The Multinational Monitor



Toyota's Factory of Dispair

An interview with journalist Kamata Satoshi

by Tim Shorrock

In 1972, freelance journalist Kamata Satoshi spent six months working at the Toyota Motor Company factory in Toyota City, Japan. Out of his experiences he wrote a book entitled Factory of Despair: Diary of A Seasonal Auto Worker. The book describes in detail the hard life of the young workers who are hired as temporaries during peak production times. Through moving portraits of the workers and a careful analysis of the mechanisms Toyota employs to control its workforce (such as the kanban or just-intime system of supplying auto parts, and its renowned quality circles), Kamata assembles a picture of Japan that is at great variance with the enthusiastic view of Japanese workplaces commonly held by American businessmen.

In 1980 Kamata revisited the factory and wrote an update to the 1972 book which has been published in English under the title of Japan in the Passing Lane (Pantheon, 1982). Kamata is currently writing a book about Japanese coal miners. He visited Detroit earlier this year and met with UAW officials and auto executives.

Multinational Monitor: In recent years, Nissan has stepped up the introduction of robots into its factories. Is the same true at Toyota?

Kamatqa Satoshi: The main reason for the increase in productivity at Toyota is not robots but a tightening of labor conditions, speed-ups, increasing the number of machines a worker is responsible for. I doubt if this has been told to people outside of Japan, but at the core of Toyota's rationalization has been the fact of not investing in new equipment.

MM: You mean they use the same old machines?

Satoshi: Toyota managers have taxed their ingenuity to find ways to decrease the number of workers per machine. Until now, one worker has worked one machine; now that's changed so that each works two or three machines. And the work of seasonal labor has been taken over by robots. Other companies buy new machines, but Toyota uses old machines effectively. That's the essence of rationalization [at Toyota]. They were way behind Nissan and Toyo Kogyo [Datsun and Mazda] in introducing robots. As late as two years ago, the author of Toyota-style production, Ono Taichi, said there was little merit in robotization. Even if robots are introduced they can't do away with workers; since you can't fire the workers, there is no advantage to introducing robots. That's what he thought. Because in Japan it's not as easy as in America to fire someone. And as long as you can't fire them, there's no merit to having robots, he would say. So robots were introduced by not employing new seasonal labor. That's the Japanese way of introducing robots.

MM: What kind of role has the Toyota labor union played?

Satoshi: Toyota and Nissan are about the same. Rather than management bringing proposals for rationalization to the union, more often such proposals come from the labor union to management as the requests of labor.

MM: You mean they persist in proposing rationalization?

Satoshi: Yes. For example, suppose the union proposes changing to a two-day weekend. [Many Japanese work six days a week.] They demand that as a trend of the day, but in exchange they propose extending the work hours per day. Or a limited amount of speed-up. In other words, the union does not propose something unacceptable to management, but makes demands in tune with the times. The union cadre and management are always talking to each other. Whatever they agree on is forced upon the workers.

MM: What if the workers are dissatisfied because the speed of the line is too fast? That just doesn't happen. Because it doesn't do any good to say it. I mean, even if they didn't like something, they wouldn't go to the union with their complaint. The reason is that union officials go back to their original work place after two years. [Many union officials are actually company managers who work for the union sometime during their careers.] The union leaders also have power depending on their position within the company, so they defend the company.

Satoshi: Concerning the recent tie-ups between Toyota and GM, some of the American workers at Fremont, UAW members, had high expectations for Japanese management. They think it will be better than under GM. What do you have to say to those workers? For example, what do you think will happen when Toyota goes to Fremont?

I think the miserable conditions of Japanese workers will be passed right on to American workers.

MM: Do you mean you think Toyota will use the same methods?

Satoshi: I expect American workers hope that with the Japanese style of family management will come the practice of not firing anyone. On the other hand, the assumption of Japanese industry is that workers, as a family, will obey the values and whatever the company says as if it were from "father." But I think there is no chance that this will materialize in the U.S., among American individualism and freedom. So if they want to reject that individualism and freedom, Japanese management may be good.

