The Japanese are clutching at straws, penguins and cheese in their struggle to force back the gloom overhanging their lives these days.
A decade-long economic slump, scandals, social upheaval and general angst are prompting Japanese to snap up American management books--from “A Peacock in the Land of Penguins” to “Who Moved My Cheese?"--in their quest for fresh ideas.
Though long-suffering corporate salarymen in their 30s and 40s tend to be the main buyers, several books are finding surprisingly large audiences among homemakers, students and the elderly looking for greater meaning in their lives.
“Penguins,” about encouraging creativity in the workplace, went on sale last month in Japan with an 80,000-copy first run in a market where sales of several thousand for such works are considered decent. “Cheese” has sold a whopping 3.5million copies, a record in Japan for any management book, and titles such as “The Goal,” “The Millionaire Mind” and the self-help book “People of the Lie” have posted strong numbers.
Bolstering the sales, publishers say, is a feeling among many Japanese that the world is moving too fast, too many companies are foundering and society is unraveling. With traditional remedies largely ineffective, more people are searching for answers farther afield.
“A book like ‘The Goal’ has done well by offering hope for dying men clutching at straws,” said Eiji Mitachi, international rights editor for Diamond Inc., referring to the inspirational story by Eliyahu Goldratt and Jeff Cox of a factory turnaround. “Many Japanese these days are looking for answers and trying to find hope.”
It wasn’t all that long ago that North America had the lock on despair. In the late 1980s, as Japanese bankers threatened to carry Rockefeller Center home in their luggage and corner the global art market, Americans spent long nights studying why Japanese quality circles, just-in-time delivery and short-term outlooks were consigning U.S. companies to history’s competitive backwater.
From 1985 to 1990, Japan’s Foreign Rights Center oversaw the translation of 20 Japanese management books into English. Among the big sellers handled by the publications group and its counterparts were “The Mind of the Strategist: The Art of Japanese Business,” by Kenichi Ohmae, “Workplace Management,” by Taiichi Ohno, and “The Japan That Can Say No,” by Shintaro Ishihara.
Since 1999, however, the center hasn’t done a single translation. “We used to collect huge royalties from Japanese management books,” a spokeswoman said. “Now it’s a few hundred dollars a year.”
Booksellers, meanwhile, are reporting a strong response here for softer American management books in translation such as “People of the Lie,” by M. Scott Peck, and “A Peacock in the Land of Penguins,” by B.J. Gallagher Hateley and Warren H. Schmidt. Though this management and personal communication genre has long been popular in the United States, it represents a new crossover market for Japan.
“If something I wrote can help the people in Japan muddle through, like a phoenix rising from the ashes, that’s great,” said Gallagher Hateley.
Fusosha Publishing Co., which had never handled a management book, expected little when it bought the translation rights to “Who Moved My Cheese?” by Spencer Johnson in late 2000.
“Sales have exceeded all our expectations,” editor Kentaro Tomita said. “The original target was businessmen, but we’ve heard back from everyone from 9-year-old boys to 80-year-old grandparents.”
Naoko Hara, a 44-year-old Tokyo homemaker, said that though “Cheese” isn’t revolutionary, its message--adapting to change--is too often forgotten in the constraints of Japanese life.
“Some people seem to have scales on their eyes these days,” she said. “The ‘Cheese’ book really reconfirms some important human ideas.”
According to Japan’s Research Institute for Publications, 122 management books were translated into Japanese in 1999, the most recent data available, up 160% over the 1994 level.
That’s not to say that everything in translation is flying off shelves. Publishers say horn-tooting books by brash American executives can be a tough sell.
Though Americans love the well-told tale of a manager slaying corporate dragons to emerge rich and envied, Japanese place a higher premium on modesty, group decision-making and shared credit. Only books by heavyweights such as General Electric Co.'s Jack Welch and Microsoft Corp.'s Bill Gates sell well.
“In the United States, they seem to publish memoirs even if the person isn’t memorable,” said Diamond’s Mitachi. “In Japan, 100 out of 100 people must know someone before you’ll see a memoir.”
Publishers also tend to take a pass on American books covering taxes, personal finance issues and how to fire people, issues that don’t translate as well between the two economies.
Books that offer lots of detail and paint-by-number guides to corporate revival, on the other hand, are generally well received. These not only circumvent cultural barriers but also resonate in a nation taught to play it safe and prepare exhaustively for contingencies.
One big headache for editors is finding the right title. Fusosha felt that a literal translation of “Who Moved My Cheese?” lacked the sense of urgency needed to sell the book in Japan. The company settled on “My Cheese Disappeared. Where Did It Go?” with the implication that it might never be found.
Ignoring such subtleties can be expensive. Gary Hamel’s “Leading the Revolution” has done well in the U.S. but has sold less than half its 20,000-copy production run in Japan. Yutaka Hashida, publications salesman with Nikkei Business Publishing, attributes this in part to insistence by the American side that the Japanese title and cover design mirror the U.S. edition.
“Something like ‘Seven Ways to Revolutionize Your Company’ would’ve worked much better here,” Hashida said. “It would’ve given it a how-to feel. In addition, the numbers 1, 3, 7 and 100 are considered lucky and tend to spur sales.”
Most management authors dream of having some new buzzword jump from their pages into general use. In the 1980s, American executives mouthed such Japanese terms as zero defects, continuous improvement, lean production and speed to market, even if many had no idea what the terms meant.
These days, the American cliche makers are in control, prompting more Japanese to talk about brand asset management, relationship management, guerrilla marketing and supply-chain management.
“We stopped hearing of new Japanese breakthrough ideas,” said Philip Kotler, whose “Marketing Management” is selling well here. “The fact is that the U.S. is generating a great number of new management ideas through an avalanche of books and articles.”
It’s one thing to understand the sentiment behind many management books from another land, including the need for bold thinking and better communication. It’s quite another to apply these ideas in a traditional society in which those in authority strongly resist change.
Toyota Urago, a 29-year-old office worker at an auto parts company, said he’s a big fan of such authors as Kotler and management guru Peter Drucker but says the old guard in Japan isn’t reading these books.
“My bosses are dour, sedentary and completely lacking in any sense of crisis,” he said. “They’re obsessed with avoiding pain rather than changing things for the better.”
Change is painfully slow, said George Fields, an author and president of consulting firm Fields Associates. But it is happening as young managers increasingly are willing to criticize traditionalists.
With the U.S. model on the ascent, some Japanese bridle at the brashness of American managers, the swagger of the most successful U.S. companies and the implicit view that North America has a lock on global business practices.
“I don’t think the U.S. has the only answer,” said Kenji Iwamoto, a 32-year-old who works in the finance industry. “We need to find a third way that combines Japanese and U.S. ideas.”
As Japan struggles to find its way, it often seems as if nothing is going right. Still, this country has been written off before, only to prove the skeptics wrong.
“It’s just a cycle,” said Yasuhiro Horiye, economics professor at Kyushu University.
“Who knows? If Americans have a recession, they might start reading Japanese management books again.”
Rie Sasaki in The Times’ Tokyo bureau contributed to this report.