Monotsukuri is an interesting term. It can be translated as manufacturing, making things, and some enterprising people have translated it as innovation. It seems to mainly come up on the Internet being used in its manufacturing meaning.
I like the translation: monotsukuri = making things.
The question is if anything in the makeup of the Japanese people gives them a bias to want to make things, or more specifically, making things with a skill that is distinctive. #1,( see bottom of this post for notes.)
I am not sure it is possible to answer the question definitively. This blogpost started because of a post on the NBR list Japan-U.S. Discussion Forum.
I do think a place to look for answers is in the quality of ‘things’ made now and expectation of quality from Japanese people in what they buy. These two indicators may only point to a level of income in the country. That is to say it is a function of the country developing to a point wherein low quality is no longer acceptable. That would mean that, in Japan’s case, pre-industrialization output would have been of a lower level in quality than post industrialization or today. The problem with that is the quality wasn’t lower in the past relative to other countries ‘things’. Depending on when you are talking about both China and Japan have produced work that was sought out and imported to European and American markets. There is a strong preference in the West toward Chinese porcelain that would suggest that Japanese ware is inferior. #2 I am not as concerned about if it was as I am about the question of if Japanese have a tendency toward making things, more so than other people. #3
I think looking at some other indicators is also helpful.
I say that the average quality of handmade and manufactured items in Japan is much higher than in the West. I think this links directly back to attention to basics. With hand made ‘things’, the basics of the process are first mastered. I spent the first 7 months of my 2 year ceramics apprenticeship throwing one shape, a basic cup, and didn’t fire a single one of them. The shape, a kumidashi, is a basic but difficult shape that has what I consider the equivalent of what life drawing represents to the painter, i.e., a double curve that will make or break the design. As in life drawing if you can master the shape you should be able to master any shape.
It is this repetition and the mastering that happens because of it that is, I think, the seed that blooms into Japanese having a special affinity for things hand made and expectations for higher than average quality in manufactured items.#4 I argue it is also the seed for the patience and desire to refine and perfect aspects of manufacturing which give rise to the high level of quality you find and expect from Japanese made manufactured goods.#5
Practice makes perfect is an idiom that comes from the the West but it is the Japanese that really take the meaning of it seriously. Practice makes perfect in Japan is something that is taken literally. It is put to the test. It is a saying that like many things here is pushed to the extreme and the process turns into something that I think the average person not from Japan no longer recognizes as a manifestation of the idiom, that is, practice, but sees as an obsession on the part of the Japanese. I think there is a perverse side in that I often see Japanese people that don’t want to move out of the safety net of practicing and spend years just practicing. The result is I often see ‘amateurs’ that have skill or knowledge levels rivaling or exceeding professionals’ in the West.
The tendency to want to perfect and refine is also an area that the Japanese come under frequent criticism. The usual refrain is the Japanese have never invented anything, they only copy. There are many examples of the Japanese not only inventing things, blue laser and Bit Coin jump to mind, but also cases in which they hold patents for refining of products, strangely enough some patents they hold for some processes that keeps curry from forming into a big lump jumps to mind. As an aside, I don’t believe that the inventor of Bit Coin is actually Japanese they just used a Japanese name.
It is in this light I think, generally speaking, that if someone says to me that Japanese have a legacy of manufacturing I tend to not dismiss them out of hand but because of my experience have a tendency to say I agree.
There are several indications that the Japanese value ‘monotsukuri’.
- Japan has its system of the Living National Treasure. It doesn’t exist in any other country I know of.
- The requirement that new employees only observe for the first several months. This is the basis of quality production for the company.
- An intact and active apprenticeship system.
I have spent the last 15 years trying to master one sliver of making things here in Japan, ceramics, and will say that the Japanese absolutely have a bent towards making, consuming and recognizing the subtleties and qualities of manufactured and handmade items.
#1 If you are an economist the answer is a big “NO”. In some economist’s thinking just look at the GDP data to see that manufacturing makes up less than 20% of national output so there is no way the Japanese are special. End of story. The theory goes that it is the natural flow of a nations development to have a farming period followed by a manufacturing period with all rivers flowing toward the services sea. Further, it is hogwash to think there is any relation between historical bias and national character. It is a familiar and predictable pattern a nation takes in economic development, farming, manufacturing, services and the future beyond that is to be determined. So the story goes.
I say: The corollary of this is to say there are no characteristics to any country if they
aren’t reflected in economic data. That is obviously not true.
Even though the U.S. has largely abandoned manufacturing does that indicate an inevitable and unstoppable march toward the brave new future, services OR does it indicate choices by a complex and interwoven set of actors and catalysts that is to a certain extent a self-fulling edict. That is to say the choice by a nation to not turn its back on manufacturing also involves preferences by the actors. The preferences, because they involve people, by definition include character. It is this character I might describe as being influenced by monotsukuri bias.
If you have a bent to see all the people in the world as lacking any cultural bias, that is to say, dismissing all explanations that are based in culture, again, the answer will still be NO but with different and somewhat more constrained reasoning.
I find it silly to look toward economic data to try to find bias in a people’s character. I
also think there are culturally based reasons for many of the more confusing aspects of Japan.
#2 I think one of the reasons “Westerners”, here I am referring to people of European descent, prefer Chinese porcelain is it, and the Chinese, are far more logical. There are some excellent essays on Japan with comparisons to other countries/cultures here, see gregoryclark.net for more. I highly recommend the one in the first link on tribal theory and Japan.
I see early examples of Imari as masterful representations of what is the essence of Japan. Loose and subjective artistically. I find them beautiful. There is a market for these types of Shoki Imari but it is nothing compared to the the market for Chinese porcelain of the same period. Does that mean the Chinese work is ‘superior’? I don’t want to go into that question, it is very subjective, but I will say that I prefer the early Japanese work. Further I will say for people who pride themselves on their rationality, namely Westerners with their Enlightenment, the Chinese are far easier to understand and grok, the Japanese far more irrational and difficult. I was looking through a magazine recently and came across a photo of a Japanese man holding a piece from his collection. If I recall correctly it was an early Seto jar in a amber glaze, similar to a Yuan Meiping vase in shape. I realized, looking at the picture, that Japanese collectors of Japanese antiques, are interested in having, touching, the essence of their history. Not in the technical excellence but in the spirit the older pieces represent. This is very different from the motivation of collectors of Chinese porcelain.
During the initial phases of Francis Xavier’s mission’s into Japan and as the Catholic church was being established the preference in Rome was to use Japanese lacquer ware based altars. The altars were produced in the Nagasaki area, exported back to Italy, decorated and them brought back. The decoration process did eventually start being done in Japan but only after a Jesuit, Giovanni Nicolo, set up a workshop in 1590 to teach Western painting and drawing techniques.
As an aside, the quality of the altars sent to Rome to be finished was much lower than the lacquer ware used and preferred by the Japanese. I don’t know if lacquer ware was a general use item in the time period I am talking about. Lacquer has always been an expensive item. The altars were made in, by comparison, a rough and rushed fashion.
The repetition and rote learning in Japan is also the focus of much criticism by Westerners.
I have plenty of criticisms of both Japanese quality and the insistence of some manufacturers to waste both my and their time sending out people, multiple times, to repair an item. I am thinking specifically of a rice cooker I once owned.