31 March 2005

What's Japanese for "Duh"?

The International Herald Tribune calls it "The beginning of the end for Japan, Inc.":
If you still believe that it's business as usual in Japan, consider several developments over the past year. The government strictly applied new accounting rules that forced Japan's fifth-largest bank, Resona, into bankruptcy; creditors pulled the plug on the retailing giant Daiei, the nation's largest "zombie" debtor; and a business icon, Yoshiaki Tsutsumi, was arrested on suspicion of fraud and insider trading. More recently, an upstart Internet company undertook a hostile takeover battle - a rarity in Japan - and found unexpected support in the courts and among investors.

These upheavals in Japan's corporate world come in the context of a major overhaul of the employment system, legislative initiatives promoting greater transparency and sweeping judicial reforms. Japan Inc. is gradually unraveling as the close ties between big business, the governing Liberal Democratic Party and the bureaucracy become increasingly frayed. This closed network is being pried open and subjected to far greater scrutiny. Japan has indeed missed opportunities for reform, but times are changing.

Sony, once a symbol of Japanese business prowess, appointed a foreigner, Howard Stringer, as its chief executive with a mission to rescue the foundering giant. He arrives just as another foreigner, Carlos Ghosn, is taking on new challenges at Renault after rescuing Nissan.

It doesn't seem that long ago chronologically or psychologically that Japanese businesses seemed almost omnipotent. In the early 1990s, Rising Sun played to our fears while various business books spoke to our admiration for Japanese achievements like Toyota's Lean Production techniques. Ten years later, other books were already trying to figure out how Japan had fallen so far, so fast.

Whether they've hit bottom yet and started to climb back up is anyone's guess. For every economist who's seeing signs of hope in the Japanese economy these days, there's at least one who doesn't. Personally, I'm skeptical of the absolutists on both sides of that debate. Fundamentally, I can't believe that a society as ambitious, industrious, and creative (well, let's just call that what it is -- American) as Japan's can be hopelessly lost economically. Of course, I could be wrong:

We knew there was going to be one phone we weren'’t going to leave [the CTIA technology convention in] New Orleans without seeing: Sony Ericsson’'s recently-announced W800 Walkman musicphone. The big revelation was that the W800 actually won’'t work with Sony’s Connect online music store, at least not when it’s launched later this year. Nah, instead it'’ll have support for both MP3 and AAC, with the idea is that you'’ll load it up with music from your own collection (it’ll ship with a 512MB Memory Stick Duo card). We were told that eventually they might add support for Connect (which would require a firmware upgrade, since the W800 doesn'’t currently support ATRAC3 -- —a total shocker for a Sony device), as well as whatever wireless music download services the carriers might be cooking up . . . .

(From Engadget [emphasis added].) Sony's had one of the world's leading electronics brands in Walkman and missed the digital music revolution; they had one of the leading music libraries in Sony Music (which includes such labels as Columbia Records, Epic Records, and Sony Classical) and missed out on online music retailing. Now, a day late and ¥107.482 short (at current exchange rates), Sony tries to put it all together in a Walkman-branded music player-mobile phone hybrid and they don't make the damned thing compatible with their own online music store. Duh.

It's often been said that no one nation has a monopoly on good ideas, but bad ideas are also seeming oblivious to nationality these days.

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