How one man’s valor helped in turning Japan around

It all began a few years before the Second World War. Someone in Japan was busy trying to figure out how to make affordable and reliable cars from a scratch—a machine that was confined to being a toy for the well-to-do before 1908. That man’s courage and stubborn resistance against all the odds finally gave way and in the process he helped to build a great nation in the Eastern Asia Region—Japan. To add to that, the same man and his associates were able to introduce a new management philosophy which Japan exports to other countries today, writes Birhanu Fikade, who recently traveled to the land of the rising sun.

Kiiehiro Toyoda is the father of all inventions as long as Japanese car-making industry is considered. Though there were many car makers in the early 1930s Japan, by the time General Motors (GM) and Ford started producing automobiles for the global market, the machines were increasingly visible on the streets of Japan. However, Toyoda didn’t like the influence of foreign companies. Hence, he founded the first domestic car maker Toyoda in Japan.  

Unlike today’s Ethiopia that preferred assembly lines as entry points, Japan via this man started to join the car-making industry as early as  the 1930s. Early in the 1950s, some 40 percent of the GDP of Japan was accounted for by Toyota alone. It was during the rise of Toyota that a sharp increase in the Gross National Product of this country was recorded.

Toyota, the brand and the group of companies, has now become one of the influencers of the global car business. However, starting out, Toyota was first a textile manufacturer. Bearing its early name Toyoda Spinning and Weaving Co. Ltd, the car maker went on to be a major player on the global arena. For that to happen, Sakichi Toyoda, the father of Kiiehiro Toyoda, was the inventor behind the latest Japan’s industrial shake-ups as Japanese history recalls.

Back in 1890, Toyoda, the father and the founder of the Toyota Group was able to receive his first patent for his invention of wooden hand-looming machine. Later in 1906, a well-developed circular looming machine was invented, which weaves fabrics using rotating circular motions than the previous one. And that helped to manufacture way much more fabrics and garments and built the muscle to export to farthest countries beyond the Pacific Ocean. 

But back here in Ethiopia, the results of Japanese inventions, manufactured goods, were viewed in a different perspective. In his “Addis Ababa waits for war” descriptive writing of the Ethiopian capital in 1935, journalist Will Barber wrote about the city and won the news writing Pulitzer Prize for it. As Barber writes, Addis Ababa was forced to face the imminent war against the occupant Italian fascists. He wrote for Chicago Daily Tribune about the city’s life and all sorts and one of the things he mentioned about the then Addis Ababa was about the shanty stores it quartered. “The shops were full of Japanese bedsheets advertised as the best Nippon cotton Sheeting. It is cheaper than Manchester’s sheets; and it is said that the Japanese have acquired 90 percent of the trade in Ethiopia”, Barber goes on narrating. It was like the current wave of Chinese goods and commodities and their influence on most poor neighborhoods in Africa.

Across the streets of Addis Ababa any senior citizens tells a similar story to what Barber had written 80 years ago. They might tell one that Japanese goods at the time were not only referred to as the cheapest but also as having the lowest quality. Surprisingly, that truth is shared by most Japanese. They probably tell you openly how it was like that in Japan until the late 1950s or so.

But that in no way dwarfs the advancement that the country enjoys at present. The technology and civilization which the Japanese nurtured in the subsequent years made them even tougher at testing times such as the 2011 Fukushima disaster. They showcased how quickly they can rehabilitate and rebuild even without the use of nuclear power, which at the time claimed close to 25 percent of the energy pool.

The tech-savvy Toyoda the father, who managed to succeed in influencing Europe by his innovation in the textile sector, later went on to create an automatic looming machine that has dramatically changed the way fabrics are produced throughout the world.

That same invention caliber also went on to introduce the first passenger cars and trucks in Japan. Following the footsteps of his father, Toyoda the son came up with the idea of manufacturing car engines, the car and all of its parts and components.

In 1921, while paying a visit to the U.S. and Europe, Toyoda was impressed by the popularity of automobiles there. He saw the gap between the countries he visited and Japan. That impelled him to set up a section dedicated for testing and experimenting on how automobile can be made at home with locally available materials. He took Chevrolet cars and disassembled every part to learn how it functions. As the history elaborates in the museum, Toyoda and his team were forced to carve shapes out of metallic bodies for the car on a wooden frame at the start. This way with lots of failures and trials, the first sedan AA model passenger automobile prototype was finally made in Japan in 1934.

Learning about the success, the government of Japan promptly ordered Toyoda to manufacture tracks which can ease the movement of goods across the country. Again with 800 trials and errors, the first track was completed and was drive across the streets in 1936.

