Former enemies join forces on a quest for quality. A visitor from the 1940s would be amazed. Forty-three years after the Sherman tanks and death marches, Midwestern towns are putting aside bitter World War II memories and eagerly welcoming Japanese factories - and jobs.

IMMOBILIZED by decades of paint, frozen in time, a Sherman tank silently commands the approach to Harrodsburg, on US Highway 127. ``BATAAN,'' its marker reads.

This is a memorial to 40 Mercer County men of the 192nd GHQ Tank Battalion. They were killed near Manila on Nov. 20, 1941 - the first American force to engage Japanese soldiers in tank warfare. The Bataan ``death march'' awaited survivors.

Yet now, within sight of this monument, near an old barn with a faded Mail Pouch tobacco sign on one side, pickup trucks fill the parking lot of a Japanese company, Hitachi Automotive Products.

With concern about foreigners buying up American industry - concern intensified by election-year calls for ``economic nationalism'' - Harrodsburg is a study in how the new Japanese industries in the heartland are settling in. A visitor from the 1940s would be amazed.

``Sure this is irony,'' says Charles Carr, Harrodsburg's mayor of 24 years. ``The 192nd lost a lot of people. And the irony is that the Japanese came here wanting to locate a factory. But nobody objected. Everybody wanted them.''

Some counties near Harrodsburg still have unemployment rates of 12 to 15 percent.

Says Mayor Carr: ``We welcome the jobs.''

Hitachi came into a town with fading memories of World War II - but memories nonetheless. Hitachi envoys made their peace.

``One of the things Hitachi did right away,'' the mayor says, ``was to set up a meeting with survivors of the death march and explain how sorry they were and how they are from a different generation.''

The newcomers settle in

Garrick Utley, the NBC-TV reporter, did a ``Nightly News'' segment from here in late '86, the mayor notes. He and Hitachi officials say that this broadcast was pretty much their day in the sun. For the past two years, it's been business as usual.

``You get one or two people at the VFW Hall who still don't like it,'' says a worker behind the counter of Sandusky Farm Service store. ``But that's about it.''

``We're adapting,'' says Shinji Harada, vice-president of Hitachi in Harrodsburg. ``Americans are adapting, too.''

If anyone needs an example of how routinely America is adapting to the extraordinary new presence of Japanese factories in its midst it can be found here in central Kentucky. This is Daniel Boone country - horse-raising, Bible-thumping revival country. It is also the heart of Auto Alley, a region now stretching from Michigan to Tennessee and filled with American and, increasingly, Japanese auto companies and their myriad suppliers.

The Big Three (General Motors, Ford, and Chrysler) still dominate Michigan. But starting at the Mazda factory in Flat Rock, just south of Detroit, and running south roughly along Interstate 75 are Honda of Marysville, Ohio; Toyota of Georgetown, Ky.; and Nissan of Smyrna, Tenn.

That is not the whole story, however, for in the small towns along Auto Alley and radiating throughout the United States are thousands of subcontractors making alternators, generators, electrical harnesses, and component parts that don't have dictionary names.

But after three to five years of settling in, the Japanese are having only minimal outward effect on this region of the country.

Japanese managers are living quiet suburban lives, sending their children to public school and Japanese-language ``Saturday School.'' They are universally regarded as polite and friendly, if not as ``just folks.''

The woods here are full of Japanese-owned companies, Japanese-American joint ventures, and American-owned companies - all doing business with one another.

Nobuo Fukushima of Mitsui Bank works in a suburban office park in nearby Lexington. He helps arrange financing for Japanese clients. He also calls on big Kentucky companies like Ashland Oil and the Humana health services conglomerate. In his building alone are offices for the Bank of Tokyo, Toyoto Tsusho, Tokai Bank, Sanwa Bank, Taisho Management, Taisho Marine, and Nissho Iwai. Toyota's huge new US manufacturing factory is 15 miles away in Georgetown.

``There could be 500 or 600 people in the Japanese community here,'' says Mr. Fukushima. ``It's a good place to raise kids.''

Quality control is supreme

The Japanese are known for an intense commitment to quality control and teamwork. This commitment is not just isolated within the ``transplants,'' such as Hitachi and Toyota, but touches the working lives of tens of thousands of American workers and subcontractors.

``We try to purchase many components in the US,'' says Kojiro Tsuji, president of Sumitomo Electric Wiring Systems of Morgantown, Ky. The company makes electrical wiring harnesses for the Honda factory in Marysville.

``We have to evaluate quality and price and delivery,'' Mr. Tsuji says. ``Really, it is not so easy to find quality. It is a struggle to find reliable vendors. But I know eventually we will be able to get it.''

Mr. Harada of Hitachi has a similar observation: ``Americans are very concentrated on a particular job. They do everything by themselves. People even build their own houses here. In the US you have a philosophy about quality - but sometimes that doesn't follow through in actual operation.''

Nevertheless, Harada says, quality control at his factory and with outside suppliers is improving.

A big ``Zero Defects'' greets workers and visitors at Hitachi. Harada's American deputy, Larry Royalty, proudly points out a ``Quality First'' award for the Harrodsburg factory. It is one of only six that Hitachi has awarded to factories outside Japan.

At Hitachi and other Japanese factories in the US, hiring of new employees is an elaborate process of aptitude and attitude analysis. It's the same with choosing suppliers, Mr. Royalty notes. Hitachi will send its engineers and administrative analysts to subcontractors to help improve the quality of their work so that when the product reaches Hitachi it is defect-free.

``We bring the suppliers in,'' Royalty says, ``and show them what we want. We have a long-term relationship with them, and that way the quality works its way back upstream.''

It is this aspect of quality control that is perhaps most intriguing in American industry today. Not only are the Japanese companies tuned to quality, but American suppliers and American competitors are increasingly quality oriented themselves.

An automobile such as the Toyota Camry, for instance - built in Georgetown, Ky., by American workers using Japanese quality-assurance techniques - must achieve high quality throughout its assembly process, even in areas Toyota cannot control directly.

``Our quality image is dependent on the quality of our suppliers,'' says Alex Warren Jr., senior vice-president of Toyota in Georgetown. ``If there is a problem with a part, our customers aren't going to say they don't want another Toyota with that part in it. They are going to say they don't want a Toyota in general.''

`Never satisfied with quality'

Thus, says Mr. Warren, Toyota, like other Japanese companies, is developing long-term relationships with suppliers so as to improve component quality and reduce costs. Like Hitachi, Toyota sends engineers to supplier plants to achieve kaizen (continuous improvement).

``We are never satisfied with quality,'' Warren says. ``We are always looking for ways to improve. We need to get that into our suppliers. We will be giving quality awards to recognize suppliers who meet our standards.''

It would be wrong, however, to credit only the Japanese with this emphasis on quality, notes Armand Feigenbaum, president of General Systems Company, a specialist in quality control based in Pittsfield, Mass.

``Quality does not travel under an exclusive foreign passport,'' Dr. Feigenbaum says. ``American companies are doing the same thing. In fact, the Japanese are able to tap into strong supplier networks in the US. And that's collectively good.''

But with the Japanese, he adds, ``there's an extremely high emphasis on extremely high quality. It's the same with suppliers as it is with hiring new employees. They are very thorough and very careful. There is nothing casual in what they do.''

So, quite apart from the debate over the dangers or benefits of foreigners ``buying into America,'' Japanese factories and American workers are hard at work together. They are on a quality quest.

Forty-three years after the Sherman tanks and death marches, that has to be noted as a remarkable transformation.

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