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    Posted by Sean at 08:23, March 11th, 2011

    So now we wait. They’re expecting more aftershocks, there are tsunamis moving, and they were talking about landslides, so it’s possible that there will be more injuries and deaths, but so far things don’t seem to have been as horrible as they might have been. We can likely thank human ingenuity for that: Miyagi Prefecture is a known earthquake zone, and the city of Sendai improved the shut-off systems on its gas lines based on knowledge gained from the fires after the Hanshin quake in 1995. We can also thank luck: the Niigata earthquake in 2006 happened after a particularly wet summer, so there was a lot of earth liquefaction. The Hanshin earthquake happened early in the morning, so a lot of people were cooking breakfast. The earthquake yesterday happened in mid-afternoon on a weekday, so probably the greatest possible number of people one could hope for were in sturdy buildings for work.

    In Sendai itself, the surface shaking was a 6 on the JMA scale:

    6 upper – In many buildings, wall tiles and windowpanes are damaged and fall. Most unreinforced concrete-block walls collapse. 315 — 400 gal

    6 lower – In some buildings, wall tiles and windowpanes are damaged and fall. 250 — 315 gal

    At the epicenter, the less populous city of Kurihara, it was a 7, which basically means anything can fall down.

    The Nikkei is now reporting 60 confirmed deaths and says that the environs of the Fukushima nuclear power plant are being evacuated. Before they’d reported no leaks; I hope they’re just being cautious.

    News is going to be grim for a while, but there’s a lot the Japanese know about fighting the caprices of the weather and geology gods; that knowledge has already held down damage, and I’m sure we’ll be hearing plenty of stories over the next few days in which it minimizes human losses also.

    Added later: The Nikkei‘s little news-crawl function says that some of Tokyo’s private commuter-rail and subway lines are running their last trains for the night. Over 200 bodies already recovered in Sendai. Also—I somehow hadn’t noticed this before—the vibrations in the main quake apparently lasted for two minutes. By comparison, the Kobe quake lasted twenty seconds. But, again, Sendai was ready in ways Kobe was not. For Japan, Kobe was not considered an earthquake zone, so building and land-reclamation codes and disaster plans were insufficient. Response from the federal government was also slack, with private organizations (including the yakuza) upstaging Tokyo by distributing water and supplies while it was still getting its act together.

    When you study classical Japanese, you memorize the opening of the Hojoki. (It’s like reading Caesar in Latin class.) The Japanese often cite these lines in times of disaster:


    The flow of the running river is unceasing, yet the waters are not constant. Where it pools, the foam that floats up, now vanishing, now gathering, at no time lasts for any length. Man and his dwellings in this world are in every way the same.

    The Japanese have a very moving tradition of awareness of the impermanence of life and of stoicism in the face of loss, as the above shows. But there’s a balancing tradition of jaw-setting discipline and tough-mindedness when there’s work to be done. Happily, buildings made of concrete reinforced with rebar against shear are a lot less like foam on the shifting waters than the houses of old. And if disaster response has improved as much since Kobe, Niigata, and the last Sendai quake as we’ve been promised it has, yesterday’s victims are in good hands.

    BTW, thanks to those who’ve written to ask whether everyone I know is okay. I’d heard (or at least read a Facebook post) from just about everyone this morning before work. And I just got a message from Atsushi, who walked the two hours home from Aoyama but is fine. Like everyone else, he’s remarking on how many perceptible aftershocks there’ve been. One friend of mine said it feels like living on a giant waterbed.


    Posted by Sean at 08:28, December 8th, 2010

    I thought I’d have a chance to post something yesterday after responding briefly to Julie’s last comment, but I didn’t, so this is the day after the Pearl Harbor Anniversary.

    Japan attacked us, banking on, among other things, America’s willingness to let it keep most of the territory it had then colonized. It was our grandparents’ job to beat Japan, and they did it. Decisively. I’m glad we’re allies now, but I’m also glad America did what it had to to win then.

    Old ワイン in new ボトル

    Posted by Sean at 18:27, October 27th, 2010

    The New York Times is running a series of articles about Japan and how people are adjusting to the realization that the economy is probably permanently screwed. The first installment may be lame simply because it’s an overview and therefore doesn’t have room for reporter Martin Fackler to dig into anything specifically. It doesn’t look promising, though. Read it, and you learn the following:

    •   Property values have never really recovered since they nosedived in 1991, so mortgage holders are in sorry shape.

    •   The lifetime-employment system is in shreds, so lots of young people do unstable freelance work and are very anxious about the future.
    •   Deflation means no one wants to take entrepreneurial risks. Such new businesses as are arising are designed to help people weasel their way out of debt.
    •   People aren’t buying expensive clothes, weddings, houses, and nights out anymore.

