The piston ring earthquake

The big quake in Niigata closes automaker production lines, but opens a window into the history of technological commercialization in Japan.

By Andrew Leonard

Published July 19, 2007 9:55PM (EDT)

Monday's earthquake in Niigata, Japan, didn't just cause problems at the Kashiwazaki-Kariwa nuclear power plant, sending shivers through every Pacific Rim country that has built (or is planning to build) nuclear power plants on the fault lines of the Ring of Fire. The earthquake also disrupted supply chains for the Japanese carmaking industry, just as an earthquake in Taiwan in 1999 threw a spanner into the works of the global semiconductor industry. In this case, a key parts supplier for the Japanese automotive industry, Riken Corp., was forced to stop production at several factories near the city of Kashiwazaki, causing consequent ripple effects for the likes of Toyota and Nissan.

Riken makes piston rings, among other things. Lots and lots of piston rings. If you'd like to learn more about piston ring technology you can even take an online tour of Riken's nifty Piston Ring Museum.

Riken takes piston rings seriously because it is no newcomer to the industry. All the way back in 1926, Dr. Keikichi Ebihara of the Okochi Research Laboratory of the Institute of Physical and Chemical Research -- also known as Riken Institute -- developed a new manufacturing method for piston rings, which was promptly patented and commercialized.

Ebihara was a protégé of the Viscount Masatoshi Okochi, the third, and by far the most effective, director of the Institute of Physical and Chemical Research -- a "private" research facility set up with support from both government and industry that evolved into a full-fledged zaibatsu, or industrial conglomerate. Viscount Okochi, a descendant of feudal nobility who served as a member of Japan's House of Peers and was briefly detained after World War II as a suspected war criminal due to Riken's contributions to the war effort, made the integration of technological research into commercial deployment his life's work.

"From Textiles to Automobiles: Mechanical and Organizational Innovation in the Toyoda Enterprises, 1895-1933":

In The Technological Transformation of Japan: From the Seventeenth to the Twenty-First Century, Tess Morris-Suzuki cited the surprising claim of a leading interwar Japanese technologist, the director of the pioneering RIKEN Institute Masatoshi Okochi, that "Japanese researchers were skilled and original inventors, but that Japan's weakness lay in an inability to commercialize radically new ideas." Okochi's concern was that Japanese firms would more readily choose to refine imported technologies where a market was already developed, rather than to bear the greater uncertainty, associated risk, and heavy developmental costs of taking a more radical innovation from laboratory bench to full-scale production.

And yet, in 1934, the same man touted "the superiority of the Japanese style of management over the British system:"

As quoted in "The Political Economy of Japanese Society":

The reason British companies, especially in the textile industry, have fallen behind those in Japan is that they have lost the passion for innovation and improvement in production methods. They pride themselves on reaching compromises between labor and management, but by itself compromise is not sufficient to produce inexpensive, high-quality goods. Only when management and labor cooperate in achieving innovations and improvements will industries be capable of contributing to the welfare of the whole society. I refer to this system as "intellectually oriented industry," and it will be such industries that will lead a second industrial revolution...

The reference to the textile industry is apropos today, because the history of the Toyota Corp. traces back to the innovative loom design perfected by Rashomon Sakichi Toyoda, whose son and nephew took the profits generated by his textile business and plowed it into what soon will be the world's biggest automaker.

Who better than Toyota to disprove Okochi's fears that Japanese companies would refuse "to bear the greater uncertainty, associated risk, and heavy developmental costs of taking a more radical innovation from laboratory bench to full-scale production."

Can you say "Prius"?

Andrew Leonard

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

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