By Hiroyuki Sugiyama / Yomiuri Shimbun Senior WriterBEIJING — I was in Beijing in the early 1990s to study the Chinese language. I bought a Chinese manufacturer’s inexpensive black-and-white TV set to improve my listening comprehension, but I couldn’t understand a word.
One time, a cheerful TV commercial song jumped into my ears, saying, “Toshiba, Toshiba.”
“Yeah, it’s Toshiba!” I realized. I asked my teacher what the Chinese lyric was after the Toshiba phrase, and was told it was “Toshiba of the new era.” This song was broadcast together with a TV commercial for Toshiba home appliances. For Chinese people dreaming of an affluent life, Toshiba was none other than an iconic brand of the new era.
A quarter-century has since passed. Toshiba Corp. is undergoing restructuring and announced in November 2017 its decision to sell its television business to Chinese home appliance maker Hisense Group.
“I’m proud [of Hisense Group] for being able to acquire Toshiba,” said a smiling Hisense employee in his 20s at a major home appliance retailer in Beijing. “Japan’s electronic home appliances are high-quality but are stagnating. Imported electronics may disappear in 10 years.”
A Chinese employee of a Japanese manufacturer also gave a similar account. “Made in Japan” is no longer the mark of an invincible champion.
A string of falsification scandals involving Japan’s leading companies, including Nissan Motor Co., Kobe Steel, Ltd. and Toray Industries, Inc., were revealed throughout the autumn of 2017. It’s a surprising situation, even for Chinese people who often speak very highly of the quality and designs of Japanese brands.
Chinese newspapers and TV stations reported extensively about the scandals on an almost daily basis, making such statements as “What happened to Japanese manufacturing?”
Zhang Yulai, deputy director of the Institute of Japan Studies at Nankai University in Tianjin, strongly deplored the successive scandals.
“Consumers and rival companies in foreign countries are looking closely at how Japanese corporations will reflect on and deal with [the scandals],” Zhang warned. “If similar affairs continue [to involve Japanese firms], an image of ‘Japan not being a big deal’ will be created.”
Many Japanese people have considered their domestically manufactured products to be the best and observed “bakugai” buying sprees by Chinese tourists — the near future will likely be very unpleasant for them if trust in Japanese goods plummets.
“Hinomaru” electronics used to flourish in the global market, but what’s become of them now? Also, the speed at which brands rise and decline is continuing to accelerate due to the ongoing technological revolution. The market will not allow stagnation or sluggishness.
Well-known business journalist and researcher Chen Yan said Japanese companies are facing such problems as a lack of checks between major corporations and small-to-medium firms, and the increasing conservatism that has accompanied the contraction of the market and a managerial system where company presidents are hired internally.
Nevertheless, he was not pessimistic. “The aging population and the chronically low birthrate present a chance to spread Japanese products and experience across the globe,” he said with a smile. “A comfortable, safe society is itself a soft power. You had better make this [type of society] worldwide.”
I couldn’t help laughing when the journalist added: “The Chinese drink alcohol even though they may die of hunger tomorrow. I hope more cheerful and forward-looking Japanese will emerge.”
It’s certainly true that now is not the time for us to lower our eyes. The underlying strength of “made in Japan” is still acknowledged and respected by everyone. I want Japanese companies to review the basics of manufacturing and to continue to create and deliver — across the globe — products that people dream of.
“Toshiba, Toshiba …” I want to hear the song again.