    All right, you say, none of this is new, but the reporter isn’t trying to argue that it is; he’s arguing that Japan has reached some sort of turning point in how people are responding to it. It’s been two decades since the bursting of the Bubble, and with the world economy now suffering, Japan’s fatalism has deepened perceptibly.

    That sounds fine, but the article doesn’t bear it out. There’s nothing in it that Michael Zielenziger couldn’t have written in his sleep ten years ago, and Fackler surely knows that. (IIRC, he has degrees in Asian studies and has spent his career in Asia.)

    After years of complacency, Japan appears to be waking up to its problems, as seen last year when disgruntled voters ended the virtual postwar monopoly on power of the Liberal Democratic Party. However, for many Japanese, it may be too late. Japan has already created an entire generation of young people who say they have given up on believing that they can ever enjoy the job stability or rising living standards that were once considered a birthright here.

    “Waking up to” implies something in progress but relatively new, but that’s very misleading. In fact, voters have been reform-minded since at least the Koizumi administration. His ascendancy took place within the LDP, yes, but it was widely seen as giving hope that the old guard would be swept aside and needed changes would be made. The LDP won by a landslide when Koizumi declared that he was making the 2005 snap election a referendum on Japan Post privatization. And NHK (the last entity in the archipelago to find out about any new trend, much like the NYT Style Section) has been running programs for well over a decade about the increase in the number of freeters among young people, the failure of property values to recover since the Bubble, the rise of bargain-hunting chic, and the decline in whoopee-making in Japan’s most exclusive entertainment districts. Japan may be experiencing a new and noteworthy crisis of confidence, but you can’t support that by trundling out tired cliches about empty boutiques full of “Sale” signs.

    Not to be outdone, the WaPo this week had an exquisitely vacuous story about changes in Japanese manhood. Men are getting more insecure but also more cuddly, don’t you know:

    To hear the analysts who study them tell it, Japanese men ages 20 to 34 are staging the most curious of rebellions, rejecting the 70-hour workweeks and purchase-for-status ethos that typified the 1980s economic boom. As the latest class of college graduates struggles to find jobs, a growing number of experts are detecting a problem even broader than unemployment: They see a generation of men who don’t know what they want.

    Japan earned its fortune a generation ago through the power of office warriors, the so-called salarymen who devoted their careers to one company. They wore dark suits; they joined for rowdy after-hours booze fests with co-workers; they often saw little of their families. These are the fathers of Japan’s young men.

    But among business leaders and officials, there is a growing understanding that the earlier work-for-fulfillment pattern has broken down. The economy’s roar turned into a yawn. Concern about Japan’s future replaced giddy national pride. As a result, this generation has lost “the willingness to sacrifice for the company,” said Jeff Kingston, author of the recently published book “Contemporary Japan.”

    Kingston added: “And now as Japan begins to unravel in a sense, young people realize that the previous paradigm doesn’t work. But they aren’t sure what comes next. They’ve seen what amounts to a betrayal in Japan.”

    For the love of Amaterasu: “A growing number of experts”? “A growing understanding”?! Restructuring and downsizing entered the Japanese vocabulary as unwelcome buzzwords when I was in college, which was not yesterday. The Long-Term Credit Bank and Yamaichi Securities collapsed in 1997 (later than when I was in college, but also not yesterday). For over a decade, the Japanese media have been chock-a-block with stories about creepy unattached young men and their stuffed animals, brassy unattached young women with no intention of starting families, and various other indications that young Japanese men are turning out to be soft, rudderless, unmarriageable, borderline-autistic pussies. (The clothing thing is particularly comical to read about, since reporter Chico Harlan’s colleague was already writing silly, ill-supported crap about the deeper meanings of new Japanese men’s fashion five years ago.)

    So the idea that insecurity about the future is something we’re just getting around to noticing is malarkey. Like Fackler, Harlan may have good reason to think that Japanese manhood is reaching some sort of significant transition point right now, but memes that have been around since the Lost Decade are not evidence for that. Harlan also demonstrates no awareness that, going back at least to the Heian Period, Japanese culture does not consider it unmanful to be somewhat dandyish or to take an interest in the decorative arts. If elder Japanese frown on guys who host dessert-tasting parties, it may be because having the leisure to do so suggests a lack of career focus rather than because the activity itself is feminine.

    Furthermore, “Japan earned its fortune a generation ago through the power of office warriors” is an inane statement. That a few internationally competitive companies were generating enough wealth to carry the inefficient domestic economy in which most workers were employed was understood ages ago. You can argue that efficiency is only one criterion among many for whether workers are being used well, but you’d be hard-pressed to argue that salarymen powered Japan’s fortune.

