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Beyond national borders: reflections on Japan and the world.

Beyond National Borders: Reflections on Japan and the World.

Kenichi Ohmae. Dow Jones-Irwin, $16.95. If you've ever wondered why U.S.-Japan trade talks are so protracted, circuitous, and exasperating, consider this: In Japan, the expression "that person says things clearly' is a term of disparagement, implying that the person has gone too far. A Japanese man proposing marriage to a Japanese woman may say something like, "You know, I don't dislike you,' or, "Would you wash my briefs?'

Anecdotes like this are amusing, but as Kenichi Ohmae warns his countrymen in this slender, impassioned book, Japan's inability to communicate with the rest of the world has pushed that country to the brink of economic disaster. The Japanese have only themselves to blame, he says, for their image as predatory industrial animals who dump their products all over the world and leave behind unemployment lines and shuttered factories. Protectionist sentiment has become a part of U.S. national policy, and one presidential candidate has made it the centerpiece of his campaign, but Japan has done little to explain itself. "It is hard to say which is more trying, our innocence or our arrogance,' Ohmae writes.

Originally published in Japan where it was a bestseller, this English translation gives Americans a rare opportunity to hear a prominent Japanese talk about his own country. American-educated Ohmae, who runs the Tokoy office of McKinsey & Co., the management consulting firm, has plenty of acerbic criticism for politicians and businessmen on both sides of the Pacific. But he saves his harshest words for his compatriots: "We don't know how to behave in international circles. We make "ugly Americans' in Europe look polished. Half the time we don't even know we look foolish. . . . We often behave like Yakuza, or an underground society . . . the only time we speak up is when our Prime Minister apologizes to the United States.'

Ohmae's thesis is that the world economy has become so interlinked that national borders are irrelevant. Goods and services flow around the globe with little regard for lines on a map. For example, Adidas, the big West German firm, sells shoes in Japan that it makes in Taiwan. Yet the Japanese, in an increasingly cosmopolitan world, retain the hermetic, insular attitude that resulted from the traumas of the forties. "Now that we are on stage with America and Europe, we better act like and talk like world citizens,' he writes.

Most of what Americans learn about Japan comes from other Americans--the academics, journalists, and economists whose praise of "Japanese management' has helped create a superiority complex among the Japanese and resentment among their best customers: Americans. In fact, Ohmae argues, American companies are more successful at managing business on an international scale than Japanese firms, and he points to the success of companies such as Johnson & Johnson and Schick in Japan and Kodak and Ford in Europe.

In the book's most controversial section, Ohmae argues that the much-ballyhooed U.S. trade deficit with Japan is the stuff of myth because our way of keeping score is outmoded. Trade figures don't account for the vast amount of American goods that are made and sold within Japan by U.S. companies that have diligently earned "insider' status.

Ohmae clearly enjoys throwing out a few ideas for pure shock effect. He proposes Anchorage, Alaska, as the ideal New Age corporate headquarters, since it is equidistant to Japan, Europe, and the U.S. He suggests that since Japan has money but little land while Latin American countries have lots of land but little money, Japan should buy real estate in Brazil and Argentina to grow rice and reduce Third World debt. But most of his book is deadly earnest, and it deserves as wide an audience in the U.S. at it had in Japan. For all the acrane statistics that surround the trade debate, it is only common sense that the U.S. and Japan have far more shared interests than cause for confrontation.
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Author:Graulich, David
Publication:Washington Monthly
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jul 1, 1987
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