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Tuesday, February 14, 2017

Monozukuri the Modern Japanese Myth

ものづくり

Monozukuri is a concept that has been vigorously promoted in Japan since the word was coined in the late 1990's. It is held up as an almost ineffable idea that encapsulates the essence of what Japanese manufacturing and craftsmanship is all about.

It first came to prominence in 1998 when the National Diet passed the Basic Law for Promoting Monozukuri Foundation Technology, on the basis of which the Prime Minister's office set up a monozukuri kondankai, or consultative council on monozukuri.

Monozukuri the modern Japanese myth.


Mono means "thing(s)" in Japanese, and tsukuri means "making" (the "ts" changing to a "z" when linked to a preceding word). It therefore simply translates to "making things," which is what Japan has been doing for the world for the past 60-odd years. There are other words in Japanese, like seisan (manufacturing) and seizo (creation) which have served just as well to date.

So why the sudden creation of a brand new term? A look at the reasons for why the concept of monozukuri was created throws some light on why it is being promoted as vigorously as it is.

The Japanese economy suffered a Lehman-shock-like collapse in 1992 when the asset price bubble that had been growing since the mid-1980s burst, meaning a lot of people lost a lot of money and, more importantly, faith in Japan's post-war economic miracle. This led to what was called Japan's lost decade of the 1990's - a decade which saw wages drop and investment and productivity decline, and in which competition with Japan's industrial machine strengthened with the rise of South Korean and other Asian industry.

The idea of monozukuri was created to counter the hollowing out of Japan's industrial economy by restoring faith in Japan's manufacturing prowess, taking the focus away, too, from structural problems such as the decrease in worker productivity and a declining working age population.

Faith is the keyword. As I mentioned at the beginning, monozukuri is held up as an almost ineffable word. Ask a Japanese person who professes to know what it means and he/she will often start with a small chuckle and then take a deep breath as he embarks on the noble task of trying to explain to a gaijin a concept with such resonance deep in the Japanese soul.

I have read much that has been written on the concept of monozukuri, and it seems to basically describe the whole Japanese mindset when it comes to making things: being careful, working as a team, seeking consensus, following rules, respecting and incorporating past developments but trying to further improve things at the same time, not being wasteful, taking responsibility, working things out for oneself, and taking pride.

These qualities are treasured in Japan, to be sure, but are by no means unique to Japan. It is hard to conceive of how any project in history succeeded without employing this ethos, whether the building of the pyramids, the Great Wall of China, the development of modern pharmaceuticals, or the Apollo mission, to name a very few. In other words, monozukuri has been recognized the world over long before the 1990's as "best practices" that no enterprise anywhere on earth will optimally succeed without.

Moreover, this culture of monozukuri that is claimed to be innate to Japan was insufficient to create products that earned Japan a good reputation for manufacturing at the start of its endeavors to become factory to the world in the 1950s. During the 1970s, when I was a kid, Japan was only just starting to shake off its reputation for poor quality. Japan's path to success was not magically paved by monozukuri, but is littered with the trial-and-error struggles of men and women who started from scratch and worked their way up - just like the paths to success more recently set out on by neighbors South Korea and China. And when it comes to the qualities and mindset that are cited as the building blocks of monozukuri, few of them have been evident in the lead-up to or aftermath of the man-made Fukushima nuclear reactor meltdown disaster that engulfed Japan in the wake of the 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake.

Monozukuri, therefore, is no more than a politically motivated attempt to infuse the "best practices" that Japan used in the course of its modernization with a big dose of Japanese pride at a time when the material underpinnings of Japanese pride are under severe strain. The word may sound new and be promoted as unique, but the concepts it encapsulates are familiar the world over.

One factor in the sudden rise of monozukuri could well relate to Japan's position in the world of software development and internet technology. Japan's education system stresses conformity, seniority and group effort, which is great for turning out manufacturing company employees, but does not foster the kind of mold-breaking creativity that the digital world demands. Looking at how Japan has failed to convincingly ride the software and IT wave, one can only assume that, in part, monozukuri is a somewhat drab consolation prize that the nation has awarded itself as manufacturing becomes increasingly the preserve of developing nations.

Yet, if a Japanese person gets misty eyed heroically trying - and heroically failing - to impart the mysteries of monozukuri (complete with a soundtrack of lone, wistful wooden flute riff and high, hollow bang of drum) be empathetic: the Statue of Liberty is more than just a statue to Americans, rugby is more than just a game to New Zealanders, the Great Wall is more than just a wall to the Chinese, a Rolls-Royce is more than just a car to the English - and monozukuri, which helped build what was once the world's second biggest economy, is much more than just "best project practices" to the Japanese.

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