Book Review: We Were Burning
by Bob Johnstone.
How Japanese daring and entrepreneurship
led it to dominance of consumer electronics.
We Were Burning
Japanese Entrepreneurs and the Forging of the Electronic Age
by Bob Johnstone
Published by Basic Books, New York
reviewed by Philip Bowring
The US-originated internet revolution has coincided with a
long recession in Japan to give much of the world a negative
impression of Japanese entrepreneurial talents. Japan, it is
said, is a society better at copying than inventing, one which
subordinates individual talent to stultifying group thinking
directed by the bureaucrats of giant corporations and MITI
(Ministry of International Trade and Industry). This is, we
are often told, an economy which has ceased to grow because it
does not know how to lead.
So Johnstone's book is a timely reminder of how much risk
taking, individual genius and sheer bravado were at the root
of Japan's domination -- which still holds -- of the global
consumer electronics industry. Johnstone traces the
development of a range of key breakthroughs in consumer
electronics involving both famous names such as Akio Morita
and Sony to invividuals little known outside Japan who were
responsible for key advances in lasers, diodes, CDs players,
screen technology, video recorders, music synthesisers, etc.
Most of the technologies -- involving chemistry and physics as
well as electrical engineering -- began life in US
laboratories, such as Bell Labs and RCA. But it was the
Japanese appreciation of the potential applications of new
technologies, followed by imaginative and arduous work to turn
theory into practice, which eventually brought Japanese
companies commercial success -- but with plenty of failures
along the way. Many key inventions came from the labs of
obscure companies and single minded individuals.
Two things are striking about Johnstone's portrait of
progress. Firstly, the degree of cooperation between US and
Japanese researchers for whom scientific inquiry was an end in
itself not a matter of national esteem. Indeed, American
pioneers found outlets for their ideas and products in Japan.
The Stanford inventor of FM synthesis, John Chowning, was
ignored by Hammond organ but his idea was turned into reality
via the imagination and risk taking of Yamaha. It existed at
the coporate level too. Hewlett-Packard's cooperation with
Canon helped it leapfrog Xerox in the battle to commercialize
the laser printer.
Secondly, the extent to which the rivalry between Japanese
companies became perhaps the most important stimulus to
technological improvement. Sharp, best known for starting the
calculatior revolution, was an outsider in the race to build
lasers to read CDs. But it won against a field of six other
Japanese firms, and one non-Japanese -- Philips.
The unscientific reader will sometimes have to refer to the
glossary to be reminded of the uses of gallium compounds and
differences between LEP, LED and LCD. But generally,
Johnstone, a journalist not a scientist, sticks to the
corporate and human aspects of the story and does not belabour
the reader with difficult science.
This book makes one wonder whether the long term winners from
the internet revolution will really be the current heroes, the
software entrepreneurs of the US West coast with their Nasdaq
generated paper fortunes. Perhaps instead it will be those who
can invent -- and manufacture -- the cheapest, simplest most
user-friendly gadgets for the next decade of the digital age,
the Seikos, Sonys and Sharps to come. Judging fron the past,
that means combining the individualistic dedication of
scientists with a corporate commitment to risk, investing to
reap rewards in the next decade rather than conform to the
time horizons of Wall Street's sheep flock, the financial
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