Magazine article Management Today

Not So Small, but Still Beautifully Put Together

Magazine article Management Today

Not So Small, but Still Beautifully Put Together

Article excerpt

Not so small, but still beautifully put together The Kyocera manager smiled cat-like across the banquet table, as a waiter topped up 16 glasses of 80 pounds-a-bottle French Pomerol.

'The English language is different from Japanese in an interesting way,' he observed through an interpreter. 'You put the action before the object (eg. He hit the ball). In Japanese we put the action last. Westerners,' he twinkled, 'start with the conclusion, rather than finishing with it.'

An exaggeration perhaps, but in surroundings where everything works like clockwork, waist-deep bows abound, and even the toilet-paper roll is finished off with an origami triangle, it is hard not to feel we are indeed a little brash and rough-mannered.

But structure, caution, consensus of opinion -- all these terribly precise things that the Japanese are noted for -- have their downside too. To quote Nishijima, the president of Kyoto University, an institution which has nurtured six Nobel Prize winners in its time: 'Everything is patternised. That is the strength and the weakness of Japan.'

Breaking out of the mould in Japan is, of course, not the done thing. One has the eerie feeling here, among the clutter of curly-lipped buildings and soft-form toy cars that either everyone changes, or no one does. Seven hundred years of isolation from a revolutionising world, before the last Shogun warrior king was replaced by the Meiji Emperor in 1868, left a set of traditions that have endured until today.

But slowly change is coming. A one-time obsession for saving money is being eroded as young people are influenced by the Pet Shop Boys and Mickey Mouse, and older people want to enjoy the fruits of their hard *ork. Job promotions are beginning to be made on the basis of merit, rather than length of service, and bit by bit the shuffling bureaucracy of consensus management is being replaced by fleeter Western ways.

Surprisingly though, one highly visible catastrophe -- the late September stock market crash which cut the Nikkei index by 48% from its peak -- has so far had little effect on all but the financial sector. Capital spending and consumer spending are still charging along unabated, while companies' five-year plans are standing like rocks. Higher interest rates (up from 2.5% to 6%), tighter money, rising inflation (now 2.5%) and softening land prices have unnerved few. Most believe if there is a recession at all, it will be mild.

The gentleman who made the observation at the banquet himself works for a company which has shown admirable resilience in the wake of the crash. This could be partly because Kyocera Corporation's outspoken chairman, Dr Kazuo Inamori, is one of a new, more entrepreneurial breed.

The company's history is marked by individualism. Today turning over $3.3 billion, it is Japan's leading manufacturer of ceramic and electronic components. But when Inamori, then a 27-year-old chemical engineer, started Kyocera in 1959 with a mere 1 million Yen ($8,000) in capital, plus loans, it was thought to have little chance in a business world dominated by effective cartels or keiretsu.

Sure enough, as the Kyoto-based Kyocera had no track record or big connections, the small ceramics company was initially shunned by potential Japanese customers. Inamori, undeterred, shifted camp to the US, made his name there, and then came back with credentials his local counterparts could not ignore. …

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