Magazine article UNESCO Courier

Japan: The New Samurai

Magazine article UNESCO Courier

Japan: The New Samurai

Article excerpt

How is it that a relatively small island country with hardly any natural resources has become such a powerful force in world trade? One simple story tells everything. In 1952 the small Japanese company that was eventually to become Sony Corporation struck a deal with Bell Labs of the United States for the production of transistors. The American company's last words of advice were, "Whatever you do, do not try to use transistors in radio sets; they cannot accept the electrical frequencies required."

Later, having solved the frequency problem, and thus helped to launch the transistor revolution, the Japanese company set itself the objective of producing a miniature radio that would fit into a shirt pocket. Unfortunately the designers were unsuccessful in producing a model that was quite small enough, and so all the members of the sales force were issued with shirts with extra wide pockets.

The sense of purpose illustrated by this story is one of the outstanding features of Japanese business practice. It is based on qualities that are simple to describe in words but very difficult to put into practice. The qualities are respect, trust, loyalty, courage, practicality, solidity, substance, simplicity, brevity, calmness, tolerance, patience, perseverance, clarity and wisdom. To understand their place in Japanese business one has to go much deeper than studying such outward manifestations of social behavior as politeness, deference and courtesy. These are only external reflections from a deep pool. One needs to look at the whole context of Japanese culture, which has grown and been influenced for centuries by a number of concepts, philosophies and religions.

Some of the most significant of these influences came from China via Taoism, Confucianism and Chan (Zen) Buddhism. The written language of Japan also came originally from China, as did Japanese medicine and military tactics, and many philosophical concepts. One good example of this influence is the Japanese adoption of the Chinese character system. There are literally thousands of calligraphic symbols in the average Japanese daily newspaper. (To read a paper it is necessary to know about 2,000 characters). The ability to perform this incredible feat of recognition and mental storage is developed by the repetitive practice of writing characters from a very early age. By the time a child is four, in some cases even younger, he or she will have absorbed the skills of patience, perseverance, endurance and the "work ethic"--four of the most potent attributes of successful management.

The universe and the individual

The Japanese regard individuals as a microcosm of the universe and as irrevocably bound to changes which continually occur. This puts humankind firmly in its place in the order of things. Most of them understand the concept of harmonizing and not conflicting with natural events. The idea of change is indicated by the concept of Yin-Yang, the mutual interaction of positive and negative forces which not only oppose each other but also mutually support each other. The Japanese believe a balance between Yin and Yang forces must be continually sought in all matters. The saying that "the only thing that is constant is change" is an everyday reminder that one should always be taking corrective action to retain one's balance.

The concept of Yin and Yang can be seen in the fluctuations between night and day, male and female, hot and cold, dark and light. Its importance in business forecasting and planning rests on the belief that changes or events can be predicted in advance to the extent that a sudden increase in Yang will be immediately followed by a rapid descent to extreme Yin and vice versa. In other words, if corrective action is not taken quickly, disaster will follow. When changes occur too rapidly in nature, thunderstorms, earthquakes and flooding result. Parallel situations arise in business if things are done in a precipitate manner. …

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