The modest Japanese salaryman has been a permanent fixture in the fauna and flora of Japanese society for decades. But now, some critics are urging a cultural change within Japanese businesses which may do away with the salaryman altogether.
The salaryman lifestyle — get to the company early, stay late, always follow the boss and always appear hard at work — has previously been the bastion of Japanese companies. However, companies that were once competitive and innovative are slowly falling victim to the pittfalls of “a great engineering class but a lousy management class”. This is especially visible in the electronics market where risk-takers like Apple or Samsung are trampling over the old Japanese electronic giants like Sony, Panasonic, Hitachi or Toshiba.
This recent editorial attracted attention by placing the blame for the decline of Japanese businesses firmly on the shoulders of the nation’s over-worked salarymen.
Salaryman Lifestyle the Reason Why Japan Can’t Win On a Global Level
Japanese electronic makers are at a crisis point. Though they hire the best engineers and have been propping up the Japanese economy for years, how can they still be failing?
The biggest problem is that Japanese salarymen “understand machines but don’t understand people”. In other words, they have the technology, but they can’t understand the people who use their machines.
The reason Japanese electronics took the world by storm for many years was because they worked so well. Now, however, as the manufacturing of things like computers, televisions or household appliances becomes ever more globalized, there is actually very little difference between models from different makers.
In the case of computers, for example, CPUs, hard-drives and liquid crystal screens produced by different companies are all packed up together in boxes like the various ingredients in a Makunouchi bento.
Because of this, not many consumers in developed countries chose electronics based on their specs anymore. They decide based on personal preferences on user friendliness, design, brand… The thing that wins consumers over is no longer the technology behind the product.
Therefore, there is little room in the market for products that “may not be particularly attractive or original, but which are high-performance and difficult to break”, products which Japanese industry had prided itself on until now.
Despite this, however, Japan’s biggest electronic makers have not changed their stance on prioritizing technology.This is because Japanese engineers can’t expand their know-how beyond the realm of technology.
The cause of this is the Japanese salaryman lifestyle.
In many Japanese salarymen households, the wife typically takes care of managing everything to do with the house. Food and clothing, household finances, educating the children, managing the family’s health and taking care of important occasions and ceremonies within the family: the wife has control of all the important areas of day-to-day life.
Many married salarymen are therefore out of touch with daily life. This system allows them to focus entirely on their work but it also fosters large numbers of simple-minded engineers who can only think about technology.
Focusing solely on conducting in-depth research on technology might be an appropriate attitude for a scientist aiming for a Nobel prize, but they have a hard time making technology people will actually use. If they only focus on technology, they risk making things with no appeal to users.
Japanese electronic makers still have an upper hand in technology, to some extent. Japanese technology contributed to the development of the iPhone, and some people say that electronic makers can stay in business as parts or raw material retailers.
Parts makers, however, have a tendency to constantly lower their margins. According to research done by University of California professor Kenneth Kraemer (07/2011), Japanese companies only got 0.5% of the profits from iPhone sales.
Apple itself has a 58.5% profit margin. That means that when you buy an iPhone, more than half of what you pay goes to Apple. The number of Japanese companies aiming to be suppliers for the iPhone 5 has increased, but it’s impossible to deny that companies which don’t offer a final product are much weaker.
Japanese electronic makers will have to invest a little more in order to revive themselves. As mentioned before, the problems have far reaching roots into Japanese culture. Change is not impossible, however.
So what should be done? The salaryman lifestyle of engineers first and foremost, then marketing executives and managers, should be changed. From now on, it’s important that their life should focus on other things than technology.
There are a lot of Japanese salarymen who are indifferent to art and culture because they don’t care much about food and clothes and are oblivious to trends among women and young people. (Obviously there are a lot of exceptions to this as well though)
It isn’t enough to only focus on technology’s potential to create things like the iPhone. They need to prioritize daily life experiences and think about about kinds of things they are missing and what kinds of goods and services they could benefit from.
In order to do this, they should give themselves more time to value the individual and live “like real people” rather than simply always living like subordinates in a group. They should stop working for incredibly long hours and spend less time drinking with their colleagues. They need to ensure they have enough time and space to day-dream, watch TV, or calmly reflect on the world around them.
Comments from 2ch.net:
Liking what you’re doing and being interested doesn’t mean you have to spend long hours working on it
That’s the job of the managers and marketing executives
We need to weather the crisis with fighting spirit and determination
Apple is not just strong because they make end-user products. Everyone except Apple is in big trouble even if they make end-user products. Their strong point is iTunes
I think this part is right: “There are a lot of Japanese salarymen who are indifferent to art and culture because they don’t care much about food and clothes and are oblivious to trends among women and young people. (Obviously there are a lot of exceptions to this as well though)” Japanese salarymen have no taste in anything.
It’s ‘cos the yen is so high
Same here, I think it’s because the yen is so high
I think it would be worse to let the engineers do everything from management to design
I agree! All those things are important so the tasks should be split between people
The real reason is that the people who are responsible for thing inside companies don’t take responsibility.
I TOTALLY agree with that!
The Japanese have definitely gotten worse as borders with the rest of the world have started to disappear… The only thing to do is each try our best
The era of engineering and specs has definitely come to an end. We’re now in the era of design and branding
“Because of this, not many consumers in developed countries chose electronics based on their specs anymore.” “They decide based on personal preferences on user friendliness, design, brand…” Umm don’t they decide based on price?
The point is so that they are still competitive against developing countries. They only way they can still win is on brands.
“This is because Japanese engineers can’t expand their know-how beyond the realm of technology.” Isn’t this not the engineers’ problem, but the problem of managers and marketing execs?
In businesses there are plenty of employees who speak out about things, but the higher things go to convince those in management, the more liberally they are interpreted, and the original voices don’t get heard.
Whaa? Isn’t it the fault of businessmen who let our technology leak to other countries?
Isn’t it also cause they work way too much overtime than they need? They don’t use any money because they don’t have any free time to enjoy themselves.
I thought people did pay attention to specs when they bought household electronics… Aren’t the specs, then the user friendliness the first things you look at? I don’t think there is anyone who completely ignores the specs when they are buying things like PCs or fridges/air conditioners/washing machines….