Knowledge: Pursuit and Consensus
In his work Japan as Number One: Lessons for America, Ezra Vogel analyzes the secrets to Japanese success, starting first with the “group-directed quest for knowledge.” After WWII, Japan’s unfailing interest in new ideas and new techniques led to the adoption of supremely beneficial strategies from the minds of both Japanese and Western thinkers. While business leaders in the U.S. ignored the ideas of Demming and Drucker, the Japanese used their concepts of quality control and management as the fundamental base to economic recovery.
Vogel ties this industrial knowledge learning in with widespread “popular” learning in hobbies, sports, and study. The Japanese read more printed media than Americans, which he sees as a post-schooling commitment to information gathering and knowledge acquisition. I cannot help but think, however, that the dominance of the written media in Japan is mostly determined by the transportation patterns. In other words, books, magazines, and newspapers are a perfect fit for long train commutes, but not long car rides. No matter, the Japanese do show great interest in learning English and other skills, forming study groups to work out problems, and bringing in foreign experts to teach advanced techniques. The field of sports and athletics is a perfect example: After years of dedication, the Japanese are now internationally competitive in a large range of “foreign” sports.
There is certainly a case to be made that the Japanese are in constant pursuit of knowledge, and this contributed greatly to Japan’s economic recovery on both bureaucratic and individual levels. But now that the world has visibly moved into a “knowledge” or “information economy,” why do Japanese firms have a difficult time producing knowledge-based products like software?
Possibly, an aggregate interest in learning has fallen since the time of Vogel’s book, but more likely, the kind of knowledge acquisition dominant in Japan has little direct link to the new knowledge industries. As authors like Marilyn Ivy have pointed out, the Japanese “consume” intellectual works (like Asada Akira) without particularly understanding or digesting them. With high-schools dedicated solely to test-preparation and the low class attendance of students at elite colleges condoned by professors/administrators, there is essentially no part in the Japanese education process that teaches students “how to learn.” Effort becomes the panacea to all intellectual problems, and while this works perfectly for sports or hobbies, there is no evidence that “effort” alone can solve more complicated queries.
The Japanese pursuit of knowledge seems to be symptomatic of a larger campaign of social-involvement and self-improvement — both extremely beneficial to the daily workings of society. However, there has been a failure to move this habit of information-acquisition into the computer age. The Japanese may have reached that barrier where a new regimen of learning is necessary, but the bureaucracy would need to uproot the entire Japanese system to employ these new techniques and strategies.
Part one here.