Manufacturing Ideology: Scientific Management in Twentieth-Century Japan

Manufacturing Ideology: Scientific Management in Twentieth-Century Japan

Manufacturing Ideology: Scientific Management in Twentieth-Century Japan

Manufacturing Ideology: Scientific Management in Twentieth-Century Japan


Japanese industry is the envy of the world for its efficient and humane management practices. Yet, as William Tsutsui argues, the origins and implications of "Japanese-style management" are poorly understood. Contrary to widespread belief, Japan's acclaimed strategies are not particularly novel or even especially Japanese.

Tsutsui traces the roots of these practices to Scientific Management, or Taylorism, an American concept that arrived in Japan at the turn of the century. During subsequent decades, this imported model was embraced--and ultimately transformed--in Japan's industrial workshops. Imitation gave rise to innovation as Japanese managers sought a "revised" Taylorism that combined mechanistic efficiency with respect for the humanity of labor.

Tsutsui's groundbreaking study charts Taylorism's Japanese incarnation, from the "efficiency movement" of the 1920s, through Depression-era "rationalization" and wartime mobilization, up to postwar "productivity" drives and quality-control campaigns. Taylorism became more than a management tool; its spread beyond the factory was a potent intellectual template in debates over economic


Librarians were essential to the writing of this study.

One afternoon in the autumn of 1991, I was sitting in the lobby of the National Diet Library in Tokyo, waiting for a few more dusty volumes on factory management to be brought up from the closed stacks. My spirits were not high, as my research appeared to have hit a dead end. Exploring the diffusion and application of Scientific Management (also known as Taylorism) in twentieth-century Japanese industry had once seemed such a promising and timely topic. Yet over the preceding few weeks, a string of Japanese scholars had warned me that my project was pure folly, that American models like Scientific Management—characterized by a cold, mechanistic rationality— had had little influence on the evolution of “Japanese-style” work practices. My Japanese adviser had similar worries: he had gently suggested on several occasions that I switch to a “safer” study like a company history or biography of a businessman. Even nonexperts found my project woefully misguided. “Everyone knows,” the teenaged daughter of my Tokyo landlord once informed me, “that we Japanese learned all our management secrets from the Germans.”

With such sobering admonitions echoing in my head, I waited dejectedly for my books to be delivered. As the minutes dragged by, I began—for the first time in many months of visits to the Diet Library—to observe the staff working behind the large circulation desk. Each of the librarians was engaged in a specific task: one officiously collected book orders, another brusquely called out the names of readers whose materials were ready, a third checked out the books, while yet another gathered and organized the returns. Even in my disheartened mood I could see the fundamentally Taylorite nature of this work routine. With each job standardized, specialized, and simplified, the librarians worked with daunting efficiency, processing books and paperwork with almost mechanical regimentation. Even without the obligatory time-andmotion expert, stopwatch in hand, this seemed a virtually textbook example of classic Scientific Management in action.

And yet, as I watched closely, I began to see that the library staff did not entirely fit the familiar stereotype of the Taylorized worker, the slave of the assembly line sentenced forever to repeating a single, mind-numbing task. Indeed, the librarians changed jobs at regular intervals: every thirty minutes, in a kind of bureaucratic musical chairs, each member of the crew shifted to a different station behind the desk. Over the course of a workday, each librarian thus rotated through all of the jobs in the circulation department.

Here surely was something that lay beyond the traditional Scientific Management paradigm. By reducing worker monotony while maintaining high . . .

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