Tuesday, February 23, 2010

'Nemawashi' & Toyota via AP today

"Japanese presidents are team leaders who coordinate everyone's views and care intensely about peer opinion because confrontation must be avoided, she told The Associated Press.

This nation has a special phrase to describe such behind-the-scenes consensus-building, ''nemawashi,'' which translates as ''laying the groundwork.'' Neglecting nemawashi is considered a foolish and sure way to walk into failure.

Nemawashi is bureaucratic and time-consuming, but once a decision is made, everyone is on the same page, and action proceeds quickly without infighting.

'A Japanese company president has to seek consensus through patient meetings, gentle and shrewd nemawashi, and all sorts of very subtle backroom dealings and such,' says Roland Kelts, lecturer at the University of Tokyo. 'It's a much greater, more sophisticated and complex balancing act.''' --By Yuri Kageyama LINK

Friday, February 19, 2010

Super Bowl and Yomiuri--together at last.

The Super Bowl, the biggest American football game of the year, might as well be called the Super Brand in honor of all the advertisers who try to get a piece of its huge U.S. audience. But even as I was being dazzled by the commercial hoopla watching the game in person this month in Miami, I was reminded that the brand getting the most attention in the United States these days is a Japanese one: Toyota.

An American television network contacted me for an interview about a sudden, late-night press conference held by Toyota Motor Corp. President Akio Toyoda, whose brand was taking a beating over massive global recalls. I watched the press conference with some dismay. From an American perspective, Toyoda looked blinkered and fuzzy, bowing halfheartedly and reading from a prepared statement before stumbling through some impromptu English comments, apparently in response to non-Japanese reporters, to reassure Toyota owners that their cars were safe. "Toyota's car is safety," he said. While I winced in sympathy, the solecism was far from soothing to American ears.

En route to the TV studios, the paradox was stark: All around me, America's domestic brands were swaggering as though they owned the world, while Japan's biggest global brand, in a moment of crisis, was playing strictly to the home crowd, regardless of its international reach.

The same holds true in spades for Japan's producers of popular culture, who are at far greater risk of implosion than Toyota.[more Here; and w/graphics @ 3:AM]

Thursday, February 18, 2010

On Jazz Opera for PRI / NPR "The World"

Here: Japanese Jazz Opera

So a colleague sent me a link to a video. It had been forwarded to him by another friend: you know how it goes.

The video is titled: “Japanese Jazz Opera”.

And here’s how it begins. Yep, that’s ‘Now’s The Time’, by Charlie Parker. Only in the video it’s sung by an old peasant couple, with Japanese lyrics.

The setting is a kind of studio version of an olden-days Japanese village. They seem to be actors in some kind of elaborate comedy skit.

But before you have a chance to consider what might be going on, they move on to Miles Davis. Superficially the video, which runs to about ten minutes, is just spectacularly odd.

But still, what IS it?

I turned for help to Roland Kelts. He’s the author of Japanamerica – and splits his time between Tokyo and the US. It didn’t take Kelts long to recognize the actor playing the part of the old peasant woman — a middle-aged man in sunglasses.

KELTS: “In Japan, this guy Tamori, the comedian behind this video, this show, is everywhere, he’s ubiquitous.”

OK, progress: so we know it’s a skit starring one of Japan’s biggest celebrities.

KELTS: “If you can imagine someone… posters… beer… that you see on TV every night in Japan.”

And this video clip, Kelts says, comes from Tamori’s nightly variety show, an edition from March 1986. It was called ‘What a Great Night’. Kelts recognizes the subject of the skit too.

Turns out it’s a take on Momotaro, or the Peach Boy – one of the all-time classic Japanese fairy tales.

KELTS: “It follows the narrative very closely, it hews quite close to the narrative, but everything is done tongue-in-cheek.”

The first part of the story goes like this. There’s a poor old couple. They can’t have kids. One day, a giant peach floats down the river to their village. The old couple take the peach home and try to eat it. But when they cut it open, they find a boy inside.

In Tamori’s version, this is where they sing Thelonius Monk’s Misterioso.

So now we’ve got a Japanese T-V variety show from the 1980s doing a tongue-in-cheek version of a classic fairy tale.

