24 Aug 2010

Doing business as a Japanese businessman in the '60s and '70s

filed under: journal  :: japanese culture  :: tv

The most recent episode of Mad Men, titled "The Chrysanthemum and the Sword", was interesting. Not because of the parts about Betty and Don and so on - I'm not a regular watcher of the series really - but for the interactions between the Honda executives and the partners of the advertising firm. It reminded me of what my father told me about his experiences as a businessman trying to sell his company's products in Europe and the U.S. in the late '60s to mid '70s.

If you haven't watched the episode, briefly the advertising firm that is the focus of the show decides to pitch Honda, known at the time solely as a maker of motorcycles. One of the partners objects strongly, because he can't forget his memories of World War II. The other partners decide to go ahead and have a meeting with the Honda executives anyway (by the way, the actors playing the execs were speaking horrible pseudo-Japanese, but that's another story). During the meeting, the partner who was objecting bursts in and starts insulting the Honda execs. I can't recall if he uses terms like Yellow Devils and so on, but that's the general gist.

My father, who is now in his 70s, was a young salaryman sent overseas by his company, Minibea, then known as Nippon Minature Ball Bearing or NMB, in the latter half of the 1960s, some years after the time setting of the Mad Men incident (1964). He spoke excellent English, and was stationed in the U.K. (later on he was sent to the U.S. too). His job when he was stationed in the U.K. was to sell his company's products to manufacturing companies around Europe.

My father is not much of a talker really, or rather I've never really tried to get stories out of him, but he did tell me some things about the experiences he had. For instance, when I told him I was going to marry a Swiss guy, he chuckled and said "Ah, the Swiss were very tough customers. We couldn't sell anything to them but no wonder - their ball bearings were better than ours." The way in which he was treated by potential clients or business partners seemed to differ by how much they wanted to do business with Minibea, much like in the Mad Men episode. If they wanted to, they were very polite, but if not, they didn't feel any need to be even civil. By his time, the insults were not World War II references though, but more along the lines of "Japan is so inferior/makes shoddy products/are just copycats" and so on.

One story that he told me sticks in my mind. In the early '70s, Minibea approached a ball bearing company in New Hampshire about doing business. I think the general idea was that they cooperate in marketing ball bearings, since the other company made regular sized, or larger, ball bearings and Minibea made the miniature ones. Minibea was basically told by that company that they wanted none of it, simply because they didn't trust any Japanese. They practically accused Minibea of wanting to try and steal their technology and things of this nature.

(This accusation of 'you are just here to steal' thrown at Japanese people was fairly common even in the late '80s, when I did some work as an occasional translator in New York while going to school. I once took a client, the owner of a large store in Kyuushuu, to a trade show in the Javits Center. She was interested in some prints being sold at one booth and asked me to ask the man there for a brochure. He flat out refused, telling us that "you people just want to copy my stuff". We were so shocked that we just walked away, though in retrospect perhaps we should have said something to the organizers. It's also quite possible he thought we were Chinese, but no matter - it was blatant racism anyway. (edit: hah, I just realized that I'd written about this incident already 3 years ago.)

Anyway, back to Minibea. They walked away from that meeting with that ball bearing company, but it seems the CEO of the company, Mr. Takahashi, never forgot about it. Because some years later, Minibea bought that company. (Note: I'm not sure if this tale is accurate, or if it's apocryphal, but it does make a good story. The part about Minibea buying that company, called New Hampshire Ball Bearing, is true though.)

Recent reports about Japan being overtaken by China and dropping to being the no. 3 economy in the world reminded me of Takami Takahashi, the founder and CEO of Minibea. He's not at all known outside of Japan, or even inside Japan these days - he died when he was just 61 and still running the company, in 1989 - but he was one of the many dynamic company heads that emerged in Japan in the post-WWII period, who managed to grow their companies from small workshops into giant multinational corporations, and to change the image of Japan as the place where shoddy, cheap products are made to where we are now, where Japanese made (for the most part) stands for top quality.

I wonder if people like him exist in present day China - and also, if people like him exist anymore in present day Japan. I am a bit skeptical about both.

Comments on this post:

This was a very interesting

This was a very interesting read. I found your blog through your satoshi kon translation but I'm happy I stuck around and looked though some of your posts.

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