Variations on the company song

Global Japanisation?
November 24, 1995

The literature on the Japanese model of work organisation has mushroomed since the mid-1980s as Japanese overseas investment has risen dramatically and as "just-in-time", "kaizen" and "total quality" have become part of the day-to-day vocabulary of western managers. So is there anything new to say? The answer, after reading this book, turned out to be "yes".

Tony Elger and Chris Smith have brought together in this volume a group of critical scholars who have been active in researching Japanese transnationals and the diffusion of new management techniques in recent years. Between them they provide new data which cast doubt on, or qualifies, some of the inflated claims of certain schools of thought on the subject. And they pursue important avenues of investigation that have so far been largely neglected.

The book is divided into three parts, each with a prologue by the editors. In part one the nature of the Japanese model is discussed in three separate chapters. Chapter one, written by the editors, attempts to deconstruct the notion of global Japanisation and suggests alternative approaches to the subject.

In using case studies to explore the role of management accounting in Japanese and British companies, Karel Williams and his colleagues in chapter two question whether British managers have any understanding of how Japanese cost reduction activities really work.

Chapter three, by Toshiko Kamada, describes the restructuring of the Japanese iron and steel industries, outlines the resulting strains on the celebrated employment relations and questions the future of the Japanese model in its native land.

In different ways, then, each chapter invites the reader to re-think their understanding of a Japanese model.

Part two consists of four chapters on the diffusion of the Japanese model overseas. Particularly welcome here are reports on the perceptions of, and responses to, management initiatives by workers. The editors are correct in pointing out a tendency (with one or two notable exceptions) of previous research to rely on questionnaire surveys and interviews with managers, and these chapters help fill a gap in our knowledge and give a fresh perspective. The chapter by Laurie Graham, based on a rare participant observation study of shopfloor accommodation and resistance to management initiatives at a Japanese transplant in the United States, is particularly welcome.

Part three consists of five chapters based on work conducted in different national settings (Sweden, Italy, the US, and two on Brazil). These suggest some degree of convergence in production management and work organisation, but continuing diversity because of different institutional environments and socio-political forces.

So what is the nature and extent of global Japanisation? Here the reader would be wise to return to the first chapter of the book written by the editors. For it is in the light of a reading of some of the empirical findings of later chapters that Elger and Smith's dense theoretical arguments make most sense.

Elger and Smith would not wish to abandon completely the concepts of a Japanese model, but rightly argue for extreme caution in its usage. Their main suggestions include the need to understand that different production regimes may be established in different countries; that some aspects of the Japanese model are easier to transfer than others; and that appeals to a Japanese model are sometimes made to legitimise changes in working practices which have long been on employer agendas. In suggesting theoretical reorientation, Elger and Smith are providing a framework for a new research agenda, one which those wishing to pursue their own lines of enquiry into things Japanese would be wise to consider carefully.

For those significant numbers of academics embroiled in the Japanisation debate, this is compulsory reading.

Barry Wilkinson is a professor in the Cardiff Business School, University of Wales.

Global Japanisation?: The Transnational Transformation of the Labour Process

Editor - Tony Elger and Chris Smith
ISBN - 0 415 08586 1 and 08587 X
Publisher - Routledge
Price - £45.00 and £15.99
Pages - 376

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