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Wednesday, June 14, 2000

Japan's path from imitator to world-beating innovator


CULTURE AND TECHNOLOGY IN MODERN JAPAN, edited by Ian Inkster and Fumihiko Satofuka. London/New York: Tauris, 2000, 169 pp., unpriced.

The relationship between culture and technology is complex and multilayered. Technological innovations that had profound effects on culture are easy to find: Think of the printing press and the automobile.

Seeing how things work in the opposite direction is more difficult, if only because culture is such an all-encompassing and diffuse notion. After all, technology itself can be regarded as a part of culture. What, then, is cause and what effect?

We must investigate the interaction of technology and culture if we want to advance our understanding of the development and economic performance of nations.

This book is a collection of articles examining features of Japanese culture and their significance for industrial growth in such critical periods as the Meiji era and post-World War II reconstruction. During the eventful Meiji decades, Japan proved remarkably capable of meeting the challenges of modernization by adopting Western technologies. Within a relatively short time, it became one of the world's major suppliers of new technologies. Are there specific cultural features that are conducive to this outstanding achievement?

It is well-known that Japanese companies put a lot of emphasis on creating and maintaining company cultures; it is also known that these corporate cultures differ significantly from each other. Is Japanese national culture uniform enough to serve as a common framework for these variable company cultures? This is one of the questions tackled in this book.

A catchword that supposedly characterizes a Japanese propensity that appears time and again in the book's eight chapters is "fusion." Japanese culture is said to encourage or facilitate the merging of homegrown and imported technologies, of traditional and new procedures. For a long time, Japan was a net importer of patents. The strength of Japanese industry was seen as imitating and improving upon technologies developed elsewhere. However, as one of the contributing authors notes, "about 100 years after 1868 imitative activity had reached exhaustion." Transition from imitation to development through creativity then became inevitable.

Fusion, several authors emphasize, is Japan's forte. Recognizing the potential of combining two existing technologies to form something new is surely an aspect of creativity. Examples such as the connection of ceramics and industrial chemicals and the linking of mechanical technology and electronics to create "mechatronic" machine tools and robots are cited repeatedly. They provide something like a red thread throughout an otherwise rather heterogeneous book; in fact, in terms of "fusion," little is accomplished.

In a sense, the papers are like variations on this theme. Presumably there were guidelines to make sure that the contributions really were variations on a common theme. But there was no director to turn them into anything resembling a coordinated performance. The chapters are extremely diverse, not only in content, but also in quality. They range from the carefully reasoned research report on a specific project to the repetition of generalities and stereotypes that one might have supposed were buried long ago, together with "nihonjinron."

Yet it seems as if this funeral never happened, since we are informed of "the unique and homogenous Japanese society," that the Japanese prefer "intuition over logical thinking," that in Japan "disagreement is never expressed directly as this is offensive" -- in fact, the whole range of stale cliches.

Even racist precepts occasionally surface -- for example, when one of the authors, who cannot be suspected of having any knowledge of neuroscience, bluntly asserts without a shred of evidence that, as opposed to Western left-brainers, the Japanese rely on the right cerebral hemisphere. "New technology culture: the fusion of East and West, right and left": Such is the flabbergasting upshot of this exercise in banality.

On the other hand, there are some well-organized and well-thought-out papers that offer new insights about "innovation avenues." At every historical juncture and, perhaps, in every country, the paths toward innovation are charted between market forces and the endogenous forces of national cultures. The Japanese path remains an object of curiosity and fascination in the social sciences, because more than a century after the first push toward modernization it remains distinct.

Some insights about this path can be gained from this book, which would have benefited from a firmer editorial hand. This reader gets the impression, but almost hesitates to say so, that culturally motivated considerations stood in the way of enforcing universal standards of writing, which is, after all, the technology of the mind.

Florian Coulmas is professor of Japanese studies at Duisburg University.


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