It is impossible not to be awed by the sense of duty of the Japanese workers who are fighting to secure and clear up the Fukushima nuclear power station after it was knocked out by a tsunami. Exposed to high levels of radiation, they expect to die, but still they work.
The numbers involved have varied: at one point, it was reported to be 300 – which immediately evoked the memory of the Three Hundred Spartans, a suicide battalion who marched against an unbeatable enemy fully aware that there was no hope of survival.
The workers have also evoked memories of an honourable tradition within Japan’s own culture – that of the Samurai, the warrior-servants for whom death was preferable to the disgrace of failing their lords.
Western managers look on with a little envy mixed with their admiration. Would Western workers behave as Samurai in a similar situation? Or would they be straight on the speed dial to their personal injury lawyers?
If, as we suspect, the latter is more likely, can anything be done to infuse our own employees with more of the Japanese work ethic? This is a question with which Western managers have long been obsessed. Some may remember that, from the 1960s until the end of the 1980s, there was a real vogue for all things Japanese in Western corporate circles.
Western executives bought katanas, took karate lessons, and read the likes of Miyamoto Musashi and Yamamoto Tsunetomo – usually missing their main points entirely – in the vain hope that all this would, somehow by osmosis, result in Japanese levels of productivity.
It never worked, and the fashion faded with the Japanese economy. The great secret of Japanese management is that it was always a product of a broader culture of mutual loyalty and obligation of employer and employee that extended beyond the workplace, and which did indeed go all the way back to the relationship between a Daimyo and his Samurai.
It is impossible to replicate that relationship without the associated broader culture, and the culture is itself the unique product of centuries of Japanese history. Indeed, many assumed it was dying out even in Japan – or at least they did until Fukushima.