From the Outside Looking In: “Why Can’t We Beat Japan?”

-Kevin G. O’Leary

I have spent a great deal of time living and working in Japan since 1989. It certainly is a long time to be away from the United States. I never considered myself a Japanophile at all rather I am somewhat of an economic refugee. My earning power is more stable and higher here as long as maintain a balance between my own enterprise and selectively taking on work that is both profitable and meaningful. Truthfully, I desire to be back with my own people in my own country. I am often very critical of what my homeland has become and want America to become great once again. Americans who respond to my observations and opinions with, “Gee Kevin since you love it so much over there, why don’t you stay there until you die?” Or if I am living in the United States at the time, “Kevin, why don’t you just go back over there, then?” Stupidity like that just falls on deaf ears. I would be more likely to just respond by telling the person to go off and do an anatomically challenging sexual act on themselves. That means hey, go eff yourself, but Cheery OLeery’s aren’t raised to talk that way. It is time, we as Americans stop beating our chests and telling ourselves we are the greatest and humbly take a good self-inventory of ourselves and our nation.

Why is Japan beating us in almost every area? Do they work harder than Americans? Are they smarter than we are? Are Asians genetically superior?

Fortunately, the answer is no as far as I have seen by working in both cultures. Contrary to the stereotypes, there are plenty of lazy ass Japanese workers and a fair share of dimwits toiling away managing to hold onto jobs across the great Land of the Rising Sun. Some of the strangest birds are engaged in teaching.

In reality, the Japanese educational system is not much to write home about. Those fancy test scores we all read about come from students who spend 3 hours after school in cram schools. The level of school is determined more by external influences more than the brilliant educators and students within. It is mandatory for every student to finish junior high school. High school is not a requirement. High schools are seperated into institutions that are “academic” and “technical.” Academic basically means the students are likely to be college bound. Technical, agricultural or commercial high schools groom most of their young people for the service industry and various trades. Since high school is actually not a requirement in Japan, seats in academic public schools are highly competitive and most students do not pass the entrance examinations. As strange as it sounds to Americans, the Japanese government does not guarantee everyone a public high school education. To serve the students who fall short, a huge number of private high schools are available. These private high schools as a recruitment incentive offer several “academic” courses of study, so that some can advance on to higher education after graduation. Generally, I found most teachers to be mediocre at that subject matter and yet severely overworked. In Japan, teachers are responsible for the moral development of the students and are responsible for the students well being 24/7. Even if an ambitious teacher wanted to pursue an MA in Education or higher level training, it is extremely difficult to manage with their added responsibilities. Most of the English teachers I have worked with are often unaware of the latest advances in the language acquisition research. Besides, being far behind the times, teachers in Japan are quite territorial and often put other priorities above developing the academic abilities of students in their charge. The task of individual edcuational development of students falls on the private after school cram schools which have a huge presence in Japan. These cram schools are costly and a student’s options for supplemental tutoring depend on how deep their parent’s pockets are. I have observed that teachers are not under as much pressure to advance their skills as someone in private industry. The above observations are likely why I find so much weirdness and lackluster performance among Japan’s teachers. I find Japanese teachers to be highly individualistic just like good old Americans. Contrast that with their counterparts working in industry and production, there is clear difference.

Japanese in general are very community oriented. Individual virtues are not nearly important to most people as being part of a group. They are not nearly as focused on advancing themselves as they are advancing the success of their organization. This is a clear cultural difference and it is one that Americans really need to learn about to be globally competitive. In previous articles, I ranted about how much personal nonsense that is infested in American workplaces. This clearly has an impact on organizational productivity. Workers need to be focused on their job at hand and not be distracted by self-serving obnoxious workplace bullies. There is no place for cliques when the time clock is punched. If the company is profitable, it is reasonable that the financial benefits will trickle down to the workers. This is not always true in today’s American workplaces as upper management has grown apathetic to dealing with employee personal problems and under constant threat of labor actions and claims by unhappy employees.

