Hisao Wataru is a man whose purpose in life is to make useful things. "To increase the value of a thing -- isn't that the joy of living?" he asked while showing a visitor around the cramped but neat premises of his company, the Azuma Denki Seisakusho (Azuma Electrical Works Ltd.)
He has only 10 employees. Azuma can scarcely be said to be a household name like Sony or Toyota. Yet without millions of Watarus and the Azumas they run, it is a safe bet that neither Sony nor Toyota could exist and prosper.
More than 99 percent of all manufacturing enterprises in Japan are in the category of small-to-medium -- that is, with fewer than 300 employees. These enterprises account for about 72 percent of all employees in manufacturing.
Their output is 52 percent of total manufacturing output. They account for about 57 percent of value added -- the very thing Mr. Wataru was talking about.
"Basically, we make metal boxes," Mr. Wataru went on. "We take a flat sheet of metal -- steel or aluminum or whatever. We bend it, we cut it, we weld it, we punch holes in it. In the end, we come up with something as complicated as the chassis of an oscillograph, with all the ridges and holes and so forth exactly where they should be to accomodate the intricate wiring that goes inside."
Sony and Toyota offer lifetime employment, five-day workweeks, two-weeks paid holidays, six- month bonuses. Mr. Wataru pays what he can afford. His employees start work at 8:30 every morning and finish at 5:15 with 45 minutes off for lunch. They work a full six-day week, for which their wages range from
"Bonuses are a real problem," says Mr. Wataru. "I try to give two months wages a year, but usually it's more like one month a year."
Then why do his emplyees stay, when they have skills that are easily usable elsewhere?"You remember Chaplin's 'Modern Times?" he asks. "There, the machine that was originally invented by man to serve man becomes his master. Nowadays, instead of the machine we have the computer. Our work here is not like that. I admit, when we are very busy, we do have a succession of jobs that are boring and repetitive, like punching holes repeatedly in the same place.
"As far as possible, I get temporary help -- students and so forth -- to come in and do that kind of work. Otherwise, everyone here is an expert. He can start with a sheet of metal and end up with a box, a shape he can recognize that he himself made.
"He can read the most complicated drawing," Mr. Wataru adds. "He can use all the machines he needs. You see how crowded this workshop is. I have only 10 employees, but I don't skimp on investment in machinery. We have altogether 20 machines -- presses, lathes, dies, punching machines, welding equipment."
I asked one of Mr. Wataru's employees, Mr. Tokumoto, what made him stay on. "I've been here 15 years, after nine years in sales," he replied. "In sales you just dispose of what other people have made. Here you make things. And no two jobs are exactly alike. Sure I have to work six days a week, and overtime, too, if we have a lot to do, but there are compensations. We are a small group, we all know each other. No one is sitting on your back. On slack days, you can go home early.
"Eventually, I think I'd like to start my own manufacturing business. But even if I don't, I know I have a skill that is salable anywhere else. That gives me a confidence I never had in sales."
Mr. Tokumoto joined the company with no prior experience, and it took him about three years to master all the processes involved.
Each year Mr. Wataru takes on one or two new apprentices to teach them as he taught Mr. Tokumoto. Not all of them stay on. Young people who want to work with their hands are getting fewer and fewer each year.
"They all want to go into service industries," says Mr. Wataru. "They all want white-collar jobs.
"If I were a politician," he went on, "that's what I would do -- try to restore the dignity of working with your hands. I'm not a religious man, but this is how I feel about things. Each of us has a debt to society as a whole. Society enables us to live, and we in return must add something of value to that society."
Mr. Wataru started Azuma exactly 20 years ago.
"My father was an engineer for a large company -- Nippon Electric. He had always wanted to start his own company, and when the opportunity came in 1953, he did. I had been working for a large company, too -- the Ikegai Steel Works -- after graduating from a higher technical school.
"My three brothers and a cousin went into the venture with my father. We did well, but as we got bigger, we had disagreements. Family disagreements are particularly difficult. Eventually, although I was the oldest, I gave up my share to the others and started out on my own.
"A small enterprise like mine," he adds, "has to latch onto some bigger enterprise in order to make a go of it. We were lucky -- we could depend on Nippon Electric. Then we developed another customer -- Yokokawa Electric. today I suppose 60 percent of our production goes to Yokokawa, and 30 percent or more to NEC [Nippon Electric]. Odd jobs account for the rest.
"We make covers, cases, panels, chassis, brackets -- the outside of just about any piece of electrical equipment you can imagine. Last year our total sales were 85 million yen [about $386,000]. There are peaks and troughs, but we average about 7 million yen [about $31,800] per month.
"You know, for every Sony or Matsushita that starts out small and ends up big there are thousands of small factories that go bankcrupt every year. the risky period is when you start to grow. I myself had 18 employees until the oil shock of 1973 to 1974. We nearly went under then, all the big companies were reducing their inventories. there simply weren't any orders to be found. We just made do on the savings we had accumulated -- myself, my employees.
"At one period we had to borrow 100,000 yen [almost $500] from each employee in order to keep the company afloat. Gradually, things got better. We scrounged for jobs, wherever we could find them -- jobs worth a few hundred dollars per order instead of several thousand.
"Coming through that experience," Mr. Wataru notes, "has given me the confidence that so long as I keep the size of my company about what it is today, we can survive.
"Our strength, you see, is that we hardly have to farm out any work ourselves. Anything we are told to make, we can. We have all the necessary tools right here -- many of them we make ourselves. I have tried to avoid the easy stuff, the things other people can do. Complicated work, work that others don't want to do -- that's what keeps us going."
Mr. Wataru and his employees are not actively interested in politics, but they do talk about it as they go about their day's work. Mr. Wataru thinks the government should put a great deal more money into technical education and training. He doesn't particulary like the Liberal Democrats, but sees no viable alternative. He is sorry about the trade friction between Japan and the United States.
"It isn't enough to export things just because people will buy them. The people making goods over there [in the United States] are workers, just like us. We should think how they feel, and restrain our own exports. But I do think they should work harder to raise their own productivity.
"After all, hard work is the story of Japan, isn't it? We have no oil, no steel, almost no coal. All we have to sell is our technology, our ability to make things. That's why I say the government should pay more attention to the people who make things. Making things for others is a way of life.
"If all we do is eat, cats and dogs can do the same.
"If all we want is money, we could rob a bank.
"What makes us people is the ability to do things for others. That's what makes life worth living. And politics, it seems to me, is the art of so managing society that each of us is able to make some contribution that gives us this sense of a life worth living."