29. 11. 09
While avoiding writing my next column for Blueprint magazine, I found the piece I wrote last year about the same topic, Japan. There is no other reason to publish it here and now except the fact that I have it right in front of me now, an unformatted text file.
When Japanese products first turned up in the West, they were cheap and generally not very challenging technically. Those were the days when Japanese companies would hide their identity behind English or better still, American-sounding names like Bridgestone, Panasonic, JVC, and NEC. A product from Japan was generally a poor imitation of the real thing and lacked originality. Price was the main feature, brand loyalty unlikely.
It was easy for the established brands to exploit widespread prejudice against Asian products and dismiss them as inferior. How could a country that nobody knew much about and that had been devastated by nuclear bombs possibly challenge western standards? Didn’t they all still sleep on the floor in wooden houses, eat rice out of wooden bowls and communicate with primitive brush strokes?
In the late Fifties, when they were first seen in the USA, Japanese cars looked like pocket-sized versions of large American models, fins and all. The first models did very badly in the USA. Pocket-sized, however, was the operative word: while in the US bigger was better, Japanese products always had to deal with the fact that a population of 100m has to live on a narrow coastal strip along a few rather small islands. Things made in Japan were small and kept getting smaller because a normal household there has as much space at its disposal as one car does in America. Japan has no natural resources, no room for landfills and a culture that doesn’t like ostentatious display of wealth. (The first facts may actually be the reason for the third). The opposite of Texas, as it were. Making things well and as small as possible seemed to be as natural to a Japanese engineer as over-engineering was to his German colleague. Where else would you find a book describing 101 ways to package an egg? The package itself was not seen as something merely to guarantee safe transportation, to be discarded at the end of that journey, but as serving its own aesthetic purpose.
It was in this spirit that in 1979 Sony introduced the first truly portable music player, the Walkman. It didn’t need to look like a traditional tape-recorder, because its purpose was to package music, not cassettes. It was also the first device that isolated its users from the world around them by introducing headphones as the only output for sound. Anybody who has ever travelled on public transportation in Tokyo will appreciate why that can be a blessing for both sides. With the Walkman, Sony had become a major global brand and a quality standard.
While Japanese products stood for mass production before, now they symbolized innovation. Suddenly, hitherto unpronounceable brands like Yamaha, Mitsubishi, Hitachi or Toyota not only became household names in the West, but also stood for premium brands that didn’t need to be cheap to sell. Some of the biggest Japanese companies still make products under western-sounding pseudonyms: Epson (Son of Electric Printer, really!) printers are made by Seiko Epson Corporation from Nagano, Roland synthesizers by Rorando Kabushiki Kaisha from Shizuoka and Bridgestone is still the trade name of Kabushiki-gaisha Burijisuton from Fukuoka. In other cases, the Japanese language provides a nice consonant-vowel pattern, making names like Nikon, Canon, Honda, and Nissan, sound pleasant and instantly familiar to western ears.
It has, however, taken Japanese brands a long time to be confident about their heritage. About 10 years ago, we worked with Lexus to reposition its brand in Europe. When we told the gentlemen who came to visit from Japan that it was a good idea if it owned up to being Japanese instead of pretending to be a pseudo-Mercedes of unknown origin, they thought we were quite mad. We showed them that Japanese qualities like modesty, precision and attention to detail produced cars that afforded the utmost luxury: the absence of stress. Luxury doesn’t have to mean ostentatious displays of gold chrome, but can also mean a Zen-like concentration on the essential. They never quite believed us, and it has taken Lexus another decade to arrive at the current positioning which is self-confident and relaxed.
Japanese brands don’t have to prove anything anymore. They are now imitated by those they tried to emulate 40 years ago. In a globalized world, only authentic brands will survive, and heritage has become a virtue, not something to hide. Cheap products now come from elsewhere. In a country without oil, gas or minerals, the human brain has become the most powerful resource. The lesson we can learn here in Europe is that progress is not about making more, but better.
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