Japan Business

The opening of several U.S. branches of large corporate law firms and mergers-and-acquisitions partnerships in Tokyo can be the start of a new industrial strategy toward the Japanese economic juggernaut. In short, if you can’t beat the Japanese companies with the strength of American

quality competition, then export the weaknesses of our economy and make them irresistibly contagious to the profit-minded Japanese.

Up to now, Japanese companies have been growing by selling products and not by buying other companies. Japanese executives are working on improving quality and services, while many of their U.S., counterparts are worrying about fending off takeover attempts or scheming to take over some other firms.

Fueling this takeover binge are the investment bankers and the corporate law firms whose fees are enormous and increasingly tantalizing to like-minded Japanese. Of course, Japanese culture is less conducive to hostile takeovers than the more hell-bent-for leather U.S commercial culture. But money has often prevailed over cultural differences and greased a common motivation that transcends culture.

To Japanese business people, the fees of these firms are unbelievable. While the head of Toyota makes half a million dollars a year, a Michael Millken can make a half a billion dollars a year. On the way up is Bruce Wasserstein who formed a new firm with partner Perella last year because, in part, he was not satisfied with about six million a year. Wasserstein & Perella has opened a Tokyo branch and has invited a 2O investment in its operations from a Japanese firm who wants to learn how to generate mergers and acquisitions in Japan.

The destabilization of the concentrated, driven harmony of the Japanese economy is underway in other areas simply by a new kind of imitation which will import the outlines of an infrastructure that debilitates. Borne signs of this trend are:

(1) More Japanese are obtaining western-style MBAs in U.S. business schools. The quantitative mania of such training will go far in undermining the traditional Japanese way of organizing human motivation and loyalty to the company.

(2) Formal group controls, so important in modern Japanese culture, are eroding in the face of greater individual independence and assertiveness brought about by contact with many Western Traits from women’s rights to consumer and environmental lobby groups.

(3) The pressure to conform and obey the company’s dictates and stay with a company for life is being challenged by a thirst for a variety of experiences and more time off. Already the older generation of Japanese are complaining about the younger generation’s unwillingness to work so hard or so long. Wait until today’s pre-teens grow up, having been fed a diet of Western rock music, fast food and a spate of the products that encourage hedonism and leisure time.

(4) More Japanese consumers are rebelling in mind, though not yet in social reform action, about the high prices they have to pay, even higher than foreigners pay for the same goods produced by the same Japanese companies.

The consumer gouging that goes on through monopolistic practices, trade protections and inefficient distribution systems helps build up the mass of Yen profits that are heading to the U.S. to buy land, factories and office buildings. More powerful consumer rights, driving down consumer prices, will reduce the enormous profits which now pose such a dominant economic force upon western nations.

(5) Finally, the first generation of entrepreneurs which founded Honda, Sony and other giants of the export industry have retired or are soon to do so. Their successors are likely to be more technocratic, less daring and more bureaucratic. This is what happened after the original captains of U.S. industry left the scene. Nissan has been having severe managerial problems already.

Other competitive forces from the Far East — from South Korea, Taiwan and soon China — are making the Japanese managers look over their shoulders with increasing discomfort.

Of course the Japanese are very resilient. When the Yen went from 240 to the dollar to 125 to the dollar in just two recent years, it was believed that Japanese consumer products would suffer a severe decline in U.S. markets. Today, the Japanese trade surplus with the U.S. is as large as it has ever been.

But times are changing. And the past is less able to predict the future.

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