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What’s happened to ‘Made in Japan’?

‘Made in Japan’ has always been the best brand in the world. We are willing to pay more for Made in Japan products because we know that this “brand” represents the highest quality in the market. Sometimes we don’t even bother to check a Made in Japan product when we are shopping, because we believe as a religion that Made in Japan things will surely work. But Toyota vehicle recalls and many other Made in Japan disappointments start to shatter our faith. And we begin to ask, “What’s happened to ‘Made in Japan’?”

I first want to discuss why the Japanese can (or could) make the best products in the world that even their enemies want to buy. I strongly believe that it is because their workers regard their companies as their second family. Employees of Japanese companies are guaranteed to stay employed until they are 60 years old. They don’t need to worry about their finance at all. And in return, Japanese employees devote their lives to their companies, always trying their best to give better results. Workaholism is very common in Japan. And many Japanese employees die from it.

Actually, I should have used past tense in the last paragraph, because the employment system in Japan has changed drastically in the past 20 years. To save cost, Japanese companies, including the big guys, begin to use temporary staff. I write ‘use’ instead of ‘employ’ because those temporary employees are usually employed by third party agencies and then sent to different companies, doing the same work as formal employees do but receive 30% less. Those temporary employees have no future, no hope of promotion and of course no guarantee employment till 60. It is very unlikely for such a temporary worker to be promoted to a formal employee. I want to ask you a question. If you were one of them, what would you think?

I don’t know what they think. But if I were one of them, I would surely NOT devote my life to the company I work for. And I will NEVER try my best to give better results. I just don’t give a XXXX, because tomorrow I may be fired or sent to another company. Actually, if possible, I would deliberately do things slowly, ignore mistakes and even do some damage, because I HATE such a system.

Do you get the point now? The first generation of Japanese entrepreneurs treated their people like family and in return their people gave their lives to their companies. Nowadays, when businesses are passed to the 3rd or 4th generation, management adopt the evil western human resource theory, treating workers as numbers. And they pay for it at a very high price. A couple of years ago, during the financial crisis, so many of those temporary workers were laid off, some even before their contracts ended. They worked for the big guys or subsidiaries of the big guys, making nuts and bolts that would finally become parts of a Made in Japan or Made in Elsewhere Japanese product. Yes. Even Made in Elsewhere products contain a lot of parts that are made in Japan. The big guys did not talk but just cut the workers away as if they were rubbish. I am sure that the one who could stay would not feel very good, even the formal employees would not feel very good, because if all temporary staff were hacked, who would be next?

If workers of a company always need to worry about their employment, do you think they can make good quality products? After all, please remember that although things are designed / decided by the big people, things are ALWAYS made by the hands of small people. If you treat those small people like dirt, then they will make dirt. Things can’t be simpler!

If you still can’t believe that Made in Japan is being eaten up by the unfair employment system in Japan, then please imagine the following situation: You are a temporary employee working in a factory. You are over thirty so you have no hope of being employed as junior staff. And you are not educated enough to get a better job. But you still consider yourself lucky because the three temporary fellows who used to work with you have already been terminated. You keep working but the expiry date of your contract is looming. No people discuss a renewal with you. Many of your ‘colleagues’ do similar work, but their salary is much higher than you. They get bonus when sales goes up. And they will never be fired. You try not to think about it because it’ll make you unhappy. But you can’t help it. You hate this system. And you want to retaliate. But you can’t since you are only a small potato. One day, you spot cracks in some of the bolts you are packing. Then you talk to yourself, “If I report it, it’ll save this company a lot of money. But what good will it do to me? The smarts guy sitting next to me will get bonus. I won’t. And it’s not my responsibility to report defects. I am a packer. I am paid to be a packer, not a quality controller whose paycheck is three times thicker…” So you keep your mouth shut. Actually, you feel good doing so because there will be no consequences for you. The worst thing that can happen to you is termination of contract. But since your contract is by default terminated on a future date, it doesn’t matter at all…

Disasters happen if there are a lot of such frustrated workers. And disasters DO happen in front of our eyes. I hope the big guys will one day wake up from their number dream and realize that small potato workers are the most important component of the Made in Japan brand.

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