Late last year, Sensata Corporation closed a manufacturing facility in my hometown of Freeport, Illinois. Freeport is one of the lowest cost areas in the country yet the products produced are highly accessible to outbound shipping to anywhere around the world. On the other side of the ocean, Sensata’s Japanese manufacturing facilities remained intact. It is certainly worth considering what kind of criteria was evaluated when deciding which facilities close and which remain in operation. Land costs in Japan are much higher than in Northwest Illinois. Transportation is without a doubt higher considering gasoline in Japan is six dollars a gallon. Employers are obligated to make mandatory social health insurance and pension matching contributions for their workers making labor overhead quite high. It would be reasonable to assume that the Freeport facility cost a fraction to operate compared to the Japanese plants. I would be curious to know if the justification for shipping jobs to China was based on apathy by the corporate head honchos. In America, how many times in Sensata’s history has a strike or organized labor action occured? How many workman’s compensation claims have been submitted? What is the punctionality and absenteeism record at Sensata? What are the units per month compared to other facilities around the world? Is Illinois a business friendly environment? Now, compare this with Japan or China’s Sensata plants or a similarly sized operation. Are American employees and regulatory government regulations more hostile to enterprises than in Asia? We need to ask these questions and do an extensive self-inventory of our work environments. What do we need to consider to jump back on the globe again?

Now, I have kind of peeled some skin back and gave some readers a rash with this. Up to this point, I was focusing on recent workers who may have lost their jobs or those who are currently working. But what about those who are not? I read the other day that a record 8.9 million people are on disability? Good grief, people! Yes, some need that kind of assistance, I understand. What I find strange is that in the 25 years, I have been in and out of Japan, I cannot even count on one hand people I know who are totally dependent on other taxpayers that are of working age. Once again, it is cultural divide we have between the two countries. I was particularly disturbed reading about Katherine Russell Tsanarev, the wife of the Boston bomber. She was on welfare up until the end of last year for a considerable amount of time. Yet, on television I see those pictures of that beautiful home of her parents in Rhode Island. Dad is medical doctor and mom is registered nurse. How disfunctional American families have become that people cannot take care of the own! It isn’t like she was disowned from her kin since she is living with them now. This type of situation is virtually non-existent in Japan. Japanese people are truely ashamed to take welfare themselves or have a family on assistance, yet those who have no other means do so. I thank God I was blessed to be born into a family that is willing to do whatever it takes to maintain self-sufficiency. My parents and my siblings are highly educated people who have had more than a few burps in their employment chronology. When my father, a public school teacher lost his tenure, the Dakota school district cut him away like a piece of fat on a porkchop, He didn’t whine and demand an job of equal stauts. He went looking for work willing to pump gas, by golly. My sister has an MA in Education, lives in high cost of living area and she always does what needs to be done. When the university cut back on her lecture hours, she learned how to say, “Do you want fries with that?” She worked the counters in fast food and clerked at a health food store. That is how she was made. When I left the military, I did not find much commensurate with my skills. I put on an apron, washed dishes and waited tables at the Hollywood Dining Center. Just a year and a half ago, I had to resign suddenly from a general manager job and return to my family. Although I am an experienced teacher, I came back in the middle of the school year and had to look for other work. I found a job processing vegetables in a factory. I was ridiculed on the internet by a 21 year old University of Wisconsin intern for it. Not one member of my family and not one Japanese person thought it was a silly thing to do. As a matter of fact, I like it so much I plan on keeping the midnight part time job for two more years. I know I sound like Forrest Gump when I say that. I am an executive by day and vegetable killer by night.

I write as I see things. Make no mistake, I very much love my country. I am a patriot. Nothing would please me more than to help America succeed. I don’t think I need to apologize because I have a lot invested in the United States of America. I wore the uniform defending my country for two enlistements. I own a home in the area of my upbringing where I will return to soon. I certainly hope people welcome me back home in spite of my overly direct opinions. Afterall, what good am I if I just say what you want to hear. I want to make a positive contribution. You folks just wait until I get going on my gun control article!

God bless America.


One comment

  1. Very well written Kevin! It is sad to see how our government has accommodated our lazy society today. I felt sorry for a homeless man living under a bridge until I found that he chooses to live like that and found it despicable that he uses his veteran status to try to take from others. Being a Navy Veteran and a spouse of a Veteran, we too have taken jobs doing whatever is necessary to provide for our children on our own without the system.

    Famous words from my hero Mrs. Helen Walton used to say, “it’s not what you gather in life it is what you scatter that tells what kind of life you have lived.”

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