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”



  1. D. Gator said,

    August 27, 2010 at 12:42 pm

    Well, in this case the real question is “why are other cultures not more concerned with quality and reliability?”

  2. alexcase said,

    August 28, 2010 at 9:21 pm

    Actually, the Koreans are going through the exact same thing, with a nationalistic reaction to being known for cheap crap starting with the car manufacturers trying to be known mainly for reliability, then deprioritising that too as they switch to an emphasis on design and going upmarket. If you’ve seen roadworks in Tokyo and then roadworks in Seoul, you certainly wouldn’t label Koreans as being culturally biased towards being fussy perfectionists. I confidently predict the same from Chinese companies in the next ten years or so.

    It is interesting that the Italians never went through this, though, despite a lot of nationalistic crowing about overtaking the British economy briefly in the 70s

  3. alexcase said,

    October 16, 2010 at 11:31 am

    Come to think of it, the Italians always had the status of designer brands etc if they ever got depressed about Alfa Romeo’s being such rust buckets with surprisingly crappy performance

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