But why the jazz?

It starts to make a bit more sense, says Roland Kelts, when you know that Tamori – the comedian – was born in August 1945.

That makes him the archetypal post-war boomer.

Kelts: “That generation grew up idolizing America pop culture. They read American novels, they listened to America jazz, they watched Am TV. So knowing those specific numbers and who created them, who composed them would be a point of pride.”

And Kelts thinks that back in the 80s, that self-aware sophistication — knowing relatively obscure jazz tunes like this one, Bill Evans’ Waltz for Debby — fit into a broader sense of Japan’s place in the world.

Tamori’s TV show took full advantage.

Kelts: “That was a time when Japan’s economy was expanding… show that was perceived to be how far Japan had come… can poke fun…. at ourselves… best known fairytale in Japan.”

In Japan, but not here in the States. Here’s how it ends. The peach boy grows up. And, along with some animal friends, he travels across the ocean – um, to the Herbie Hancock tune, Maiden Voyage.

The peach boy arrives at the island of the ogres — they’ve been stealing from the villagers. In Tamori’s skit, the chief ogre is painted red from head to toe, wears glasses and sings the bebop tune Donna Lee. In the end, the peach boy defeats the ogres and returns home with a load of treasure. In Japan it’s about as well-known a story as you can get.

But Roland Kelts says that for younger Japanese today, the only thing they’d understand would be the story.

Today their focus is domestic not international — in music and in other things.

Kelts: “It’s a symbol or a sign of how pessimistic younger Japanese feel. Tamori’s generation, they were looking to a Japan that continued to grow and the growth seemed endless. Your real estate holding would grow in value, forever. Some people said back then we’d all work for a Japanese company. It seems absurd now.”

So did the video when I first watched it. But it turns out to be much more than anonymous Japanese TV comedians singing jazz tunes in peasant costumes. It’s really a historical document of a Japanese attitude — one that’s slipping away.

And maybe the United States can relate to that feeling… a feeling that something’s been lost: that carefree sense of being on top of the world.

Saturday, February 13, 2010

On NPR's "On the Media"

My conversation with NPR's Brooke Gladstone of "On the Media" about Schadenfreude and revived 'Japan-bashing' in the wake of Toyota's troubles, airing on NPR stations this weekend in the US.

TRANSCRIPT courtesy of NPR:
BROOKE GLADSTONE: [LAUGHS] The air is rife with apology.


TOYOTA SPOKESMAN: For over 50 years, providing you with safe, reliable, high-quality vehicles has been our first priority.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: Toyota is mending fences just as fast as it can.

TOYOTA SPOKESMAN: In recent days our company hasn't been living up to the standards that you've come to expect from us or that we expect from ourselves.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: And, not a moment too soon. According to a study released this week by Kelley Blue Book, which assesses car values and prices for buyers and sellers, more than 27 percent of those who were considering a Toyota prior to the recall now say they no longer are, and the Toyota brand has dropped to third place, behind Ford and Chevrolet. How humiliating!


INTERPRETER FOR AKIO TOYODA: I apologize for the great inconvenience and concerns of our customers due to recalls from multiple models in the multiple regions.

AKIO TOYODA: Believe me, Toyota’s car is safety and but we are try to increase our product better.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: Toyota President Akio Toyoda, less than a year into the job, was supposed to carry the company into the future, a challenging task because of the clash of cultures. Not just the clash between America and Japan, though that’s a big one, there’s also the clash between corporate and consumer culture.

And in the history of corporate/consumer relations, one recall stands alone as the gold standard, the unreachable star, the apotheosis of right thinking in the face of Armageddon, the great Tylenol recall of 1982.

MALE CORRESPONDENT: Seven people died this week in Chicago after taking Extra Strength Tylenol capsules that had been laced with cyanide. By week’s end, all Tylenol products were taken off the market in Chicago.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: Gene Grabowski is the senior vice president of Levick Strategic Communications, which has offered PR advice to beleaguered entities, ranging from spinach growers to the Vatican. He says Johnson & Johnson had a number of factors in its favor during the Tylenol recall. Its management had already worked out a crisis strategy plan, it had a charismatic CEO in James E. Burke and its problem was caused by a homicidal manic, not bad business practice. Tylenol in 1982 was the most successful over-the-counter product in America.