    The superficiality and lack of historical perspective here are frustrating because the questions raised are genuinely interesting and important. After the Japanese economy had sucked for ten years, there was talk that Japan was ready to bounce back. I remember the conversations: Koizumi had been elected. Korea had recovered from the 1997 Asian financial crisis by instituting hard but necessary reforms, demonstrating that a Tiger Economy similar to Japan’s could manage it. The federal ministries were being restructured to make them more efficient. Trade with a rising China promised to open new doors.

    And then it just kind of didn’t happen. The Japanese set their teeth and kept soldiering on, and ten years later they’ve made little progress. I think Fackler and Harlan are very probably right to say that the Japanese attitude toward the future has hardened from anxiety into real fear, but neither of them seems to want to ask the really thorny questions about where the problems lie. Quotations from economic analysts whiz in and out of each article like late-summer yellowjackets, but they’re never really dealt with.

    I would love to see an enterprising reporter from one of the major news organizations go to all these people who used to man-crush on Japan’s technocratic leaders—the Ezra Vogel and Eamonn Fingleton types—and ask them what genius moves they propose now. When Japan was betting correctly on which industries to pour resources into, it could afford the weak-people-strong-state practices it became famous for: mutual shareholding, proportional reductions, lifetime employment, makework office jobs used to keep the unemployment rate down, a ridiculously hypertrophied construction industry, shut-up-and-copy schooling. The economic devastation of the war was a recent memory, and wealth kept rising. People had good incentives to muster superhuman discipline and perform their roles as worker ants.

    Unfortunately, once the Japan Inc. brain trust started erring, it couldn’t change. Lines of authority were often unclear, and where they were clear, there were too many federal bureaucrats and favored-industry bigwigs with stakes in the existing system to make reform possible. The Japanese system rewards long-range planning and does whatever it can to avoid surprises. Not surprisingly, it’s proven brittle. If having wise technocrats in charge of things was going to work sustainably anywhere, it was going to be homogeneous, educated, rule-loving, diligent Japan. But the collective smarts of the grads of the University of Tokyo Faculty of Laws have not proved a match for a dynamic world market. And a risk-shunning citizenry turns out to be a serious liability when, as Fackler notes at the end of his piece before discreetly concluding it, creative destruction is the only way forward. The best that can be said about both these articles is that they’re consistent with their subject matter: Fackler and Harlan are as unable to break with fruitless established patterns (in their case, of plying American audiences with cliches about Deeply Conflicted Post-Bubble Japan) as Japan has been.


    Posted by Sean at 20:03, August 21st, 2010

    The Japanese federal government is adding an agency for food safety:

    On 21 August, the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries began a study to the possible end of establishing an “agency for food-product safety,” with centralized oversight of the safety of food products, as early as autumn 2011. The new organization would merge an arm of MAFF’s Food Safety and Consumer Affairs Bureau and the Ministry of Health, Labour and Welfare’s Food Department of Food Safety, and the plan most likely [to be enacted] is to establish it as an external agency to MAFF. The goal is to submit proposed revisions to the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries Establishment Act during the regular Diet session next year.

    A system will be created that, by merging functions and eliminating the deleterious effects of vertically segregated administration, will enable rapid response even when problems such as fraudulent labeling of origin or ingredients arise.

    The issues that most stick in the Japanese memory, naturally, seem to involve sources of foreign food products: Starlink and BSE, for example. Whether those actually exposed Japanese consumers to potential harm has been seriously questioned. The more frequent practice of altering use-by dates.

    I don’t mean to make Japan sound like some sort of food-contamination horror show. It’s not. Society is advanced and runs well, and particularly in cities such as Tokyo, your complaint is likely to be that the produce and meat are so disturbingly perfect that they seem to have been developed for a magazine shoot rather than for human consumption. But problems do crop up, and the government does need to step in and protect citizens from being victimized.

    I’m not sure that shuffling around some agencies is going to work, though. Tokyo already tried that in 2001, with it’s vaunted major overhaul of the federal ministry system, when MHLW itself was created through the mergers of the previous ministries of labor and of health and welfare. MAFF wasn’t reconstituted, but I think it had an agency or two added to it? Anyway, all that was supposed to be the big move that eliminated the deleterious effects of having the same function siloed off in several random places. It hasn’t been a conspicuous success, though I don’t think Japan’s any worse off than it was with the old system. It doesn’t seem likely that a new agency will really do better at ensuring the the Japan Agricultural Standard (JAS) is enforced, but it will probably sound like good news to consumers.

