Sat, Feb 09, 2013 - Page 15 News List

TV captures Japan angst at decline

Reuters, TOKYO

A Japanese electronics firm near bankruptcy, a ruthless Chinese rival and a laid-off engineer feature in a popular TV drama that is hitting a public nerve in a nation fretting over the decline of a once-admired manufacturing model.

A weaker yen due to Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s expansionary economic policies has lightened some of the gloom for exporters, but NHK public TV’s Made in Japan series reflects a deep angst about an ailing manufacturing sector that was once key to Japan’s success and a source of national pride.

The three-part drama, which ends today, covers a secret “restructuring” team’s race against a three-month deadline to come up with a survival plan for “Takumi Electric” — the name means “artisan” in Japanese — before the bank pulls the plug.

Standing in their way are a Japanese engineer who goes to work in China after being laid off when his lithium-ion battery project was frozen — possibly taking proprietary technology with him — a clueless corporate president given his job by his founder father and a reporter desperate for a scoop.

All of which resonates for many Japanese as they watch once iconic electronics firms — Sony Corp, Panasonic Corp and Sharp Corp come to mind — lose global share to South Korean and Chinese rivals, and wonder what will replace lost manufacturing jobs and drive future economic growth.

“During the period of rapid economic growth after World War II and even after the bursting of the [1980s] asset bubble, manufacturing ... was a source of economic strength,” said Hisao Inoue, a freelance journalist who advised NHK on the script.

“Monozukuri [the making of things] was a source of pride for Japan,” he told reporters. “But that has changed and Japan has lost self-confidence.”

The show has won more than respectable Saturday-evening ratings of over 10 percent and created a buzz among business executives and bankers, with some wondering if it cuts too close to the bone with its portrayal of a firm — however fictional — on the edge.

“The performance is a bit melodramatic, but in a sense, it reflects reality,” a Japanese banker said.

The series’ chief producer Ren Takahashi said that the story has turned out to be more realistic than imagined when NHK began work on it two years ago.

“The economy was bad then, but we didn’t think the electronics industry would be in such trouble,” he told reporters, adding that “Takumi” was a composite of companies symbolizing Japan rather than being based on one firm.

“There’s no easy solution to the problems shown in Made in Japan ... but we want to end it in a way that gives hope,” he said.

The day before last week’s second episode, government data showed employment in Japan’s manufacturing sector dropped below 10 million for the first time in half a century.

“Japanese have great anxiety about the huge shift in power in East Asia to China on both the security and economic level,” said Jeffrey Kingston, director of Asian Studies at Temple University’s Japan campus. “The [TV] drama is a window into Japan’s collective anxiety about its apparent economic decline.”

Behind the melodrama, the story raises a deeper question: Just what is Japan’s famed monozukuri ethos and can it survive global competition and worldwide supply chains?

Monozukuri is a complex concept that implies craftsmanship and superb quality but with an undertone of rote learning of skills through repetition — a key talent during the era of mass manufacturing but one critics say is not conducive to the innovation Japan now needs.

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