Why Japan’s Greatest Strength is also Its Greatest Weakness

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When my friend first introduced me to what is now my favorite yakitori restaurant in Tokyo, he told me a story that I still remember to this day.

Long ago, he would frequent another establishment where he used to live. It was a small place, owned by an old man who had been making yakitori for decades. Often, he would see the old man’s trusty apprentice standing behind the grill, carefully turning each stick and sprinkling salt. It was a mundane task, but it was done with absolute focus and precision. Each step and each detail had meaning, and if the process was not perfected, then the taste would not be either.

Years later, my friend moved to another area of town. While exploring the neighborhood, he stumbled upon a bustling yakitori restaurant. Curious and hungry, he stepped inside and ordered a beer along with a few sticks. When something about the taste seemed familiar, he began asking the chef questions. Turns out, this chef was in fact the apprentice at the restaurant he used to frequent. The apprentice had perfected his master’s process, and had gone on to start a restaurant of his own.

Amazed at the level of perfection that the apprentice had achieved, my friend saw an opportunity to franchise. A yakitori restaurant like this could bring bliss to taste buds in every major city around the world. With more money in his pocket this time, he offered to put up all the capital to open restaurants in Singapore, New York, and London.

But to his surprise, the chef declined.

“There is no way I can teach a foreigner to create this taste.”

The Japanese’s dedication to perfection is what makes Japan such an incredible country. There is a reason why Japan has the most 3-starred Michelin restaurants in the world. That perfectionism is also the reason why the trains are always on time, the streets have no trash, the taxis are spotless, and the service is second to none.

For the apprentice to perfect his craft, it took years of preparation. That kind of patience is unique to Japanese culture, and also appears when doing business here. One way to grasp how things are done is to understand how projects are completed. In the U.S., 20% of the work might be research, while 80% is in the execution. But in Japan, 80% of the work is in the research, and just 20% is in the execution. While it may take longer to get the ball rolling, once it does it is hard to stop and the outcome is known.

Both sides have their merits. The Japanese only need one dress rehearsal, and because of all the preparation, the play is perfect. On the other hand, because organizations don’t want to fail, they don’t benefit from the learnings of experimentation. The play is neither better or worse than expected. It is exactly as imagined.

Unfortunately, when we strive for perfection so much that we leave little room for experimentation, we also hinder innovation. So while perfectionism is Japan’s greatest strength, it is also its greatest weakness.


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  • Math

    I would also add that most of them are really afraid of failure. I met many Japanese people, able to read technical english book, but who did not wanted to speak in English with me. All of that because they thought their English wasn’t good enough.

    By the way, what are the restaurants which you speak about ?

    • jamesriney

      Given his response, he would probably want to remain anonymous, and I want to make sure I’m still welcome there 🙂

  • Tom

    I’m not usually a member of the typo police, but that misplaced apostrophe in the last sentence made me laugh given the context!

    • Marty Jamieson

      Tom, perhaps the act of innovation occurs in the planning process and not in deviation of the committed plan?

    • jamesriney

      Thanks Tom 🙂 You now know that I am American.

  • Marty Jamieson

    Having been hired by Hitachi as a cost accounting Manager in North America, I do understand the story. As I progressed up the stairs to Corporate controller, I worked hard to focus on details, manufacturing process methods and cost control.

    Our semiannual budget process was 4-6 weeks of long days. Details were examined, costs scrutized, and managers forced to commit to the final plan.

    Planning was all important and once finished, each manager had to perform.

    I found along the way detailed cost analysis Japanese documents which set the tone of sometimes 20-40 renditions of the in process plan. Once agreed, it mist be kept or managers could lose their positions

    • jamesriney

      Nice anecdote Marty, thanks.

  • Marty Jamieson

    I also found poor performance by North American managers who did not accept their role of striving for excellence. Many just threw out unsupportable figures and showed contempt when brought to explain their poor performance.

    There simply was no acceptance as to the level of striving for the best planning process. This leaked down the stairs to their staff and was reflected in discontent for the budget planning process.

    It is a cultural issue as the Japanese started from nothing after WW2 and raised their country up from the ashes.

    Long hours can be explanation in the formula for productivity.

    %Productivity = %Utilization (hours worked doing the job) X % Efficiency (how fast).

    Japan’s post war generation committed to 15-18 hour days at work; thereby raising % Utilization, and strove to maximize efficiency learned from Dr. Deming.

    As wealth rose and 3-4 generations of work hours lessen, the culture is pressed to maintain the spirit needed after WW2.

    I salute the commitment to excellence and lament the lack of it in North Americans if they do not have the passion for work.

  • DisquisTL

    I’m pretty sure any mildly to severe OCD sufferer, which is to say, “most kernel software engineers” could probably master this. 🙂

  • Dirk

    Where’s the missed apostrophe in the last sentence? I see one four paragraphs from the end of the article, but nothing in the last sentence. Please enlighten me.