Japan as Number One! - Part Two


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.

Marxy wrote a lot of essays back on his old site Néomarxisme. This is one of them.

13 Responses

  1. Momus Says:

    I hate it when you use the word “aggregate” in your posts. You sound a million years old and terribly boring. Get your head out of all these fusty 80s books, abandon your “project”, and blog interesting stuff like the Katabrella Yuki just told us about, please. Or leave the house, like Jeans Now does, and tell us what happens. Stop being so horrifically masculine and ascetic.

  2. Chris_B Says:

    momus: the refreshing thing about marxy is that he makes the effort to dig through these sources and bring us bits of them. Why should he be just another Jean Snow?

    marxy: I think the old Chinese proverb about “many hands make light work” is related to the domestic education/manfuacturing/industrial systems, but I cant yet explain exactly how. I do know that the application of this works well for some types of labor but not for knowledge based labor like IT.

    Also the concept of importing foreign know how seems to have fallen down in that area as well. What I see is a lot of migrant labor but very little knowledge transfer. Or rather lots of transfer but little penetration. The ideas are memorized but the relationships between the concepts is rarely understood. For example, I see lots of local IT people who know many facts about a variety of systems, but invariably when things go wrong (as they always do) their thought processes of troubleshooting dont include the logical connections or flow between systems. What I have seen is that IT is an area where women are able to achieve at least as much job skill as men.

    As for the consuming of media, I often see people on the trains reading “skill up” books on a variety of topics. I think you are correct in your assumption about the transit methods and consumption of printed matter.

  3. Japanese Business Digest Says:

    Momus: I can’t disagree with you more. Any old weblog can casually chat about everyday life and pop culture. It’s great that marxy puts a little more effort and thought into this blog, and turns to some original sources like this.

    marxy: I would argue that the leaders of the “Knowledge Economy” are those who *create* knowledge, not simply *consume* it.

    So while it’s nice that the Japanese populace, on average, consumes a lot of information, that’s not what’s going to put them at the forefront (and incidentally, I think this phenomenom has much to do with the education system’s emphasis on memorizing tons of (useless?) data for entrance exams, which you touched upon earlier).

    The average American *may* be less informed, but their probably also less risk averse, less constrained by the status quo, etc.

  4. marxy Says:

    I appreciate the defense of this essay, but Momus is also right. I’m trying to “change it up” once in a while, but I got the impression that there are a good chunk of readers who want to read serious essays about the Japanese socioeconomy. (Is that a word?)

    I haven’t written any kind of “reports from the street” because I haven’t run into anything interesting lately.

  5. graham Says:

    On the blog: It’s worth noting Marxy’s very public assertions that this site is a series of essays, hence the subtitle. Its content reflects this purpose, and its audience expects it. Does anybody have time to compete with Jean on the “goings on about town” front?

    On topic: In print media everywhere, transit-oriented circulation is a major strategy. Free dailies are sprouting up in every metro area with public transit — and hallowed broadsheets are going tabloid. There is no doubt that high newspaper and other circulation is tied to high train ridership. I’d be interested to see readership numbers split by age group, though. I suspect Japanese newspapers are losing out as much as U.S. and British ones — or perhaps newspaper readership is just a condition of old age in Japan.

    And, an anecdote: Among my Japanese counterparts when I was a foreign student there, it was absolutely scandalous that the classes taught in English for foreigners required pages-long essays. My Japanese classmates had only been equipped for intake, and many had never, ever, produced a piece of writing more than a page long. But this was also true of the several Italian students also studying with us — they hadn’t written essays, even in Italian. Can anyone tell me if the notion of an academic synthesis in writing is unique to Anglophone education?

  6. Kurisu Says:

    Marxy: Are you trying to reviewing all these “Chrysantemus club”‘s books? They have the basis for the new “orientalism”, the “american orientalism” that all the american scholars made after II World War.

    It’s more interesting reading your pop-culture’s reviews… -_-u

    Why don’t you go deepper into Japanese posmodernism?

    I give you a link (in English):


    Try to find Iida Yumiko’s work. That is really interesting.


  7. marxy Says:

    Thanks for the link to Prof. Iida’s work. I’ve read a lot of bad pieces on Japanese postmodernism, and the good ones I read were about how Japan isn’t postmodern (in the progressive reading of the word.)

    I normally wouldn’t be reading the hardcore Chrystanthum Club stuff, although I felt that I was reading too many current Revisionist works and needed to go back and figure out what the other side was arguing in the first place.

    Context changes all meanings. Vogel’s points are only belivable as long as Japan’s economy is solid and they are actually in position of becoming “Number One.”

  8. marxy Says:

    By the way, if you check out Kurisu’s blog about “rorikon,” he’s got a story on the “well-endowed” 11 year-old Irie Saaya who is currently raising controversy in Japan. (Even the boob-friendly Cyzo had an article questioning whether it was really okay to sell pictures of an 11 year-old in a bikini.)

  9. Chris_B Says:

    just a clarification, “kurisu” is not me.

  10. marxy Says:

    I know. Kurisu writes in Spanish.

  11. nate Says:

    a joke:
    momus walks into an italian restaurant, and orders nachos. the perplexed waiter says “I’m sorry sir, but we don’t have any nachos here”.

    momus responds “this masculine hegemony of restaurants is to blame. I get along better with girls than boys.”

  12. bigecho Says:

    that katabrella thing was interesting for like 8 seconds.

    when you say “printed media” on the blog post, does that include manga or not? cause it seems like 97% of the stuff that they are reading on the trains and such is manga. i haven’t read much manga myself so i can’t say for sure that it isn’t intellectually enriching, but someone who has read a lot might be able to say that for me (?) (definitely better than TV and TV games though, in any case). even a lot of the more normal sorts of magazines seem to have a lot of manga in them, and every one of my students who says that they like reading books mean that they like reading comic books.

  13. JJ Says:

    I lost some faith in Japan after reading Yamashita’s Gold by Sterling Seagrave. Stealing TRILLIONS in gold from the Chinese would rocket propel any nation .