    Can’t beat the feeling

    Posted by Sean at 02:22, July 9th, 2010

    It’s kind of hard to make me unhappy lately, because this weekend there was a




    Seriously, is she the first disco diva ever to think of calling an album “Aphrodite”?…because that’s just genius in its obviousness…although, to keep the conceit going, I guess Track 10 should have been called “Eros Boy,” not “Cupid Boy.” Anyway, whatever things are called, who can get upset when there’s a new Kylie album to listen to?

    Okay, I guess this from Ezra Klein did rankle me just a little (via Megan McArdle):

    I can’t decide whether the right introduction to this post is “I’m moving to Japan” or “I’m not moving to Japan.”

    The chairman of Toyota makes $1.5 million. The CEO of Toyota makes less than $1.1 million. So does everyone at Panasonic. More here. It’s a reminder that CEOs aren’t just paid what the market will bear, they’re paid what the culture will accept.

    Let me help you out with that, dear man: You’re just in your mid-20s and have bypassed a lot of your more accomplished elders to land a high-profile, influential position at an established company. Trust me—you of all people in America would not want to move to Japan.

    Yes, fine—Klein thinks he’s just talking about CEOs. But the thing is, as many of McArdle’s commenters point out, Japanese senior-management compensation is part of its overall system. It’s not particularly illuminating to talk about what “the culture” is going to “accept” without weighing the actual strictures that the culture imposes.

    Japan prizes Organization Men. The educational system is designed to push as many people as possible into becoming capable, adaptable ladder-climbers in whatever occupations they sort themselves into. That means, as Japan’s scores on standardized tests in math indicate, that it does a good job of pulling lower achievers up; but it also tamps down the aspirations of the unusually gifted, especially if their gifts are of a quirky nature. (In my experience, when Japanese people talk about what they “dream” of doing, they’re almost always referring to pure fantasies they have no intention of even trying to realize.) You get ahead in Japan by doggedly doing exactly what is asked of you, lavishly deferring to your superiors, and ensuring that you don’t stand out among your peers too much. Plugging away and being detail-oriented are rewarded with a slow, steady rise up the hierarchy. But it’s nearly impossible to skip strata, even if you have the native aptitude and rack up the accomplishments to do so. When Shuji Nakamura invented diodes that paved the way for blue lasers and was rewarded with a hail of top technology prizes, he ended up having to sue Nichia for his bonus. From the point of view of the company, he was a grunt researcher; he was supposed to give credit to the company, go back to the lab, and keep plugging away. (He took a job as a professor at UC Santa Barbara instead.)

    IP is an evolving field, and generalizing from it to the private sector at large is often unwise. Nevertheless, Nakamura’s case is representative of the “culture” Klein refers to. It’s not just that top managers don’t get to make tankerloads of money they may not deserve; it’s that even people who do accomplish great things do without the recognition they do deserve, and people factor that into their goals for themselves. The geezers are expected to occupy all the positions of authority and power, and because they worked their way up to them so methodically, they tend to be ill-inclined to take nervy chances on new ideas or younger talent (or even on ideas that have worked and are considered venerable elsewhere but have never been tried in Japan). Japan is by no means the nation of automatons it’s frequently made out to be by reductive Western commentary, but Japanese society really is geared toward keeping everyone in line in ways many of its foreign cheerleaders wouldn’t sit still for, in their own lives, for ten minutes together. “The market” and “the culture” aren’t so easily differentiated as Klein’s verbal formulation makes them out to be.

    Some Japan stuff

    Posted by Sean at 11:54, April 18th, 2010

    If the plane-grounding Icelandic ash cloud hasn’t been sufficient reminder of how vulnerable we are to nature’s vagaries (and how fortunate that we have such an extensive technological arsenal to protect ourselves), check out this story about Japan’s vegetable shortages:

    The government is calling on farmers to speed up vegetable deliveries after cold weather and lack of sunlight led to a poor spring crop and spiking vegetable prices.

    “The vegetables prices may remain high for the foreseeable future. We’d like to ask farmers to bring forward their shipments in a bid to stabilize retail prices,” Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries Minister Hirotaka Akamatsu told a news conference following a regular Cabinet meeting Friday morning.

    Also on Friday, the Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries Ministry asked the National Federation of Agricultural Co-operative Associations to bring forward vegetable shipments. Consumer organizations as well as the ministry have also asked farmers to ship malformed vegetables that are usually discarded.

    However, noting the measure will have only limited effects, government sources say they fear vegetable prices are unlikely to decline until May or later, and farmers pointed out that complying with demands for early shipment is difficult.

    “We harvested lettuce and other vegetables earlier than usual in response to an increase in demand from the restaurant industry during the spring vacation period. Even if we are asked to bring forward shipments, it’s difficult to comply,” said an official of the Ibaraki Prefecture chapter of the agricultural federation.

