A recent surge in
recalls of the defective products made in Japan has sparked worries among
the Japanese that the country is losing its best face -- the
Many Japanese fears that the country may be losing its edge in product quality, while its neighbors
like China and South Korea are catching up.
"Craftsmanship was the best face that Japan had to show the world,"
said Hideo Ishino, a 44-year-old lathe operator. "Aren't the Koreans
making fun of us now?"
In the last two months, Toyota and Sony, the country's two proudest
brand names, announced large-scale recalls of defective products. They have
created something of a crisis in a country where manufacturing quality is
part of the national identity, the New York Times reported.
This week, Sony suffered another blow when Toshiba announced that it
was recalling 340,000 Sony-made laptop
batteries, after last month's recalls of 5.9 million
batteries. And Toyota said Wednesday that it would hire 8,000 more
engineers to strengthen quality.
In the Japanese media, Sony's and Toyota's quality problems have
frequently topped coverage of wars in Iraq and Lebanon. And Nihon Keizai
Shimbun, the leading economic daily, began a front-page investigative series this month
called "Can Japan Protect Quality?"
Japan's Trade Minister Toshihiro Nikai last month took unusually blunt
steps. He sent letters to Sony executives, ordering them to report on
quality-control improvements after recalls by Apple and Dell of Sony-made
Sony promised to comply and diligently sent employees to receive the
letters by hand. It was the first time such orders had ever been issued to
And, Sony's problems have not been limited to batteries. The company
worked furiously over the summer to resolve problems in production of its
PlayStation 3, its widely awaited game
console, which is due out in November.
"If asked if Sony's manufacturing ability has declined, at this point
today I have to say yes," said Ken Kutaragi, chief executive of Sony's
video game division.
Various reasons crop up as possible explanations for declining quality.
Universities said that new students are more interested in literature and
the liberal arts than engineering. Applicants to engineering programs are
down to 8.7 percent of all university applicants this year from 12.3
percent eight years ago, according to the New York Times report.
Others have begun to blame recent American-style management changes,
like the end of traditional lifetime job guarantees. Fujitsu, the
electronics maker, has backed away from basing salaries on individual
performance, saying it hurt employee morale and undermined team work.
Some economists said Asian competitors have been closing in as Japan
wrings its hands. Lee Kwang Hoon, an electronics analyst at Hanhwa
Securities in Seoul, said that the recall of Sony-made batteries could
offer an opportunity for the biggest Korean makers, Samsung and LG, to
rival Sony in market share.
"The biggest change may not be that Japan has dropped in quality," said
Masaru Kaneko, an economics professor at Keio University in Tokyo, "but
that Asia is catching up."