Leading Article: Why Japan deserves imitation, not abuse

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The Independent Online
ANYONE who believes that fear and loathing of Japan is a spent force in Europe should take a deep breath and listen to Jose Ignacio Lopez de Arriortua, the 52-year-old Spaniard who moved from General Motors to Volkswagen earlier this year. 'Unfortunately, they are different,' said Mr Lopez of the Japanese in an interview published on Friday. 'I don't like their way of living . . . If you are losing this battle (for industrial supremacy) and you have new bosses, then sooner or later you will have the same style of living as your bosses.'

It is tempting to dismiss Mr Lopez's words. He is under investigation by German prosecutors over an industrial espionage case in which boxes of secret documents disappeared from General Motors and were later shredded outside a building owned by Volkswagen. The Spaniard, a charismatic manager who abruptly left GM for VW, believes that the best method of defence is attack. Yet his stature in the industry is such that his views should not be dismissed. Other car-industry executives, notably Jacques Calvet of Peugeot, have railed against Japan. As Europe's protected car market opens further, more voices in France and Italy are likely to join the chorus.

In one sense, Mr Lopez has a point. Europeans who work at Japanese-owned car factories have to abandon some of their traditions, such as the rigid demarcation between workers of different skills, and the idea of competition between different unions inside a single plant. They must also adopt some Japanese habits: morning meetings and exercises, and a tiresome but praiseworthy attention to 'continuous improvement' - in which every detail of the way the factory works is examined time and again to see if it can be done better or more cheaply.

It is understandable that new methods should seem strange. But American methods seemed strange, too, when US companies invested billions of dollars in Europe after the war. The Japanese may be more different than the Americans; but they have less experience running organisations abroad, and there is no telling how assimilated they will be a generation from now. Who remembers today that Hoover and Heinz are foreign firms?

One feature that gives the Japanese scare an added frisson is the widespread impression that Europe and the US are going downhill while Japan is weathering its recession well. This is not the case. Japanese companies are losing money, cutting dividends and laying off workers; the flow of funds overseas has all but dried up. They may be different, but the Japanese are becoming more like us day by day.

Interestingly, Mr Lopez himself is the nearest thing the European car industry has to a Japanese-style manager. He believes in team spirit for his workers. He demands price cuts from suppliers, and is willing to go into their factories to help them to find ways to save money and raise quality. At General Motors, his methods yielded spectacular success; if he survives the attentions of the German prosecutors, Mr Lopez may be able to work similar magic at Volkswagen. To benefit from his talents, however, European industry should follow his actions, not his words. To abuse the Japanese while imitating them is both offensive and illogical.