    Shredded lettuce and cabbage come with nearly everything in Japan: you walk into a little restaurant, and the waitress plunks down a small bowl of shredded cabbage and carrots with ginger dressing as your o-tooshi-mono. That there would be a shortage of them is really unsettling. Of course, Japan isn’t facing a famine—you’ll notice that one proposal for making up the difference is just not rejecting too many misshapen cabbages, which is a problem the DPRK would have loved to have around a decade ago. Still, the story is a good reminder of how intricate our supply and distribution systems are. (Of course, you could also take the opportunity to bring up Japan’s insane agricultural-subsidy system, but I’m feeling generous today.)


    It’s a few days old, but the Asahi English site had a good rundown of what’s led up to the current confusion—impasse doesn’t seem to be quite the best word—over the relocation of the Futenma facility in Okinawa:

    U.S. officials certainly have no intention of jeopardizing the decades-long alliance with Japan, but there is growing concern and frustration at the lack of a meeting of minds on such important matters of mutual concern.

    Hatoyama broached the issue of the relocation of the U.S. Marines Corps Air Station Futenma in Okinawa Prefecture during a short meeting with Obama on the sidelines of the Nuclear Security Summit in the U.S. capital on Monday. Neither Japan nor the United States explained how Obama responded.

    What did come across, however, is that the meeting did not change the U.S. government’s position, which is that the best solution to the Futenma issue lies with a 2006 agreement reached by the two nations to relocate the base to the Henoko district of Nago, also in Okinawa Prefecture.

    Behind this extremely defensive and careful approach of the U.S. government is its resolve not to make the same mistake of 2005, when Washington compromised and accepted current Henoko option.

    During those negotiations, U.S. officials for a long time advocated a plan to construct a replacement facility on a landfill off the south coast of Henoko, Nago city. This plan was commonly known as “Nago Light.” However, during the final stage of the talks, U.S. officials abandoned it and accepted instead the Japanese proposal to build the new facility on the coastline of Camp Schwab at Henoko point.

    Richard Lawless, who negotiated the agreement for the United States as deputy undersecretary of defense, recalled his decision to go along with his Japanese counterparts.

    “They guaranteed that they can implement the proposal,” Lawless said. “I made sure about this point with several people in charge (in the Japanese government) a number of times.”

    Four years after the agreement was reached, the Japanese government has done an about-turn and told Washington the Henoko option cannot be implemented. Japan’s turnaround frustrated not only Lawless, but also current U.S. administration officials. They also share a deep sense of mistrust over Hatoyama’s frequent flip-flops on this issue.

    It’s very difficult to assign blame in this scenario. It’s not possible to indulge the NIMBY-ism of every municipality, but it’s understandable that many towns don’t want the side-effects of a military installation. I’m very much a supporter of the military, but it’s a plain and simple fact that putting a lot of hopped-up kids in their early twenties far from home—in an environment of literal martial discipline in which their violent impulses are deliberately brought to the surface so they can be channeled to useful purposes—nearly guarantees an increase in crime and a tense relationship with the locals, whatever job-creating benefits may come along with the installation. Washington wants the existing agreement to be implemented; Tokyo seems to see the new administrations in both countries as an opportunity to restart negotiations practically from square one. Neither seems likely to have all its expectations met.


    Sugarpie, I have just found the must-have camp accessory of the year:

    Herman Van Rompuy, the European Union’s first permanent president, has published his first anthology of haiku poems.

    Van Rompuy, a former prime minister of Belgium, said here Thursday that he hopes to compose haiku when he is in Tokyo for the annual EU-Japan Summit, which convenes April 28.

    The book, titled “Haiku,” contains 45 haiku he wrote in Dutch and which have been translated into English, French, German and Latin.

    Can you just…?

    A new commission–
    the joy of its formation
    like freshest spring rains


    Indifference from
    sassy Yank colonials–
    our cries sad, owl-like!


    Dry cicada shell–
    an easy relationship
    would be so empty

    Okay, in all seriousness, van Rompuy could be very good; but haiku is one of those genres that bring out the “I could do that!” dilettantism in people, and the results are nearly always irredeemably precious, in my experience. For some reason, the combination of shortness (not a major time investment!), nature themes (I love Nature—I’m a good person!”), and Japaneseness (aesthete capital of the world!) makes haiku hard to resist, but it also makes them difficult to execute well. Maybe Catherine Ashton will be flogging her first manga this summer?

