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Monday, May 16, 2011

JAPANESE PERSPECTIVES

Old proverbs should be minded even in tough economic times


Special to The Japan Times

Recent news of the restaurant chain Yakiniku-zakaya Ebisu serving contaminated raw beef to its customers makes me think of an old Japanese proverb. It tells us that "poverty breeds stupidity." All old proverbs are invariably wise. They also tend to be true most of the time.

This is not to imply that all poor people are stupid. If that were true, a large number of very impressive personages in many walks of life would not have existed. That said, though, it cannot be denied that if you are hard-pressed for cash, you tend to be driven into making unwise choices and rash decisions.

You would also be tempted to cut corners and skip various procedures in the effort to make ends meet. Beggars, after all, cannot be choosers.

This seems to me to be very much what is apt to happen in highly competitive businesses such as mass-market restaurant chains. All the more so in an economic environment in which prices just keep going down with no apparent end in sight. Just when you thought you had achieved the rock bottom in discounting, somebody else comes in with a lower offer.

In this world of never-ending price deflation, nobody can afford to be all that fastidious about things like food safety. This is a terrible thought but undeniable nonetheless.

If you must serve such delicacies as raw beef at the kind of prices that are the norm in not so upmarket restaurant chains, something is bound to give. The rational choice would be to not put such items on your menu. If you cannot afford the time and effort to keep raw foods safe, steering clear of that whole area of business would be the common sense thing to do.

Yet even that is probably not as easy as it sounds when you are up against the kind of intense competition that businesses face these days. If something is on other people's menus, they have to be on yours as well. If you can come up with an item for your menu that is yet to be on anybody else's, you would not think twice before making it the number one chef's recommendation that goes up on the blackboard in front of your seat.

Obviously the offending restaurateurs should be made to pay the price for their follies. They must not be allowed to blame circumstances for their lack of conscientiousness.

Nevertheless, we should also recall that this sort of thing is not all that new or even that unusual in Japan these days. Food poisoning incidents have been a recurring theme among many well-known big brands. Yukijirushi, Fujiya and Akafuku are the ones that immediately come to mind.

It is not just foods and restaurants either. Ever since the late 1990s, the once sacred myth of Japanese superhuman quality control has been steadily fraying at the edges due to human error and human slipshodness. And now that the Fukushima nuclear power plant disasters have burst onto the scene, erstwhile silent experts have started to tell of the declining quality of engineers in their field.

As more and more Japanese operators in all fields of activity become subjected to fears of beggary, more and more of them lose the choosiness that is necessary to keep up quality standards. Thus stupidity begins to prevail. The prospects are chilly ones.

What is even more frightening is that the poverty breeds stupidity rule can be equally true in reverse. Stupidity breeds poverty, that is to say. You lose your choosy touch and you are liable to become a beggar because nobody thinks it is safe to do business with you. This is one vicious cycle you would most definitely not want to get caught in.

Noriko Hama is an economist and a professor at Doshisha University Graduate School of Business.


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