Japan has preserved every history the Toyota Group has made thus far. There is a Toyota Commemorative Museum of Industry and Technology in Nagoya city—the fourth largest industrial city in Japan. The museum which was initially headquartered in Toyoda Spinning and Weaving Company is now run by the group of 17 Toyota companies together.

The land of Kaizen

Toyota again holds central position when it comes to the world of Kaizen. It’s an everyday life across Japan to sort things at their best proper order. Neatness adds a lot to their daily routines out there. Cleanness best describes the country both in major cities and the countryside. You see pedestrians in the streets crossing roads only when the traffic signs and lights allow it; that is regardless of the density of the traffic on the road. Their way of cosmopolitan life adheres to the structures and systems put in place. After all, one possibly says that the Japanese are more of a detail-oriented people. Every minute, things appear to be well figured out that you see hardly any misappropriated structures.

From the early days of schooling, children are taught about manners and respects to the laws of the land on the basis of their dosage. They learn how to be acquainted with complex and circadian activities. Children as young as two years old can be seen demonstrating basic household activities.

Kalid Yousuf Ahmed is the first fellow to join the Ritsumeikan Asia Pacific University (APU) located at the far northern part of Japan, in the city of Beppu at Oita prefecture. Currently, he is a PhD candidate in the field of Innovation Economics. Having lived for some 15 years in Japan, he says that the curriculum they have developed for early schoolings and primary classes has helps a lot in the later days of the kids’ lives. For Eyob, who is on his final semester to graduate from APU, Japan is a country where traditions and modernity have remained mutual; to use his words the two are “married”.

Dining in a Japanese restaurant seems a little bit different or unconventional. One probably might encounter residents modestly returning plates and other utensils in an orderly fashion to the designated dishwasher. They bow and utter at most respect tirelessly to everyone but mostly to elders, veterans and to well-educated members of the society. Time is as precious as the God-given air in that Far East Asian nation. Something looks quite familiar when one observes all of the above idiosyncrasies; something called Kaizen. Kaizen is a management style that Japanese industries have employed and benefited from and are now exporting to the rest of the world.

As huge as the government is both in size and administration reach, Toyota’s contribution way extends to a system which it had introduced to the country— Kaizen. To some extent, it feels like Kaizen is running in each individual Japanese veins.

Though yet to be forgiven for its detonation of the atomic bombs and destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, it’s from the U.S. that the Japanese had copied and adopted many skills and technologies. One of those things adopted by the Japanese is the management philosophy they have termed Kaizen. Shorter version of the definition of Kaizen is a continuous process of improvement. It’s again Toyota which first introduced the concept of Kaizen to Japan.  Now across the nation, it is hardly to find an enterprise which does not apply Kaizen.

Back home, Ethiopia has Kaizen too; borrowed from Japan of course. Yet, the way it functions in Japan and the way Ethiopia is experimenting with this concept look to be quite different. Ethiopia has set up a Kaizen institute eyeing the development of industries, mainly in manufacturers. In Japan Kaizen is everywhere, even in a tiny restaurant or in big service providing companies.

Most of all, Kaizen is a private sector driven approach. In case of Ethiopia and a few African nations, however, it is the government that is pushing the domestication of Kaizen. One can tell there is the appetite in Ethiopia; to the point where the country develops a college program to teach Kaizen in universities and at a master’s level too. Perhaps it can be affable as long as Kaizen is not imposed; it might bear fruit. Currently, there are a few companies reporting benefits in areas of cost and expenses reduction and proper waste disposal, time management and improvements in productivity per each worker. 

Transcending Kaizen, the government of Japan looks keen in promoting the cooperation and economic relations with African countries. In doing so, it devised a periodical joint conference at the heads of state level which has come to be known as   Tokyo International Conference for African Development (TICAD).  For the past 20 years, TICAD has been a primary platform of discussion on Africa’s issues. It still maintains to be so. Yet, since 2013 there have been some changes both in the venue and time frame.

This year in August, Kenya is chosen to host TICAD VI for the first time in Africa. During the TICAD VI, heads of state from Africa and Japanese along with multilateral agencies will seek to talk about issues ranging from human capacity development, declining prices of resources, to peace and security. The topics are in line with what have been experimented so far in the previous TICAD V summit. It’s via Kaizen that the new Africa Business Education (initiative of Prime Minister Abe) where some 1,000 African young professionals are to receive scholarships in Japan. In addition to that, through the Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA) more short term trainings and exchange programs are set to be ventured.