Japanese Customer Newsletter, March 4th, 2013.
By Peter Hanami
Picture: Suitcase packed
This month Peter interviews:
Simon Partner, Professor of Japanese History at Duke University, USA and author of
"Assembled in Japan: Electrical Goods and the Making of the Japanese Consumer"
"Toshie - A Story of Village Life in Twentieth-Century Japan" and
" Mayor of Aihara - A Japanese Villager and His Community, 1865-1925 "
Q. How did you become interested in Japanese history?
I come from a family of historians but never got too excited about European kings and
queens and their wars. What struck me about Japanese history was that every person I
met had been personally affected by the momentous events of the twentieth century - I
could see it from the perspective of those who *lived* history, not those who *made* it.
That was when I realized I could feel excited to become a historian.
Q. What period or topics of Japanese history do you specialize in or like the best?
Every aspect of the modern era (1868-the present) fascinates me. I am most interested in
the different ways in which ordinary people experienced the profound changes that the
Japanese nation underwent during this period.
Q. How did the book "Assembled in Japan" come about?
Before attending graduate school I was a consultant specializing in the Japanese
economy and business. I would go to Japan to research industries and companies that
were major global competitors. My US clients wanted to know about their growth
prospects, management practices, competitive strategies etc. But I found myself most
intrigued by the historical background that would usually go somewhere in the introduction
to my report. Where did these massive companies come from? How were they able to
become global competitors in the 1970s and on? One of the strongest Japanese
industries was electronics, with many Japanese companies' global household names. I
found myself intrigued by their history. I learned that in order to conquer foreign markets
they first had to build economies of scale in the Japanese domestic market. How did they
do that at a time when purchasing power in Japan was very low? Gradually I realized that
this story was as much about the consumers of electrical products as the producers.
Q. What were some of the challenges in researching and pulling it all together?
Sources. It's extremely hard to find the authentic voices of ordinary consumers in an era
as long ago as the 1950s. I was lucky that the Matsushita Electric Company (owner of the
National and Panasonic brands) had an excellent company archive, to which it allowed
me access. Other than that, I had to do a lot of combing through 1950s newspapers and
Q. What was the most interesting thing you found or discovered while researching,
writing or thinking about the book?
One of the real conundrums about the 1950s was the combination of relatively high
savings rates with rapidly rising rates of consumption. A television set cost several months
income in the mid-1950s. How were families able to purchase these and yet still develop a
global reputation as thrifty savers? Of course rising incomes helped, but they weren't
rising rapidly enough to fully explain this phenomenon. What I discovered was a complex
set of factors contributing to it, including low investment in housing (freeing up income to
purchase consumer goods), the growth of loan and installment plans, and the emergence
of a class of young people who lived at home with their parents and who, in spite of low
wages, were able to use much of their income for consumer products.
Q. What have been the reception, feedback and your learning's from the book?
Overall the book has been well received and I think it led to renewed interest in the history
of the consumer and consumption in postwar Japan. One question the book left me with
was the agency of ordinary consumers in all of this. Did they go out and buy TVs and
washing machines which they could ill-afford because they were brainwashed by
corporate advertising and marketing? Or were the companies actually responding to pentup consumer demand?
If anything, I found there was a lot of skepticism among consumers about Japanese-made
products. So just how responsible were ordinary people for these purchase decisions decisions which, in hindsight, seem to have deprived some families of much more
important potential investments, such as home ownership. I felt that the only way to really
investigate this would be to talk to or otherwise research actual individual consumers.
I was also very intrigued by the extremely rapid change in rural Japan, which came to the
consumer revolution late but which changed beyond recognition once it began.
Q. Could you tell me a little about your recent research and writing projects?
So for my next project (after Assembled in Japan) I wrote a biography of a farmer - a
woman who had grown up dirt-poor, and who had scraped and struggled her way to
relative prosperity (Toshie: A Story of Rural Life in Twentieth Century Japan). I found that
story so intriguing that I then researched and wrote a sort of prequel - the life story of a
farmer from the 1880s to the 1920s, a period of different but equally dramatic changes
(The Mayor of Aihara).
Japanese Customer News
"In Japan, shaving one's head has long been a public display of contrition,
although is usually only done by men or boys."
Source: Japan pop idol shaves head after sex scandal
February 2, 2013
The Age Newspaper Online
“Japanese political, government and business leaders have concluded that
their nation’s economic future lies with Asia, the world’s fastest growing region,
both as a market to sell to and as a platform in which to invest for research,
development and manufacturing”
Source: Removing barriers to trade, investment and business,
By Glen. S. Fukushima,
East Asia Forum Quarterly,
July – September, 2012. Vol 4. No. 3, page 12.
"Would you be willing to marry without money?”…72% of the women polled
answered that they wouldn’t want to marry without money. A break-down…by
age group…..Women in their twenties were most inclined to consider money a
necessity, with 78% answering that marriage without money was a no-go; in
the other age groups, 68% of women in their thirties and 67% of women in
their forties answered “No” to the question."
Source: What Japanese women think about money and marriage?
FEB. 09, 2013
Picture: Japanese instant noodles
"According to a Japanese poll in the year 2000, "the Japanese believe that
their best invention of the twentieth century was instant noodles."
Source: Wikipedia , "Japan votes noodle the tops". BBC News. 2000-12-12.
Retrieved 2007-04-25. BBC News
* Don't forget to keep up to date with the latest news!
Subscribe to our:
* News Feed
* Book Reviews
Visit our store for all your Japan related products
including books, food and gadgets!