A recent surge in recalls of the defective products made in Japan has sparked worries among the Japanese that the country is losing its best face — the craftmanship.
In radio talks shows, on the front pages of newspapers, in government ministries, and even in the local noodle shops, people would talk about the drop in products quality, the New York times reported.
The sentiment also made TV series like "Project X" one of the most popular TV shows. The show is about a bunch of corporate engineers who invented the hand-held calculators and ink-jet printers that helped turn Japan into an industrial powerhouse.
Many Japanese fears that the country may be losing its edge in product quality, while its neighbors like China and South Korea are catching up.
"Craftsmanship was the best face that Japan had to show the world," said Hideo Ishino, a 44-year-old lathe operator at an auto parts factory in Kawasaki, an industrial city next to Tokyo. "Aren’t the Koreans making fun of us now?"
"It took us years to build up this reputation," Kazumasa Mitani, 32, a co-worker, was quoted as saying. "Now we see how fast we can lose it."
In the last two months, Toyota and Sony, the country’s two proudest brand names, announced large-scale recalls of defective products. They have created something of a crisis in a country where manufacturing quality is part of the national identity, the New York Times reported.
This week, Sony suffered another blow when Toshiba announced that it was recalling 340,000 Sony-made laptop batteries, after last month’s recalls of 5.9 million batteries. And Toyota said Wednesday that it would hire 8,000 more engineers to strengthen quality.
In the Japanese media, Sony’s and Toyota’s quality problems have frequently topped coverage of wars in Iraq and Lebanon. And Nihon Keizai Shimbun, the leading economic daily, began a front-page investigative series this month called "Can Japan Protect Quality?"
"Toyota and Sony have been a wake-up call that something is amiss in Japan," Takamitsu Sawa, an economics professor at Ritsumeikan University in Kyoto was quoted as saying. "Japan seems to have lost something important on the way to becoming a developed country, and many Japanese want to get that back."
Japan’s Trade Minister Toshihiro Nikai last month took unusually blunt steps. He sent letters to Sony executives, ordering them to report on quality-control improvements after recalls by Apple and Dell of Sony-made laptop batteries.
Sony promised to comply and diligently sent employees to receive the letters by hand. It was the first time such orders had ever been issued to Sony.
"This is very rare," said Atsuo Hirai, assistant chief at the trade ministry’s information product safety section.
Rarer still was the fact that a few weeks earlier, the transport ministry issued similar orders to Toyota. Hiroshi Okuda, the retired chairman of Toyota, called on his countrymen to do more about "the declining competitiveness of Japanese manufacturing."
"Japan lacks a sufficient sense of crisis," he warned last month.
To be sure, Japanese companies continue to dominate production of many high-tech products, from digital cameras and color copiers to solar cells and the delicate optics used to etch circuits onto most of the world’s computer chips. And despite its problems, Toyota still appears on track to become the world’s largest carmaker in the next year or two.
"They’ll learn from their mistakes," said Yuji Fujimori, an electronics analyst in Tokyo for Goldman Sachs.
And, Sony’s problems have not been limited to batteries. The company worked furiously over the summer to resolve problems in production of its PlayStation 3, its widely awaited game console, which is due out in November.
"If asked if Sony’s manufacturing ability has declined, at this point today I have to say yes," said Ken Kutaragi, chief executive of Sony’s video game division.
Various reasons crop up as possible explanations for declining quality. Universities said that new students are more interested in literature and the liberal arts than engineering. Applicants to engineering programs are down to 8.7 percent of all university applicants this year from 12.3 percent eight years ago, according to the New York Times report.
"In the old days, there were a lot of students who wanted to join the front lines of manufacturing, and really gave it their all," said Chitoshi Miki, an executive vice president in charge of student education at the Tokyo Institute of Technology. "Now, no one even wants to break a sweat."
Others have begun to blame recent American-style management changes, like the end of traditional lifetime job guarantees. Fujitsu, the electronics maker, has backed away from basing salaries on individual performance, saying it hurt employee morale and undermined team work.
Some economists said Asian competitors have been closing in as Japan wrings its hands. Lee Kwang Hoon, an electronics analyst at Hanhwa Securities in Seoul, said that the recall of Sony-made batteries could offer an opportunity for the biggest Korean makers, Samsung and LG, to rival Sony in market share.
"The biggest change may not be that Japan has dropped in quality," said Masaru Kaneko, an economics professor at Keio University in Tokyo, "but that Asia is catching up."