk denies that apprenticeship to America has been a key part of the Japanese success. Japanese quality control is the brainchild of William Edwards Deming, an American engineer who went to Japan in 1946, having failed to win many American converts to his do-it-right-the-first-time manufacturing philosophy. (The Japanese now give an annual Deming Prize for industrial innovation.) But when Deming lectured in Japan, he spoke English, not Japanese, and Jacobson and Hillkirk never stop to think about that. Neither does Sobel when he recalls Peter Drucker expounding his theories of management and marketing to Japanese executives.

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