Thursday, August 14, 2008

Study Abroad Japan Blog: Book Review - Japan as Number One by Ezra Vogel

Book Review

Title: Japan as No.1- Lessons for America
Author: Ezra.F.Vogel
Publisher: Tokyo: Charles Tuttle, 1987
Details: 265pp:
ISBN: 4-8053-0470-7

What has the West learned in thirty years?

Copyright Japanese Customer, 2009 . All rights reserved.

Next year (2009) marks the nearly thirty year anniversary of Ezra Vogel's overview of the differences between Japanese and American industry. The book holds up very well and a first time reader will walk away with good insights into a still undiscovered and little known country, Japan. Vogel must have taken an enormous risk writing the book. He really broke all the rules, he spoke about an enemy, studied them in detail and then tried to tell his own country, to reflect and change.

It is important to note the setting in which the book was written. According to Vogel, "In gross national product per person, Japan passed the United States in 1977 or 1978", page 21. Finding a situation like this must have been dire and an immediate investigation must have been called for.

In my opinion Vogel did a good job at explaining, what happened, why and what to do. In hindsight it is disappointing that even after thirty years since its first publication; few of his insights have been further studied by western countries. For example: "the Shinkansen bullet trains are a model of passenger transportation that may yet influence American patterns as energy problems affect passenger car travel", p80

It is easy to label his work too positive toward all things Japanese, but it must be remembered that when one truly discovers through detailed study and observation a unique Japanese technique. It can be hard not to be in awe of it, as it may be something so simple but yet very powerful. That doesn't match anything in western logic and thinking.

He could have focused on negative aspects of the culture but that was not the aim of the book. It was aimed at making the reader consider that Japan could overtake America as the number one economic power. As an American he saw what was happening to America and dared to share his insights by observing a key competitor, Japan. His positive view can be seen more as a worried observer wanting changing after discovering insights of a serious competitor, rather than coming across as loving all things Japanese.

One must also put into perspective that Vogel's work is significant in that he put himself in a position to study the culture and tried to explain it to a western audience. Added to this one must also consider just how difficult it is for westerners to truly enter Japanese society. Vogel's lifetime of study, can hardly be compared in the same breath as a short term expat experience in the modern era.

Yes, Japan has changed over the past thirty years and the current economic situation is vastly different. Will Japan prosper in the future, who knows? I personally don't agree with all his observations but I do credit his detail and insight.

If one looks at the key premises of the book, it is not the systems that makes Japan unique and of interest, but the stability of the culture to adapt and keep changing. A key point that keeps recurring throughout the book is just how formidable the Japanese are as competitors, "very flexible in changed conditions", p70

Another premise equally important, is why the West doesn't study Japan, the way Japan studies the West. A very good question and one that is still hard to answer.
The book today would be of interest to academics, business leaders, small business and students preparing for study abroad in Japan.

Vogel's book is good from a historical perspective as it provides a window into the past and it can easily be used as a reference point from which to observe and understand the future. Chrysanthemum and the Sword by Ruth Benedict provided western readers with an insight into the Japanese whereas Vogel provides an insight into Japanese society.

Does the book achieve its goal? I believe it does. One must read between the lines to get the true message of what is being said.

What can you take from the book thirty years on? Cultural insights, history and a detailed overview of how things work in Japan.

Rating: **** 4/5

Japan as Number One

Follow up book - Is Japan still Number One

Chrysanthemum and the Sword - Ruth Benedict

Most Recent work - Japan and China in the World Political Economy - 2007