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Sunday, Jan. 21, 2007

An old way for modern business


Japan's Business Renaissance: How the World's Greatest Economy Revived, Renewed, and Reinvented Itself, by John C. Beck and Mark B. Fuller. McGraw-Hill, 2006, 226 pp., $27.95 (cloth)

There was a time when you couldn't walk past a bookstore without seeing scores of books preaching Japanese business knowhow. Ezra Vogel's "Japan as No. 1" may have been the most famous of the boom years, but a multitude of others were rolled out as authors and publishers tried to cash in on what was the hottest market on the planet.

So much for the 1980s.

Come the lost decade of the 1990s and the only growth industry was in dreary academic tomes looking at what went wrong; books on Japan's business success were as popular as Kim Jong Il jumpsuits.

Now in 2006, with the economy in its longest growth phase in the postwar years, stock and property prices rising and deflation pronounced dead, has Japan finally turned the corner?

The answer may be found at your nearest bookstore.

"Japan's Business Renaissance," coauthored by American management consultants John Beck and Mark Fuller, isn't the first and won't be the last to proclaim that Japan is at the dawn of a new era of prosperity.

Everyone with an economic interest in this country will be hoping that the authors are right when they argue: "Japan is exhibiting prominent signs of an economy on the verge of rebirth . . . . It may not be this quarter or the next that it becomes obvious to everyone that Japan is back."

Should that be the case, the authors are set to cash in along with a host of imitators. Evidence of a mini-revival in the genre has already been seen in the plethora of books dedicated to Carlos Ghosn's success at reviving Nissan, and to Toyota's work in creating the world-class Lexus luxury car brand.

Beck and Fuller, however, adapt the rather tired cliche of Bushido ("the way of the samurai") to explain what they describe as Japan's unique ability to constantly reinvent itself.

From the Warring States Period to the peace of the Tokugawa Shogunate, from the Meiji Restoration to military dictatorship and then an economic boom and bust, the nation has been through numerous periods of "fit or fight" marked by openness or hostility to the outside world.

Every nation in the world has its ups and downs; Beck and Fuller claim that the samurai have instilled in the Japanese culture the ability for renewal that can be copied by every business seeking revitalization.

Masters of both sword and pen, samurai are admired by the authors for their perceived loyalty, concern for the lower classes and tactical acumen. Switching from protectors of royalty to leaders of the country, from ultimate warriors to post-Meiji businessmen, the mystical samurai are said to embody the modern virtue of quick transformation.

Based on the findings of an Internet survey conducted in Japan and the United States, the authors even claim that a class of "Modern Day Samurai" exists in both countries that embodies all their esteemed virtues.

Critics can scoff at the influence of samurai on modern-day Japan; after all, the entire class was removed at a pen stroke after the Meiji Restoration. But 300 years of rule is hard to remove overnight, as evidenced by the enduring popularity of samurai dramas and daimyo warlords such as Toyotomi Hideyoshi and Oda Nobunaga.

For all their avowed secular nature, Westerners cannot escape the cultural morals imposed by centuries of Christianity, and it is most likely the same in Japan with Bushido.

How this applies to business is the work of the authors' numerous short chapters given one-word titles like "Loyal," "Hierarchical," "Conservative" and "Youthful."

But despite the authors' love of the samurai, ironically their preferred model is the ronin -- a title bestowed in modern Japan to failed students of university entrance exams.

These "masterless samurai" are seen as the best change agents due to their independence, coupled with a respect for loyalty and ability to switch masters. In a business sense, Honda and Sony are seen as model corporate ronin for ignoring the whims of Tokyo bureaucrats and entering the U.S. market in product categories they were told to stay out of.

Yet despite such examples, the authors fail to spell out how businesspeople can foster their stated samurai qualities, which include competitiveness, innovation and an ability to execute ideas.

Motherhood statements such as "have an ear to young thinking" are all too frequent. After 17 short chapters on samurai followed by a warning about China, only the final chapter is devoted to the target audience of entrepreneurs -- despite the authors' backgrounds in management consulting.

Yet the book does serve as a reminder that Japanese business is far from dead after the long slumber of the recent past. While it's unlikely that Japan hands will regain their bubble-economy status in the face of the sexier China story, Beck and Fuller's work will undoubtedly encourage many more to dust off those 1980s classics.



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