26. A Language Adventure. Japan Incorporated
Japan in the 1970s and early 1980s was different from today's Japan. It was a less open society.
During the first four years of my stay in Japan I was First Secretary at the Canadian Embassy. During this time I was involved in initiating a program to introduce the North American platform frame wood building system to Japan. This program met the objectives of the Japanese Ministry of Construction, which was concerned about the projected lack of carpenters trained in the demanding traditional Japanese building system. This was a time of rapid improvement in living standards and a high annual level of house construction.
I enjoyed my stint at the Embassy because of my close involvement with my Japanese counterparts, especially those like the Ministry of Construction officials and the members of the Tokyo Young Lumbermen's Association who participated in the introduction of the new wood frame building system. On the other hand, the social obligations of the diplomatic service, the frequent evening cocktail parties and entertainment which ate into my private life, were less enjoyable.
At the end of my Embassy posting in October 1974, despite vague plans to return to University to do Asian Studies, I was recruited by Seaboard Lumber Sales, a leading Canadian forest products company, to set up a subsidiary company in Tokyo. I would never have been given this opportunity had I not learned Japanese. I worked in the forest industry in Japan from 1974 to 1977 for Seaboard and then returned to Vancouver with my family. We returned to Japan for a further two years in 1981 to 1982 on behalf of another major Canadian forest products company, MacMillan Bloedel Ltd.
This was a period when Japan, although very pleased to export large amounts of manufactured goods, was only slowly and reluctantly opening up its market to imports, despite the efforts of foreign exporters and Japanese people involved in import. As the person in charge of MacMillan Bloedel's operations in Asia, I was responsible for marketing paper and pulp as well as lumber. I occasionally encountered trade barriers.
The paper industry in Japan was a tightly knit community of users, producers and government officials. It was particularly difficult for our Japanese employees to be seen promoting Canadian paper in competition with Japanese producers. It was almost considered unpatriotic. A famous book, The Day We Ran Out of Paper was written in 1981 under a pseudonym by an official of MITI (the Japanese Ministry of International Trade and Industry). The message of this book was that a Japanese newspaper publisher importing foreign newsprint paper was selling out freedom of speech to a foreign conspiracy. Times have changed now, and Japanese paper companies themselves have built paper mills in many countries of the world, including Canada.
In the 1980s, under trade liberalization pressure from the United States, the Japanese Telephone Company (NTT) allowed foreign paper producers to bid for the telephone directory paper business. Our company was the first foreign supplier to pass the quality testing. That was the easy part. It was much more difficult to deal with the cozy relationships between Japanese suppliers and customers, often described by the term "Japan Incorporated."
The Japanese paper producers, who were our competitors, had retired senior executives of NTT, our common customer, on their Boards of Directors. Furthermore, we had to deal through a "fixer" agency company owned and run by retired employees of NTT. The printing companies were also owned and run by ex-employees of NTT. My ability to read and speak Japanese helped me navigate this world of complex relationships and create a market for our Canadian paper products.
The Japanese paper market was dominated by a small number of large producers and users and therefore it was easy for semi-monopolistic trading practices to become established. The lumber trade, however, was different. It consisted of a large number of traditionally minded lumber retailers, wholesalers and home builders. Paradoxically, because of the larger number of participants, the traditional Japanese lumber sector was more open than the modern and sophisticated paper sector.
My relationship with the Japanese lumber trade was to become a dominant experience in my life. I was able to experience first-hand the Japanese love of nature and their pursuit of excellence in product design and manufacture. Their respect for their traditional house building system and the skills of the carpenter, and their appreciation and understanding of wood, have all had a profound and lasting impact on me.
I also encountered the conservatism of that society. At times I went against established practices to achieve the objectives of my company. This often upset our Japanese counterparts. I was once described as the "Kaufmann Typhoon" in a lumber trade newspaper. However, I always felt that Japanese business people were able to maintain an attitude of respect, even when disagreeing on substantive issues. Mutual respect is an important part of the mood of Japanese society, and a large reason for their social cohesion and success.
add to del icio us
This is a part of The Linguist: A personal guide to language learning which you can buy online at TheLinguist website. The paperback is available in English, Simplified Chinese and Traditional Chinese and the downloadable PDF e-book is available in English, French, Spanish, Japanese, Simplified Chinese, Traditional Chinese and Korean.
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