More than any other country in the world, Japan is a case study in the triumphs of human engineering. Every Japanese manufacturer prides itself on energy efficiency and zero-landfill waste policies. The train and subway stations are models of precision and the application of information technology. Late last week, I visited Toyota’s astonishing Tsutsumi auto plant, near the car company’s headquarters in Toyoda City. With a capacity of 400,000 vehicles per year—this is where the Prius is made—it’s clean, bright, full of erector-set conveyer belts, and thinly staffed. The welding shop is like a scene from The Terminator—a thicket of robots extend their arms, moving large pieces of metal and blasting them with shots of heat. (The section where robots stamp “Obama ‘08” and “NPR” bumper stickers on the hybrid vehicles must have been around the corner.) On Monday, I visited a small company in Osaka that hopes its cardboard, female-shaped robot will garner a share of the mannequin market. The engineers also demonstrated a robot that can dance and act and a third that can identify whether people are men or women (“You are a beautiful lady!”) and guess their ages (inaccurately, it turns out).
And yet, while traveling around Japan with a group of journalists, I’ve also continually encountered what seem to be exquisitely engineered inefficiencies. There are a large number of people whose jobs seem to be standing around and calling out greetings and gesturing the way to enter stores, restaurants, hotels, and office buildings. Walk into a midrange hotel, and a swarm of bellmen and desk clerks worthy of a Four Seasons springs into action. At the Takashimiya department stores, two women flank each bank of four elevators, pushing the call button. Parking garages in Tokyo feature a half-dozen uniformed parking attendants who call out greetings and farewells. When we visited the Japan Iron and Steel Federation, we saw three women on their hands and knees working on stains. (What, there’s no robot that specializes in stain removal?)
Everywhere you go, there seem to be human redundancies, people spending valuable time doing things that don’t need to be done or that could easily be done by a single person. At a luncheon for about 20 at the Nippon Press Center, we were waited on by a half-dozen waiters, as if we were aristocrats. Even rarely visited government agencies have multiple press officers. Visit a company or a government agency in the United States, and you’re likely to get key data and presentations on memory sticks or CDs. Here, we’ve been buried in paper everywhere we’ve gone—laboriously printed out and handed out with great ceremony. When I went to a police station (a lost passport scare; don’t ask), it took 30 minutes to impart a small amount of information, which the officer dutifully wrote down on a sheet of paper. There was no computer in sight.
A lot of the human inefficiencies have to do with Japan’s high regard for politesse and manners. Social and business transactions take time because of the need for extensive greetings and farewells. Technology here seems to be for moving people, goods, and information—not for completing human transactions. And with universal health insurance and a national pension program, there’s a dignity to low-level service jobs in Japan. It could be that the inefficiencies have something to do with a societal desire for full employment.* Japan would prefer to have its citizens in make-work jobs than not working at all. For much of the postwar glory years, Japan’s unemployment rate was in the 2 percent range. Even now, amid a deep global recession, it’s at about 5 percent.
*Correction, June 29, 2009: This sentence originally and incorrectly ended with the word unemployment.