Nation of copycats turns into a world leader in research

From being a nation of copycats, Japan is gradually turning into an innovative and creative contributor to the world's scientific and industrial development, according to Tadahiro Sekimoto.

Dr. Sekimoto, president of NEC (formerly Nippon Electric), the giant Japanese electrical and electronics company, recently told a press luncheon in Tokyo that Japan's expenditure on research and development is now the third highest in the world, exceeded only by the United States and the Soviet Union.

''Japan's trade balance in technology,'' Sekimoto said, ''has gone into the black during the past 10 years.'' Japanese companies still spend more on royalties to foreign companies for technology transfers than they receive, but in terms of new contracts, Japanese companies are selling more to foreign companies than they are buying from them.

(A Nihon Keizai newspaper survey found that in 1980 Japanese companies listed on the Tokyo Stock Exchange were earning $425 million each year on technology exports while paying $350 million for technology imports.)

Sekimoto's company, NEC, has been an innovator in both the communications and computer fields. It has developed its own line of computers, which are not compatible with those of International Business Machines Corporation (IBM). ''Long ago,'' Dr. Sekimoto said, ''we made the basic decision to make the best computer we can with the best technology available to us - computers that will be there, waiting to supply the customer's needs before he asks us. That was our philosophy, and to carry it out we could not put ourselves in thrall to someone else's technology.''

IBM has annual world sales of $30 billion, while NEC's sales in the last fiscal year totaled 1,279,726 million yen, or just under $5 billion, of which computers and industrial electronic devices accounted for $1.1 billion.

But Sekimoto says that what futurologist Alvin Toffler predicts as the ''third wave'' is coming, in which computers and software will have to be tailored to differing regions and cultures. Instead of having everyone learn an English-based computer language, computers will have to speak and to some extent think in Japanese for the Japanese, in Arabic for the Arabs, or in French for the French.

''Then,'' Sekimoto said, ''he who rules software will rule the world.'' He has no qualms about the ability of Japanese companies to meet IBM's competition on their own ground, but admits it will be a challenge for local companies to design computers responding to the varied needs of a world clientele.

NEC now spends more than any other Japanese firm on research and development - 10.7 percent of sales last year. This compares with 5.5 percent spent by IBM and 6.2 percent by the General Electric Company in 1981. But in absolute figures NEC's $818 million is only a third of IBM's R&D expenditures.

To keep NEC moving ahead in original research, Sekimoto stresses the importance of maximizing innovation and creativity in a culture where harmony and consensus-seeking are prized. ''We value harmony,'' he said, ''but that does not mean we want yes men. Harmony has to be achieved by individuals who are not afraid to voice their opinions.''

Sekimoto says he relies on the old-boy network of Japan's leading universities (he is a graduate of the physics department of Tokyo University) to spot promising young men.

The Japanese practice of lifetime employment gives newcomers job security, and gives the company has time to discover potential high fliers and to offer them choice research positions including study abroad.

If a man's talent and predilection is to work on his own, the company will encourage him, supplying assistants and logistical help as may be required. In this way Sekimoto tries to keep individuals of ''extraordinary or unique character'' who might otherwise find themselves ''rejected or disliked'' by their co-workers in teamwork-conscious Japan.

He says he himself benefited greatly from two years in Washington as head of the modulation technique department of the Communications Satellite Corporation (Comsat). A specialist in pulse-code modulation, Sekimoto saw his department grow from two people to 30 during his tenure, and he completed several important projects in this area.

He says he was impressed by the emphasis at Comsat on putting the right man in the right place and by the freedom he was given to interview and select people for his team. What he found less admirable about the US system was the great pressure to achieve short-term results and the evaluation of individual abilities on the basis of these results.

As for management itself, Sekimoto thinks the emphasis on consensus in Japan frequently leads to surface agreement masking hidden dissent. (''With your face you obey, in your heart you are opposed,'' he said.)

''I remembered a phrase from a novel I'd read long ago, that criticism between comrades should arise from a feeling of deep concern,'' he said. ''Let this comradely concern characterize our criticism, I said. The point of criticism is to make the company better, to make the person criticized do a better job. From that viewpoint, junior executives should feel free to speak up to senior executives, and senior executives should feel free to do likewise, to colleagues or to subordinates.''

Dr. Sekimoto feels this kind of nurturing of individual talent has helped propel his 83-year-old company into the ranks of the world's communications and computer giants. That, plus teamwork founded on the stable expectation of lifetime employment, is what keeps NEC moving ahead, and Sekimoto intends to see that this delicate balance is preserved.

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