Why are Prius owners the worst drivers in Japan?

I notice this again and again, and often are growling at the crap driving before I even see what car it is, so it’s not some kind of prejudice.

My theory is that the car simply attracts holier-than-thou types who think they have even more an entitlement because they have a green car. It’s certainly not due to actual concern for the environment that the Prius has become a bestselling car in Japan, that’s for sure. It actually seems to be more some kind of showing off, though I can’t quite work out how or why.

Why so many white and silver cars?

“Around 1986, when the colour white became fashionable in Japan, 70 percent of the passenger cars pouring out of Toyota factories were white, with the figure as high as 90 percent for some models. Asking consumers why, one would get answers ranging from ‘it’s a clean colour’ to ‘white cars have a higher resale value’”

America and the Four Japans pg 86

Why do some UK imports also have the steering wheel on the wrong side?

Imported cars have traditionally been very expensive in Japan, but for some reason it is cheaper to have it imported for you than to buy it from a normal dealer. If you do it that way, however, the steering wheel of German and American cars is usually on the wrong side for Japan. Strangely, most older Jags and some other British imports do too.

The book Learning to Bow suggests that having a steering wheel on the other side is actually a further selling point as it emphasizes how exotic having an imported car is, but I’m not convinced that showing how much effort you went to to save a few pennies is something you necessarily want everyone to notice. Instead, I’ve always assumed that it is easier and cheaper to get old MGs and Jags from America, where they were briefly very trendy but soon went out of fashion. There’s also probably not enough demand for British cars to set up imports directly from the UK.

Why the Japanese obsession with quality and reliability?

“On the expressways of Tokyo, where there is no room for a shoulder on the roadway, one stalled car can back up traffic for miles- in itself enough to require that Japanese cars to be reliable” Gaishi- The Foreign Company in Japan (1990)

Not convinced by that, as it is far from limited to the car industry and in that industry more than others the drive to quality was driven by export demands rather than domestic ones. The same book does have some more likely candidates for explanations, though:

- “In many Japanese organisations, employees are judged by the mistakes they make in the course of their careers rather than by the accomplishments” (page 25)

- The Japanese level of customer service makes responding to quality concerns very expensive and therefore best avoided at all costs- “For example, when a customer’s computer system goes down, the manufacturer of the system sends an engineer immediately and also keeps the engineer on the scene until the problem is fixed… Such an approach is costly for the manufacturer and thus underscores the need for quality products from the start” (page 96/97)

- The Japanese emphasis on conformity (wearing uniforms, group exercises etc) makes it easy to concentrate on quality and less easy to build originality etc

All those cultural factors fail to explain, however, why Japanese companies were known for making cheap, low quality crap from Meiji times well into the 1970s, and why Toyota is only the highest profile example of shocking lapses in quality control in many Japanese companies recently, especially food companies.

My favourite explanation is that it all goes back to that reputation for cheap, shoddy goods and a patriotic desire to do away with that picture of Japanese products once and for all. That tied in nicely with Zen-influenced ideas like attention to detail, but other factors like being able to ignore short term profitability and share price were much more important. When the obsession moved onto other things, e.g. Toyota trying to use becoming world number 1 as their new employee motivator (in place of decent pay and conditions with job security, obviously, as those were being cut), then quality soon suffered.

In other words, historical, economic and accidental factors might have been reinforced by cultural ones, but were much much more important than “the Japanese way”

Why is the foreign source of something often still marked in Japanese words?

The one that always surprises me is youfuku (洋服ー ようふく- Western clothes) when it would seem to be more sensible nowadays to mark out the very rarely worn Japanese clothes for a special name, but there are a few more such as using gaisha (外車ーがいしゃ- car from outside, or foreign car) much more than “foreign car” or “imported car” would be used in any other language I know.

The book I’m reading says that gaisha is a way of showing off because even recently non-Japanese cars were rare and almost always expensive imports (Korean cars and European hatchbacks being rarely if ever sold here), but I’m not convinced that this is still a factor, even if it was in 1990 when Gaishi- The Foreign Company in Japan was written. I also don’t think that 1% of Japanese using the word youfuku are actually thinking of jeans or a suit as foreign. Maybe it is simply that two kanji expressions like this are just two syllables and so as easy to say as kuruma (車ー くるまー car), if not easier.

Why ToyoTa cars but Mr ToyoDa?

Thoroughly (and amusingly) dealt with by Language Log here. More company names of JapanExplained here.

Why are Japanese cars so reliable?

The mostly commonly given reasons are the traditional Japanese perfectionist craftmanship and its modern equivalent continuous improvement. In “The Reckoning”, David Halberstam also suggests the need to withstand the awful postwar roads made them build sturdy cars and that the postwar generation of Japanese engineers knew a lot more about manufacturing than they did about cars. The fact that all the Japanese car makers only made trucks during the war might also be a factor in them putting sturdiness before style and comfort.My own favourite theory is that it is mainly a manifestation of the Japanese fear of failing and being embarassed that made them concentrate on making cars where nothing was wrong more than cars with more obvious selling points.

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