TV drama captures public angst at "Made in Japan" decline

TOKYO Fri Feb 8, 2013 2:50am EST

Men walk past logos of Japan's electronics firms at the Akihabara electronics store district in Tokyo February 7, 2013. REUTERS/Toru Hanai

Men walk past logos of Japan's electronics firms at the Akihabara electronics store district in Tokyo February 7, 2013.

Credit: Reuters/Toru Hanai

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TOKYO (Reuters) - A Japanese electronics firm near bankruptcy, a ruthless Chinese rival and a laid-off engineer feature in a popular TV drama that is hitting a public nerve in a nation fretting over the decline of a once-admired manufacturing model.

A weaker yen due to Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's expansionary economic policies has lightened some of the gloom for exporters, but NHK public TV's "Made in Japan" serial reflects a deep angst about an ailing manufacturing sector that was once key to Japan's success and a source of national pride.

The 3-part drama, which ends on Saturday, covers a secret "restructuring" team's race against a 3-month deadline to come up with a survival plan for "Takumi Electric" - the name means "artisan" in Japanese - before the bank pulls the plug.

Standing in their way are a Japanese engineer who goes to work in China after being laid off when his lithium-ion battery project was frozen - possibly taking proprietary technology with him - a clueless corporate president given his job by his founder father and a reporter desperate for a scoop.

All of which resonates for many Japanese as they watch once iconic electronics firms - Sony, Panasonic and Sharp come to mind - lose global share to South Korean and Chinese rivals, and wonder what will replace lost manufacturing jobs and drive future economic growth.

"During the period of rapid economic growth after World War Two and even after the bursting of the (1980s) asset bubble, manufacturing ... was a source of economic strength," said Hisao Inoue, a freelance journalist who advised NHK on its script.

"'Monozukuri' ('the making of things') was a source of pride for Japan," he told Reuters. "But that has changed and Japan has lost self-confidence."

BUSINESS BUZZ

The show has won more than respectable Saturday evening ratings of over 10 percent, and created a buzz among business executives and bankers, with some wondering if it cuts too close to the bone with its portrayal of a firm - however fictional - on the edge.

"The performance is a bit melodramatic, but in a sense, it reflects reality," said one Japanese banker.

The program's chief producer Ren Takahashi said the story turned out more realistic than imagined when NHK began work on it two years ago. "The economy was bad then, but we didn't think the electronics industry would be in such trouble," he told Reuters, adding "Takumi" was a composite of companies symbolizing Japan rather than being based on one firm.

"There's no easy solution to the problems of 'Made in Japan' ... but we want to end it in a way that gives hope."

The day before last week's second episode, government data showed employment in Japan's manufacturing sector dropped below 10 million for the first time in half a century.

"Japanese have great anxiety about the huge shift in power in East Asia to China on both the security and economic level," said Jeffrey Kingston, director of Asian Studies at Temple University's Japan campus. "The (TV) drama is a window into Japan's collective anxiety about its apparent economic decline."

Behind the melodrama, the story raises a deeper question: just what is Japan's famed "monozukuri" ethos and can it survive global competition and world-wide supply chains?

"Monozukuri" is a complex concept that implies craftsmanship and superb quality but with an undertone of rote learning of skills through repetition - a talent key during the era of mass manufacturing but one critics say is not conducive to the innovation Japan needs now.

"It's been drilled into people for years and years that this is what got Japan back after World War Two," said Philip Brasor, a media critic who often writes about Japanese society through the prism of TV.

"Inevitably, it all changed. But they still think they can recapture that."

(Additional reporting by Emi Emoto; Editing by Ian Geoghegan)

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Comments (3)
VonHell wrote:
I think this is a “Welcome to Globalization” for the old “G7″… they invented it but few of their companies will survive it…
Japanese eletronic companies lost the chance… there was a time when they were far ahead… far more advanced and with a strong name… they had no competition… but instead buying foreign companies and set a strong foot in US, Latin America, Europe and Asia… they kept the exporting nation model and exploring in part the chinese and korean labour thinking that was globalization… slowly tranfering know-how to their future competitors…

One example: japanese brands still making CRT TVs in Brazil when CRT was fased out in Japan… leaving the brazilian market only with ultra expensive imported flat panels…
Later making obsolete low res plasma screens… when even LCD was been replaced by LED… again ultra expensive imported models…
Today i believe those plants and even the few brazilian eletronic makers must belong to Huawei, Hon Hai… names i dont know if im pronouncing right… and names like LG and Samsung dominate…
Point is at the same time Brazil is becoming an interesting market… the japanese brands are been driven out… after decades without setting a strong foot…

Feb 10, 2013 5:32pm EST  --  Report as abuse
UauS wrote:
same thing here… cheepo labor, quick and easy super profits…
GREED IS SHORTSIGHTED by DEFAULT!

Feb 10, 2013 8:30pm EST  --  Report as abuse
Rhino1 wrote:
I must agree with the two comments above and I would like to add that even now, when some Japanese seem to come to terms with the difficult situation they are in thanks to globalization, they are still too full of themselves to take steps for meaningful change.

I teach English here in Japan and when I look at the value these people (teachers etc) attribute to English, it doesn’t fill me with hope. The very people in charge of future generations have no idea how to prepare these kids for what’s coming their way. And when you try to wake them up from their “slumber”, you are reminded that you are only a “lowly” foreigner and that “we have done it this way for a long time!” Well, that’s the point guys: the last generation might have got away with not learning any English, but this generation of kids will not.

Children of Japan need to learn English more than most other subjects, so they will be able to learn and understand what is going on in the world. The generation in charge of Japan the last 20 – 30 years certainly didn’t understand how the world has changed. Using your head to push the cart rather than to think with it doesn’t work anymore.

Please, bureaucrats of Japan, wake up, stop wasting precious taxpayer money on bs and reform your school system.

It makes me sick to think of how many computers and books could have been bought with the money that is now going to TEPCO to pay compensation to the people in Fukushima. Corruption has brought the accident in Fukushima about and it is costing this country a lot more than anyone seems to realize.

Feb 11, 2013 12:37am EST  --  Report as abuse
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