Over the weekend a New York Times story had some interesting insights into the continuing labour problems at Japan’s once proud electronics giants.
It alleged that workers who are unable to be sacked are often sent to oidashibeya or “forcing out rooms” where they are made to perform menial or repetitive tasks in a bid to make them resign out of shame and boredom.
It’s not particularly nice but it’s a situation that seems to have been forced upon multinationals such as Sony because of Japan’s relatively strict employment laws which make it hard to sack staff without good reason.
These firms simply can’t be as agile as their international rivals because they can’t downsize or strip out waste in specific areas. In the technology industry especially, skills can quickly become outdated.
As Gartner analyst Hiroyuki Shimizu told me, these laws should take the majority of the blame for the decline of Japan’s electronics industry on the global stage.
“In these 20 years, the goal for the company executives in almost all the Japanese electronics companies were to make much use of (or not to leave idle) their own excessive resources including workers and assets,” he said.
“In the global electronics market, companies focus on their differentiators. However, Japanese companies focused on the segments where they have plenty of human resources and large assets.”
This is a major failing of Japanese technology firms but not the only one.
Large scale job cuts are starting to appear, at firms including NEC, Sharp and Sony, although more are probably needed. However, this stripping out of dead wood needs to go hand in hand with enhancing traditional areas of technical weakness, said Shimizu.
It’s also true that there’s more to Japan’s well-charted decline on the technology front than just some stubborn employment laws.
“There are several reasons for each Japanese company for losing power such as commoditisation of electronics products, severe competition with Korean or Taiwanese companies or exchange rates,” he told me.
“But we consider that the deep-seated reason is the employment policy of Japanese companies.”