    Added later: Thanks to Instapundit for the link. I have a half-dozen regular commenters who routinely agree with me, for which I am very grateful; but if you have a dissenting comment to make, I’ll be glad to read it, since I don’t get much dissent around here. (That’s not an aspersion, regular readers.) If you’re wondering where my interest in Japan comes from, I studied Japanese literature in college and grad school, and I lived in Tokyo from the ages of 24 to 36. I am unapologetically American down to the bone, but I love Japan also, and I’m very interested in seeing our alliance not screwed up.


    Posted by Sean at 17:54, March 26th, 2010

    Are you tired of worrying about what these new “reforms” are going to do to screw over America? Well, you’re in luck, because if you read this post, you can think about how they might screw over our loyal ally Japan.

    You feel better already, right? Consider it a present from me.

    The lead editorial in Wednesday’s Nikkei carried the headline “America’s direction after conclusion of historic health-care reform bill”:

    It’s an event that will surely leave a mark on US history. Sweeping reforms of health care, under consideration for years, have been realized through the leadership of President Obama. Word is that the bill passed by the United States Congress will allocate approximately 85 trillion yen over ten years and decrease the number of people uninsured by 3.2 million.

    On the other hand, there were almost as many votes against as for, with congresspersons, centered around the Republican Party, concerned about the tilt toward “big government.” It boosts taxes levied on the high-income brackets, and it gave rise to splits between left and right, high- and low-income brackets. That will have its effect on economic policy and policies toward Japan as well.

    In order to wipe out the clash of interests between high- and low-income strata, expanding the economy as a whole would be the best thing. It will also be necessary to promote growth in order to achieve real-term containment of the ballooning public-debt burden. The direction the Obama administration is taking will use growth as the driving force, in the next five years doubling exports rather than household consumption, which has taken a beating from the Lehman Shock.

    What’s the Nikkei afraid of? That the US, desperate to come up with money for this venture in egalitarianism, will start leaning on its trading partners to be more open to exports from here than they would otherwise have desired to be based on their own markets.

    In that context, there is the possibility that demands from the US toward its ally Japan will grow more stern. The backblow against Japanese products such as automobiles is forceful. There are also many fronts on which the opening of markets, such as that for agricultural products, is sought. Even if [Washington] continues to show concern for Japan, which has gone to a lot of trouble over the Futenma military facility, it’s also a fact that there’s less willingness to go the extra mile than before.

    Both the US and Japan have painful domestic situations on their hands. When affairs at home aren’t going well, it’s standard political practice, anywhere and everywhere, to draw the attention of the citizenry to foreign relations; however, the possibility cannot be ruled out that that will cause a rift in the US-Japan alliance if pushed too far. And that should be avoided. Not even for Japan will the wounds left on American society by the debate over health-care reform be someone else’s problem.

    Tokyo has little moral ground to claim when it comes to manipulating trading partners for the interests of its own enterprises, but the Nikkei itself is a pretty consistent supporter of free markets, so it seems unfair to wave away its concerns. The Japanese government knows a thing or two about mushrooming health-care entitlements squeezed from a shrinking pool of workers, so it’s no wonder it’s looking eastward and feeling afraid.


    Posted by Sean at 20:03, February 25th, 2010

    Via Hit and Run comes this hilarious summation of the current Toyota troubles:

    In fact, this problem with electronic braking came about because of federal pressure through CAFE standards, forcing manufacturers to make lighter cars. As they often do, politicians point their fingers at Big Bad Business. Now a memo has come to light showing that Toyota cut a deal with its Washington regulators on the braking issue last year. As is often the case when politicians point fingers, at least three fingers are pointing right back at them.

    A president who is the new owner/operator of GM yet who still aspires to rid the world of the combustion engine, Obama finds it easy to attack foreign-owned Toyota. The current administration must remember, however, that when U.S. Toyota sales decline, employees at Toyota plants all across the South lose their jobs.

    The global economy has done more to tie the world together than any “Kumbaya” political rhetoric. However, politicians clearly do not understand economics, or they would not be making all the bad, long-term decisions for our country that they have of late.

    I believe in the goodness of people and the free-markets to sort this mess out. Shared economic interest is a powerful motivator. What I do not believe in is the goodness of politicians to aid the process.

    One of the commenters shows up to give the usual rejoinder to such arguments:

    ya .although this is humor hart makes a point .For some reason we think that we have some right to buy a safe car.silly us.Profit is all that matters and saftey just gets in the way.And whats this cr@p about people thinking that the goverment is supposed to look after the countries wefare? It’s not like it’s in the constitution .

    A “right to buy a safe car” is an airy formulation that sounds nice but isn’t very useful. It’s the government’s job to protect its citizens from threats, including unsafe products that are fraudulently sold as safe products, sure. Did Toyota falsify data, though? And does it represent an external threat to the Republic? Even companies with high quality standards can, in completely honest ways, run into problems. New technology always means the potential for glitches that don’t surface immediately. That’s not to let Toyota off the hook for its slow and haphazard response to its recent problems, but it is to say that perfect “safety” is never going to be achieved.

