Americans Lazy? Not So, Says a Japanese Study : Productivity: U.S. workers outperform most of the rest of the world, including Japan, a researcher reports.


On the fifth floor of the Japan Productivity Center in Shibuya, Tamisaburo Sasaki stabbed a finger in the air and sputtered: “It’s all misinformation!”

All around him, the Japanese press, politicians and public have been perpetuating the image of lazy, inefficient and non-productive Americans. They paint a picture of America on the slippery slope of decline. Television flashes images of drugs and crime; newspapers spin out story after story on shoddy U.S. products.

Two recent Japanese newspaper articles, for instance, blithely mentioned that the “U.S. productivity rate is low” without citing any supporting data. Another article quoted an unnamed Japanese auto executive complaining that government pressure to buy low-quality U.S. auto parts was so fierce that “even if we throw the parts away in the Pacific Ocean, we still have to buy them.”


But Sasaki, a researcher in the research division of the Productivity Center, a private research organization, is trying to combat those skewed images with hard, cold data from all over the world. His figures show that Americans still outperform almost all the rest of the world--including Japan--in productivity--or getting the highest value of products and services from the fewest workers.

And what about those lazy Americans? Ministry of Labor statistics show that Japanese worked 2,044 hours in 1990, 95 hours or a fraction over two weeks more than Americans. But Americans worked more than Germans and French. The average annual difference between the Japanese and Germans was 402 hours, or roughly 10 weeks.

Sasaki added that the greater number of hours worked here actually lowered Japan’s productivity rate by making workers spend more time producing its goods.

Of course, the researcher’s statistics don’t measure “quality” or market share or other indicators of industrial competitiveness. And Japan’s productivity has steadily increased at a faster rate than that of the United States, a trend that worries several U.S. policy-makers. Still, Sasaki said, since 1980, U.S. manufacturing productivity has been on an upward trend and appears headed for a “revival.”

“When people see these figures, everyone is really surprised,” Sasaki said, flipping through the center’s latest report, published last October. “Most Japanese don’t know that U.S. manufacturing productivity is still about the highest in the world. For a long time, Japanese newspapers have been saying Japanese productivity is the highest, the highest. There’s been such a long stream of articles like that. So people just believe it.

“But,” he added, “it’s a big misunderstanding.”

In seminars, meetings and interviews, Sasaki tries to disseminate his information to government officials, journalists, scholars and business executives. He also receives several foreign guests from countries ranging from Czechoslovakia to France. Like the Japanese, the foreigners also blink twice to see U.S. productivity rates higher than Japan’s, he says.


Some of the facts that Sasaki likes to point out:

* Among 11 Western industrialized nations, all but Sweden had higher rates of overall productivity than Japan, as measured by gross domestic product per employed person. As of 1988, Canada led with a rate 34% higher than Japan, followed by Belgium at 32%, the United States at 31% and France at 30%.

* In manufacturing, U.S. and British workers produced 24% more than Japanese workers.

* The gap grows even larger when productivity is calculated by work hours, because the Japanese work more hours per year than Americans, Sasaki said. Overall, Japanese manufacturing workers produced just 61% of the value of goods that American workers turned out.

* Of 21 manufacturing sectors examined, U.S. productivity outstripped Japanese in 17 of them--including motor vehicles.

“That’s always the biggest surprise,” Sasaki said, explaining that the reason is that many American cars are larger than Japanese cars and therefore of higher value.

Americans also led in food, textiles, apparel, lumber and wood, furniture, pulp and paper, printing and publishing, petroleum, rubber and plastics, leather, stone and glass, fabricated metal, machinery, transportation equipment, instruments and a miscellaneous category that includes toys.

The Japanese led in chemicals, iron and steel, non-ferrous metals and electrical machinery, such as televisions and video recorders.


Sasaki said Japanese productivity is especially weak in agriculture, because of the relatively small plots of land farmed. Another weakness was wholesale and retail trade, because of the Japanese proclivity to hire platoons of elevator operators and other service personnel, corporate touches that U.S. and European firms eschew.

One of the biggest reasons for the misunderstanding, Sasaki said, is that most people, including the Japanese press, tend to calculate and compare the value of goods produced using the exchange rate. But the center employs a more accurate international measure, also used by the United Nations, called “purchasing power parity.”

Unlike the exchange rate, which is based solely on the value of imports and exports, the alternative measure includes the cost of local services and is thus better able to calculate the real cost of goods in respective countries.

When the center produced its productivity report in October, it held a press conference at the Japanese National Press Club to announce the findings. Sasaki said the journalists were stunned to see that Japan’s productivity relative to the United States was lower than imagined, and all of the leading papers duly filed articles.

Still, he said, conveying the facts to the broader public is going to be an uphill fight.

“Most people don’t read this kind of economic news,” he said. “So most Japanese just don’t know.”