Seeing Rice Farming at the Root of Japanese-style Corporate Behavior

UMEMURA Yoshiaki
Vice President and Senior Fellow, RIETI

Although they are falling away, where do the seniority system, the tendency to mimic and follow, and the tendency toward quantity (putting emphasis on sales volume and production rather than profits) that characterize Japanese-style corporate behavior have their roots? One part of the cause is also likely found in former government administrations such as the convoy system, but sometimes I find myself thinking that the many generations of rice farming in the Japan's climate has had a great impact on the tendencies and behavioral patterns of companies in the manufacturing and service industries.

The Tendencies and Behavioral Patterns Induced by Rice Farming

Japan's climate, with its rainy season and typhoons as well as great swings in temperature, has taught Japanese people the importance of not taking actions different from other (tendency to mimic and follow), because trying to get ahead of everyone by planting rice in a different season only leads to failure. The key to raising productivity was doing as those with more experience did (placing weight on seniority) in terms of planting, weeding and harvesting. Furthermore, for securing waterways, shipping crops, and disaster prevention projects such as that against flood damage, etc., it was important to cooperate and act, and in previous times, refusing to cooperate meant being ostracized from the community. Being ostracized was a matter of life and death. At the same time, harvests are greatly affected by droughts and typhoons and other weather related phenomena, which led to the human phenomena of "personal non-responsibility," which can best be described as people doing their best and then leaving the rest to fate.

Now there is importance put on brands and production locales where people claim koshihikari variety of rice produced in Niigata prefecture is delicious, or that sasanishiki rice from Yamagata prefecture is better, but the distinction is rough. The only smaller region name you can find is maybe Uonuma, and the faces of respective producers are seldom visible. The quantity of rice was extremely important (tendency toward quantity) and it is widely known that the size of military and economic power also had its basis in the volume of rice production.

Of course, rice farming was based on a fixed place of abode, and "movement" meant that cultivation and securing waterways would have to be done again from scratch. Once something had been established, change was shied away from (disdain for change).

The Tendencies and Behavioral Patterns for Hunting

Hunting requires experience, but the important thing is the ability to search for prey and the skill to catch it. Blaming one's inability to catch an animal on the fact that it runs fast, or on weather conditions is implausible (personal responsibility). Furthermore, the result of whether one is able to catch the animal is quickly determined, so performance evaluation is simple (assigning importance to ability). It is patently different from rice farming, which takes several months or more for any result to appear. Even if other people hear about the capture of an animal for food and rush to the spot where the beast fell, the prey is already gone. It is important that people search in a spot other than where the animal was caught (to neither mimic nor to follow).

The quantity of the prey is of course important, but the taste of the meat and whether the hide is useful depends greatly on the animal. Accordingly, "quality" is also emphasized (tendency to quality and quantity).

Hunters do not have fixed locations and adapt to "relocation and change" required for hunting (favor change).

The Changes in Tendencies and Behavioral Patterns Required

The leading academic theory is that true rice paddy farming seems to have likely begun in Japan at the end of the Jomon period, which would place its introduction at least over two thousand and several hundred years ago.

With this profoundly long history of rice farming as the leading industry, it is natural to believe that inevitable tendencies and behavioral patterns wrought by rice farming as outlined above also had an impact outside of agriculture.

It can be said that these kinds of tendencies and behavioral patterns function well in the catch up process in manufacturing and even the service industries, and in fact they worked well until the beginning of the 1990's. However, once a person reaches the top, and he or she is then unable to outpace other by continuing with conventional methods, then that person can soon be expected to slip from the position that he or she struggled so hard to secure. In order to continue as a top runner it is of course necessary to make extra effort, but it is also necessary to constantly produce new inventions that have not been tried. Of course, it will not work for us to try to change conventional methods 180 degrees, and this will not effect any kind of real change, but it is essential that we adopt hunter tendencies and behavioral patterns as soon as possible.

Formerly there was time when Japanese people felt that the high unemployment rate in Europe and the U.S was other people's problem, but now Japan's unemployment rate is 5.6%, which is an unbelievable number in light of the turmoil over the labor shortage at the beginning of the 1990's.

Japanese people's tendencies and behavioral patterns are gradually changing, but if the change does not accelerate in its pace, the pain will only increase. The area in most need of change is not just corporations, but of course the government administration and politics, but also perhaps the consciousness of each individual Japanese person.

February 5, 2002

February 5, 2002

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