The economy is comatose, credit is crunched, and U.S. companies are under more pressure than ever from overseas competitors. In order to prevail, many American business people are grimly determined to "learn from the Japanese." They are obsessed with the ostensible superiority of Japanese managers, no matter how bizarre their methods may seem after the obligatory trans-Pacific "discovery" trip is taken. But a quick look at some of the leading companies from the East brings relief to those in this country who may be suffering an inferiority complex: Japanese family businesses are driven by just as many egomaniacal father/founder/foiblers and are weighted by just as much emotional baggage as American ones are.
It's nice to see, for example, that some Japanese family business owners are equally capable of losing touch with the company's employees, and even its products, in the name of preserving the trappings of generations gone by. At the peak of such pomposity is Hiroshi Yamauchi, 63, who runs Nintendo, that seller of incessant video games. Nintendo is a family business that dates back to 1889, when Hiroshi's great-grandfather made traditional Japanese playing cards. Hiroshi, one of Japan's richest men, says he doesn't much like video games; he prefers to play the ancient game Go, and leads a conservative, spartan lifestyle.
The lone decoration in the lobby of Nintendo headquarters, according to Fortune, is a three-million-year-old fossilized shell. Meanwhile, in Nintendo's R&D center, scruffy young programmers surrounded by heaps of comic books, soft drinks, candy bars, and stuffed animals, pull all-nighters as they strive to create worthy successors to such "classics" as Super Mario Brothers and wonder just what that guy Hiroshi has to do with anything anyway.
Embattled families also can take heart in one of Japan's many father-son rivalries, 'inevitably driven, as we typically find here, by Dad's insensitivity toward his children when they were knee-high to a grasshopper. A prime ex
ample is Momofuku Ando, the flamboyant founder of Nissin Foods, whose instant ramen noodle soups were a surprise hit in the United States. In 1981, at age 70, Momofuku turned the company over to his eldest son, which proved disastrous; the two clashed over products (the younger man preferred natural foods to mixes) and strategy (fast- growth Dad thought his son was being too timid). So Momofuku fired his son in favor of a younger sibling, Koki, a more free-wheeling type who put a two-story disco in Nissin's Tokyo headquarters.
What was really behind the first son's refusal to accept his father's product fine, which started with instant chicken soup? It seems his reluctance stemmed from a childhood incident. According to Leonard Koren's recent book on Japanese business, Success Stories, Momofuku accidently squirted his firstborn, when he was just a tyke, with a faceful. of chicken blood while struggling in a backyard shed with soup recipes back in 1958. The boy developed a strong aversion to eating chicken, and, one may conjecture, a simmering resentment toward chicken soup, instant or otherwise.
Perhaps there is one lesson American patriarchs, at least, could learn from Japan, and that is: Give those unsung family heroes their due.
The lesson comes from Yaohan International, a fastgrowing retailer with revenues of $1.6 billion, run by Kazuo Wada and his mother. Kazuo has given his mother an an official title which not only speaks to her spiritual role, but also nicely summarizes the unofficial position held by many American moms: "Supreme Advisor."
David Graulich ponders business from San Francisco.