Also, the union will have to become like those in Japan, a union that provides no resistance to the will of the industry. In Fremont now, it hasn't been decided if they will hire UAW members or not, but I think that Toyota will do all they can not to hire UAW members. Honda and Datsun, which have already opened up plants in the U.S., did it that way. They open plants in areas where workers' consciousness is low, or in rural areas. As long as American workers have the sense of rights and worker's consciousness they have had until now, Japanese management methods will never work in the U.S.

Now there are many unemployed in the U.S. It seems that it depends on whether those unemployed workers choose worker consciousness and rights, or choose "bread" without worker consciousness and rights. At the heart of Japanese labormanagement relations is the ancient concept of sacrificing one's personal interests to the public good. So it comes down to, will this commitment to sacrificing personal interests to public good be accepted in the U.S.?

MM: What was your experience with quality circles at Toyota?

Satoshi: The quality circle movement is to control with small groups. But in America you don't build personal relationships [at work]. In Japan, although it is breaking down somewhat, there are always personal relationships in labor-management relations, and workers are tied to these relationships. Since you don't have this kind of personal relationship in the U.S., I think that's why the quality circle movement looks so good to people, because they want human contact. The workplace organization is so cold that people want this.

In Japan they control workers with that kind of human relationship; but since there are cultural differences it's no good to try the same methods [in the U.S.]. It's because they don't know the reality [of the Japanese management style] that they think it is good.

In Japanese quality circles, Japanese feudal relations are included. So to succeed by copying Japanese quality circles, the only way is if Japanese feudal labor controls were also copied.

MM: Do you mean that workers would not be able to have their feeling reflected (in quality circles)?

Satoshi: For example, with the suggestion system, ideas are collected and they say workers' feelings are reflected in this way. But these ideas must be within the scope of assigned tasks, so they are severely limited. The quality circles are not just to improve quality, they are primarily to control the workers. Everyone who comes here from other countries thinks quality circles are such good things. All they talk about is "quality circles, quality circles." They think that Japan's rationalization program has been improved by quality circles. But that's a myth. They are simply a method of control of workers. To foreigners, it simply looks as if workers are actually participating in quality control. But it is an illusion that Japanese industry has, progressed due to quality circles. It's a myth.

At the core of Japanese labormanagement relations are the enterprise based unions. The development of the enterprise is of prime importance for the union. With industry in the U.S. in a slump, the company needs to be bolstered. That's why they are trying to learn from Japan. In effect, they are trying to approach the Japanese feudal, labor-management relations.

MM: You mean quality circles are for the development of the companies?

Satoshi: Well, yes. But putting quality circles aside, labor-management relations are different from in the U.S. because of the enterprise-based unions [in Japan]. If one's company doesn't get ahead, one's livelihood will not improve; that's the connection. So if the union clashes with the assumption of the need for the company's success, it is easy for the union to slip into a position of weakness. If they want to copy this in the U.S., they have to also copy feudal labor-management.

MM: It may be that GM, by tying up with Toyota, wants to break down the power of the UAW, because on the shop floor the UAW is very powerful.

Satoshi: That will develop because of the high unemployment. Since there are so many unemployed in Fremont, it will probably work. If there weren't so many unemployed, it would never work.

That's what I felt when I met with managers from Nissan who had moved to England. The way they put it was that since unemployment is high in England-in Britain the labor movement is strong and there are many unions-when they opened a new plant they planned to form a new union, bringing together many small unions. Since many people are unemployed, they think they can form a new kind of labor union. That's what they hope. In other words, not a British-style union, they want to change the nature of the unions to Japanese-style unions. That's what the managers I talked to said.

There's no communication or exchange of information between workers in the U.S. and in Japan, so workers don't know anything about the real work situation in the other country. So for workers, "the grass is greener on the other side."

What worries me the most is that Japanese labor-management relations, and methods of control of workers, will be exported to the depression-stricken U.S. and Europe. That would be criminal, and very bad [for workers]. I think it will destroy American society. In 1945, at the end of the war, America came to Japan and instituted democratic reforms in order to break down feudalism which propped up Japanese militarism. In other words, they had real influence over Japanese society. Now with the economic war, the Japanese feudalism that they attempted to abolish is being exported to the U.S.-and that worries me.

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