    And it’s certainly not going to be achieved by the government that brought you such gems of undistorted candor as “jobs created or saved” and “you can keep your current plan.” Clear safety standards are a great goal, but the dense thicket of regulations that chokes enterprises in real life doesn’t necessarily meet it. In many industries, it’s hard to tell whether you’re even in compliance with the relevant regulations—sometimes different standards conflict, and you can’t meet one without violating another. (Lawyer friends tell me that’s especially true in environmental law.) And in any case, the more power Washington claims over business, the more incentive business has to lobby for special treatment that works to its own benefit while punishing competitors.

    If politicians righteously refused to play that game, they might have the ethical high ground from which to sermonize. But they don’t, and they don’t. And they’re not helped toward greater self-awareness by big-government supporters, who naturally treat the “profit” motive as venal and exploitative without considering that the “power-trip on using state coercion” motive may not necessarily be any less so.

    Toyota trust issues

    Posted by Sean at 19:09, February 24th, 2010

    This post touches on something that’s been making me queasy for quite a while about the Toyota scandal (via Instapundit):

    The bureaucrats and politicians in Washington are out to get Toyota because of ongoing recalls of the Japanese automaker’s popular vehicles. The House held one hearing yesterday, and another is scheduled for today. Toyota also is target of a U.S. criminal probe and a Securities and Exchange Commission investigation.

    That leaves Toyota owners like me in the predicament of choosing the bad guy in this scenario. Toyota may not be the good guy, but given the choice between incompetent government and a private company with a solid track record, I pick the government as the one to wear the black hat.

    Japan is a great place for consumer product safety in the sense that its manufacturers generally turn out reliable merchandise; however, it’s not such a great place for consumer product safety when the inevitable problems arise, because the legal and social systems overwhelmingly favor the powerful, income-producing corporation over the individual citizen with a grievance. The domestic Mitsubishi Motors and Mitsubishi Fuso scandals cooked for years, and the reason wasn’t incompetence or conscious callousness, exactly. It was more that dealing responsibly with field failures requires that unpalatable realities be dealt with actively, and, in general, the Japanese way of dealing with unpalatable realities is to push them to the side and hope they resolve themselves.

    I noted a few weeks ago that at least one automotive writer had argued that the actual product defects behind the Toyota recall were unlikely to have been caused by indiscriminate cost cutting or sloppy quality downgrading. I’m no automotive expert, but that rings true to me. Toyota well knows that it got to its current position by producing reliable products. Accordingly, it seems to have committed its biggest blunders in not dealing squarely with problems once they emerged, not in trying to coast on its reputation while passing off junk on unwary consumers.

    That doesn’t mean it doesn’t deserve to get spanked. It does. But it’s hard to take the high-mindedness of Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood, legislators from Michigan, and UAW flacks at face value, given the stake they have in improving Detroit’s wretched reputation. Everyone looks bad here, but I agree that the entity with the greatest probability of addressing its systemic flaws is, in fact, Toyota.

    Added on 25 February: This guy writes a long post that ends with a YouTube video of a pop song that, at least in his own head, is kind of related to the topic.

    And it’s a New Order song.

    Were we separated at birth, or something?

    Anyway, I like this paragraph (note use of vainglorious, one of my favorite words):

    I have more faith in Toyota to build safe, reliable cars than I do in congress to manage my health care. The elaborate kabuki of congress grilling Toyota executives for answers to complex engineering problems that they cannot possibly understand does little to help me quantify my own risk. Or to trust that the government is at all competent to manage anything more complex than non-time-sensitive, home delivery of small envelopes. It’s precisely the addiction to preening before the cameras, incessant fear-mongering, and vainglorious speechifying that makes me trust the government less. How can I trust them to provide health care when I can’t even get a straight, factual, and disinterested answer to a straight-forward and well understood engineering problem: is my car safe or not?

    Well, the government isn’t disinterested, which seems to explain a lot of what’s going on at the moment.

    Toyota Prius: the Suzuki Samurai of the ’10s?

    Posted by Sean at 13:28, February 6th, 2010

    The lead editorial in the Nikkei today carries the headline “Response from Toyota [that] will determine trust in Japanese products.” It’s about, of course, the recent spate of accidents, attendant recalls, and public questioning of what the hell Toyota thinks it’s doing:

    In the background of the quality issues are changes in the structure of the industry. In the last ten years, the globalization of automobile production and parts procurement has expanded greatly. Toyota itself has more than doubled the number of units it produces overseas, from 1.75 million in 2000 to a peak of 4.30 million in 2007. Hasn’t quality assurance been neglected in the process of this rapid expansion? Rethinking and inspections will be indispensable.

