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Last Updated: Thursday, 7 October, 2004, 07:20 GMT 08:20 UK
Japanese work ethic hides inefficiencies

By Duncan Bartlett
BBC World Service business reporter

Bank of Japan worker pulls a stack of yen notes
Work burden - a traditional view of the industrious Japanese employee

Japanese factories have a reputation for zealous staff and ruthless efficiency.

Working practices at companies such as Toyota, which reported record profits this year, have been copied by businesses throughout the world.

Many of Japan's employees are revered for their hard work and commitment - they rarely go on strike or take long holidays.

At one factory in northern Japan, workers raise their fists and chant "we must work harder, we must do our best in all things".

Traditional system

But just how efficient are the Japanese?

"Toyota and Sony are efficient, but they are atypical," says James Kondo, of the Tokyo branch of business consultants McKinsey.

Golf player
Are Japanese managers more at home on the green than the office?

"Generally, Japanese firms are quite unproductive on a national scale. They are quite unproductive in general. A very small percentage are models that we should be looking at. Only a tiny percentage are globally competitive."

A traditional value system continues to hold sway over much of corporate Japan.

For social reasons, many companies are reluctant to sack staff who are not needed and that allows some people to be paid a lot of money for doing very little work.

"You can see many directors, who haven't done anything at the company, just sitting at their desks," says Kenya Watanabe, of Rohm and Haas.

Less productive

Mr Watanabe has worked in Japan and abroad and is dismayed by the lack of productivity he has seen at some Japanese firms.

However, he believes the corporate mood in Japan is changing.

When I talk to the bankers in the meeting rooms almost 90% are talking about golf or playing golf
Hitoshi Miura, director of finance, ASM Japan

"To me, I feel at most of the Japanese companies there is a lot of waste, and that's why many companies are restructuring and making more profits. It is good for Japanese companies. I think this is one way to survive."

Call for change

Official figures show that Japanese workers are 40% less efficient than Americans. They are also significantly less productive than the French or the Germans.

But Hitoshi Miura, director of finance at semiconductor process equipment maker ASM Japan, says people need to look beyond the meeting rooms to see the Japanese at work.

"When I talk to the bankers in the meeting rooms almost 90% are talking about golf or playing golf," says Mr Miura.

"In the last 10 minutes you have some indication whether things are good or bad, affirmative or negative. Business discussion is usually done during the playing of golf - on the tee or on the green."

Worries about widespread inefficiency in Japan have led to numerous calls from opposition politicians for change.

Even the prime minister, Junichiro Koizumi, often speaks of the need for reform.

But with Japan's economy now growing at its fastest pace for nearly fifteen years, most companies lack the motivation to scrap a business philosophy which has brought harmony and wealth to their society for decades.

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