We were burning

A new book tells us to forget about Japan Inc. -- Japanese entrepreneurs led the high-tech consumer-electronic revolution.

Published November 30, 1998 8:00PM (EST)

The '90s has been a bad decade for Japan. Today, after years of economic distress and bumbling political leadership, it's difficult to remember that not so long ago, Americans viewed "Japan Inc." as a fearsome and unstoppable economic juggernaut. In Japan, so went the theory, government officials and business leaders worked hand in hand to bring compelling new products to market. Both critics and admirers touted this partnership between the state and the private sector as a force to be reckoned with, and possibly imitated.

The potency of the Japanese model offered a handy excuse to Americans looking for a reason to explain why Japanese corporations kept dominating new consumer-electronic markets with products based on technology that had been invented in the United States. While U.S. researchers at Bell Labs and RCA and Texas Instruments invented the transistor and the integrated circuit and scores of other crucial technologies, it took the Japanese to incorporate those innovations in products that consumers simply had to purchase.

But did Japan really owe its success to farsighted bureaucrats? Emphatically not, says Bob Johnstone, a journalist with years of experience writing about technology and Japan. In "We Were Burning," a revisionist history of the Japanese rise to consumer-electronics supremacy that is likely to spark some controversy, Johnstone argues that companies such as Sharp and Sony and Canon succeeded without any help at all from the government. How did they do it? By relying on the creativity, ingenuity and hard work of individual Japanese entrepreneurs and scientists. And why did the United States lose out? Corporate mismanagement, for the most part, argues Johnstone.

Johnstone recounts hundreds of stories of Japanese entrepreneurs, and in the process, recounts the history of the semiconductor chip and numerous related technologies. For anyone interested in the nuts and bolts of how the scientific breakthroughs occurred that led to such marvels as the CD player and the synthesizer, "We Were Burning" is a must read. Johnstone has always been a master of the tricky art of writing passionately about the arcane details of high-tech hardware. "We Were Burning" has the look of a lifework -- the product of decades of interviews and research into how Japan actually pulled off its dazzling consumer-electronic "miracle."

Readers unwilling to wade through a hefty amount of jargon and grapple with some high-level technical analysis might be advised to steer clear, however. No matter how good a writer you are, it's hard to make such gizmos as "gallium arsenide metal oxide semiconductor field-effect transistors" sexy. Johnstone's explanations of liquid crystal display and light emitting diode technologies are supple and clear, but they still won't always be accessible to the layman.

What does come across clearly, though, is Johnstone's argument that the success of Japanese consumer-electronic companies was based on the work of Japanese entrepreneurs and scientists who were every bit as creative and innovative as their Western counterparts. Even if, as in most cases, the original breakthrough occurred in a U.S. laboratory, the process of turning that breakthrough into a successful consumer product required, as Johnstone painstakingly demonstrates, endless hard work and resourcefulness. And in recent years, he notes, there have also been some dramatic home-grown Japanese technological success stories, such as the invention of the first light emitting diode to generate blue light (a key step toward replacing currently wasteful light bulbs with energy-efficient semiconductor lights).

Johnstone asserts that famous government institutions such as "MITI" -- the Ministry of International Trade and Industry -- played a neglible part. "Consumer electronics developed largely without government intervention," he writes. He notes that Chalmers Johnson's landmark "MITI and the Japanese Miracle" mentions the word "semiconductor" just once. In his final chapter, Johnstone goes so far as to recommend deregulation as the answer to Japan's current economic woes, in particular so as to promote the growth of a vigorous Japanese venture capital market.

The argument isn't entirely convincing, in large part because Johnstone doesn't devote much time to it, aside from briefly framing the context for his entrepreneurial stories at the beginning and end of "We Were Burning," and here and there delivering little jabs at MITI. Johnstone's thesis would be a lot stronger if he more directly addressed exactly what MITI did or didn't do: Did state intervention in the economy in the '50s and '60s help, on a broad level, to create the environment in which consumer-electronic entrepreneurship could flourish? Did MITI even have a point of view on the success of the consumer-electronics industry? We don't know, because while Johnstone appears to have interviewed every Japanese research scientist who had anything whatsoever to do with the electronics business, there isn't a single quote or insight from a government official.

Of course, that's Johnstone's point -- that the government had nothing to do with Japan's consumer-electronics industry. So why bother to include it in the story? Johnstone would much rather give space to "human dynamos" like "Dr. Rocket" Sasaki, who played a key role in the development of both portable calculators and camcorders, than to stodgy bureaucrats who just got in the way.

But, in the long run, Johnstone's analysis would be more compelling if it gave more space to that very state-intervention thesis that he's striving to undermine. As it stands, "We Were Burning" reads too much as if it is telling just one side of a much more complex story.

By Andrew Leonard

Andrew Leonard is a staff writer at Salon. On Twitter, @koxinga21.

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