    Additionally, there’s the increased level of technology. Even in the world of automobiles, which were products of mechanical engineering, the relative importance of electronic controls that employ IT (information technology) and software technology has increased recently.

    The issue of recurring complaints related to brakes, which affects the Prius hybrid car that’s become Toyota’s representative line, had origins that lay in electronic control systems. It won’t do to be smug about past successes; it’s necessary to have new quality-assurance mechanisms that fit the electronic age.

    The company’s capacity for crisis management has further been severely questioned. The trigger for this string of problems was a Lexus accident in which all four members of a California family were killed last summer, but Kindness itself would be hard-pressed to call Toyota’s response rapid.

    While one issue smolders, the next pops up, and the situation gradually worsens. If a full stop isn’t quickly put to this negative cycle, the pulling away from Toyota by consumers will gain ground globally.

    In the United States, the epicenter* for the issues, a midterm election will be held this fall, and portents that protectionism could raise its head have emerged. There’s also a possibility that a pushback against foreign manufacturers could gain in power.

    Correspondingly, Toyota should respond to consumer unease and criticism of the company head-on, by swiftly adopting response policies with the CEO and other top managers at the lead. A clear and powerful message about the company’s path forward from here on must also go out to Toyota employees and shareholders.

    Toyota is an enterprise that represents Japan, and the possibility cannot be discounted that its vacillating could lead to a lost of trust in the Japan brand as a whole. Additionally, there are environmental shifts common to many Japanese enterprises, such as globalization of production, and we’d like to see others also take the current situation as a lesson and channel their capabilities into quality and safety assurance.

    Yes, we would, wouldn’t we? But consumer-product safety has been a thorny issue since the Japan, Inc., era, and the only reason it’s caught so many people by surprise in the West is that previous scandals have involved makers that don’t sell outside Japan (except for Bridgestone and, to a lesser extent, Mitsubishi Motors). On the one hand, the Japanese thrive on competition and are detail-oriented. On the other, the Japanese don’t have a culture of individual responsibility, and there’s a pervasive, if nearly always unspoken, belief that if no one noticed you doing it, it didn’t happen. (I believe that shame culture has many qualities that recommend it over guilt culture, but that isn’t one of them.) Hence the super-scary revelations in the ’90s and early ’00s about lax enforcement of safety procedures at nuclear facilities, hence the dumping by hospitals of indigent patients whose social insurance has run out, and hence the years that the Hidetsugu Aneha (along with others) was able to palm off bogus structural calculations for buildings that didn’t meet earthquake codes on government agencies.

    It’s hard to know what the source of the problem here is. Electronics and cars are highly complex and sometimes have defects even when those who designed and manufactured them knew what they were doing and were working in good faith. But what starts with an honest mistake can end up being a dishonest cover-up when it’s handled with blame-shifting and stonewalling. Toyota is not alone among Japanese organizations in favoring blame-shifting and stonewalling as a response to accusations of bad work, and while its international reach means the organization is more sensitive to the expectations of non-Japanese audiences, it’s not surprising that it began by taking the usual approach of issuing vague statements about “unfortunate occurrences” and the like. We’ll see whether Toyota deals with the immediate problem and renames a few divisions or, if there turn out to be deep organizational problems at work, actually roots them out.

    * Fellow Japanese geeks: don’t bother telling me that 震央, not 震源, means “epicenter.” I know. In English, we don’t talk about the “focus” of a crisis. Well, we do, but we mean something else by it.

    Added later: An argument that the problems with quality control are more complicated than just complacency and slacking off (via Instapundit and Kausfiles):

    Obviously, we need to know a lot more about the specifics of Toyota’s recent quality woes before we can establish causal links between the rise of lean product design in the 1990s and the current rash of bad news. The fact that Denso-built pedals do not appear to suffer from the same problem as CTS-supplied pedals indicates that this might be a supplier-specific problem, rather than the result of a systemic de-emphasis on quality at Toyota. Still, the Toyota practice of working closely with suppliers in the development process indicates that there’s more than enough blame to go around.

    The real extent of this cost-cutting, decontenting and “design leaning” won’t be easy to quantify, but the fact that it’s been taking place since the early nineties and is only now yielding negative effects suggests that it’s been relatively well-managed. But Toyota’s reputation was built on those “fat” products of the mid-80s to early-90s, and it won’t be returning to the old practices that created them anytime soon due to their competitive disadvantages. This seems to suggest that, once damaged, Toyota is unlikely to ever recover its former quality halo.