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Japan's path from Western technologies.

Within a
relatively short time, it became one
imitator to world- of the world's major suppliers of
beating innovator new technologies. Are there
specific cultural features that are
conducive to this outstanding
By FLORIAN COULMAS achievement?
It is well-known that Japanese
companies put a lot of emphasis
JAPAN, edited by Ian Inkster
on creating and maintaining
and Fumihiko Satofuka.
company cultures; it is also known
London/New York: Tauris, that these corporate cultures differ
2000, 169 pp., unpriced. significantly from each other. Is
The relationship between culture Japanese national culture uniform
and technology is complex and enough to serve as a common
multilayered. Technological framework for these variable
innovations that had profound company cultures? This is one of
effects on culture are easy to find: the questions tackled in this book.
Think of the printing press and the
automobile. A catchword that supposedly
characterizes a Japanese
Seeing how things work in the propensity that appears time and
opposite direction is more difficult, again in the book's eight chapters
if only because culture is such an is "fusion." Japanese culture is
said to encourage or facilitate the
all-encompassing and diffuse merging of homegrown and
notion. After all, technology itself imported technologies, of
can be regarded as a part of traditional and new procedures.
culture. What, then, is cause and For a long time, Japan was a net
what effect? importer of patents. The strength of
Japanese industry was seen as
We must investigate the interaction imitating and improving upon
of technology and culture if we technologies developed elsewhere.
want to advance our understanding However, as one of the
of the development and economic contributing authors notes, "about
performance of nations. 100 years after 1868 imitative
This book is a collection of articles activity had reached exhaustion."
examining features of Japanese Transition from imitation to
culture and their significance for development through creativity
industrial growth in such critical then became inevitable.
periods as the Meiji era and post- Fusion, several authors
World War II reconstruction. During emphasize, is Japan's forte.
the eventful Meiji decades, Japan Recognizing the potential of
proved remarkably capable of combining two existing
meeting the challenges of technologies to form something
modernization by adopting
new is surely an aspect of suspected of having any
creativity. Examples such as the knowledge of neuroscience, bluntly
connection of ceramics and asserts without a shred of
industrial chemicals and the linking evidence that, as opposed to
of mechanical technology and Western left-brainers, the
electronics to create "mechatronic" Japanese rely on the right cerebral
machine tools and robots are cited hemisphere. "New technology
repeatedly. They provide culture: the fusion of East and
something like a red thread West, right and left": Such is the
throughout an otherwise rather flabbergasting upshot of this
heterogeneous book; in fact, in exercise in banality.
terms of "fusion," little is
On the other hand, there are some
well-organized and well-thought-
In a sense, the papers are like out papers that offer new insights
variations on this theme. about "innovation avenues." At
Presumably there were guidelines every historical juncture and,
to make sure that the contributions perhaps, in every country, the
really were variations on a paths toward innovation are
common theme. But there was no charted between market forces
director to turn them into anything and the endogenous forces of
resembling a coordinated national cultures. The Japanese
performance. The chapters are path remains an object of curiosity
extremely diverse, not only in and fascination in the social
content, but also in quality. They sciences, because more than a
range from the carefully reasoned century after the first push toward
research report on a specific modernization it remains distinct.
project to the repetition of
Some insights about this path can
generalities and stereotypes that
be gained from this book, which
one might have supposed were
would have benefited from a firmer
buried long ago, together with
editorial hand. This reader gets the
impression, but almost hesitates to
Yet it seems as if this funeral never say so, that culturally motivated
happened, since we are informed considerations stood in the way of
of "the unique and homogenous enforcing universal standards of
Japanese society," that the writing, which is, after all, the
Japanese prefer "intuition over technology of the mind.
logical thinking," that in Japan
Florian Coulmas is professor of
"disagreement is never expressed Japanese studies at Duisburg
directly as this is offensive" -- in University
fact, the whole range of stale
Even racist precepts occasionally
surface -- for example, when one
of the authors, who cannot be