GENE GRABOWSKI: It could have very easily been destroyed in a couple of months. When you think back on the, the Tylenol recall, that was a leap of faith, but they took it. And the reason they took it was they thought like their customer. What would they expect of a company?

BROOKE GLADSTONE: Well, specifically they could expect Johnson & Johnson to swiftly pull the product off the shelves, explain the problem, accept responsibility, hold press conferences, go on 60 Minutes, set up a consumer hotline and, most important, invent tamper-proof caps. But generally, consumers should expect companies to take:

GENE GRABOWSKI: Four steps, basically: Identify what the problem is, apologize. Then very quickly describe what is you’re going to do to make sure this doesn’t happen again, and then do it. Follow through on your promise.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: So, if Johnson & Johnson set the template in 1982 which, by the way, the U.S. Defense Department now uses as a case study in crisis communication strategy, why didn't it catch on? Why has no other company, even Johnson & Johnson, in later recalls, pulled it off so well?

GENE GRABOWSKI: It’s not so much that the example didn't catch on. It’s that the delivery of those messages and having the, the corporate courage to do so has always been in short supply. When a crisis hits, typically what happens is corporate executives at the top huddle together and worry about the stock price, worry about their image, worry about production, worry about profits and losses.

And the one thing they should be focused on is what is that mother of three thinking about my product right now. It’s so simple that almost nobody will accept it.

JIM LENTZ: Hi, I'm Jim Lentz, President of Toyota Motor Sales, USA. And I want to let you know that we've developed a comprehensive plan to fix the sticking pedal situation in recalled Toyota vehicles.


BROOKE GLADSTONE: Lentz issued this apology on February 1st, weeks after the current recall crisis exploded and years after Toyota fended off mounting safety concerns with reflexive opacity and denial, all of which reflects that other cultural clash, the one between the U.S. and Japan.

JIM LENTZ: Thank you for your patience and understanding.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: The New York Times recently drew attention to the exaltation in some precincts of American business that the star car company, the star pupil, so to speak, had been laid low by hubris. It was the joy in another’s misfortune, called Schadenfreude.

ROLAND KELTS: Well, that’s the operative word, and not just in the American media response but also the, the administration’s response, and particularly Ray LaHood.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: Roland Kelts, author of Japanamerica: How Japanese Pop Culture Has Invaded the U.S., is referring to Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood’s suggestion, since withdrawn, that Toyota owners stop driving their cars.

ROLAND KELTS: You know, for anyone over what, 25, 30 in Japan, memories of the Japan-bashing in the 1980s are very stark, very painful, where, you know, you literally saw the United States – and many people forget this [LAUGHS] – politicians and auto workers smashing Toyotas and Nissans on American television with sledgehammers to protest what they felt were unfair export policies.

Now in Japan, the memory of that is that we learned to play the game by American rules, we learned to participate in this capitalist economy, and we succeeded and then we got smashed for it. So there’s a great wound, a great bruise, at the very least, in the Japanese psyche over those Japan-bashing days.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: On the other hand, Kelts says that once Japan learns a lesson, it stays learned. He says that Akio Toyada’s recent activities – sending an Op-Ed to The Washington Post, speaking directly to American consumers, phoning Ray LaHood – are revolutionary in the context of corporate Japan. In fact, one day Japan may outperform America in dealing with corporate crises because if you consider that the 1982 Tylenol recall was the moon landing of corporate/consumer relations, America planted the flag but it hasn't been back there, since.


More Toyota/Japanamerica on ABC's "Good Morning America"

Here's a slightly different angle with reporting from Tokyo and me in Miami via ABC's "Good Morning America," taking into account shame and suicide at the corporate level.

Talkin' Toyota on ABC's World News Tonight

Just getting my bearings back after a week in Miami at the Super Bowl and a week in NYC talking Toyota with the US media.

Here's my interview with ABC's Brian Ross of World News Tonight.

Monday, February 01, 2010

Super Bowl in South Beach

Off to Super Bowl in South Beach w/Saints, Colts and The Who.
[pic of me and PT in NYC.]