WE WERE BURNING by Bob Johnstone


Japanese Entrepreneurs and the Electronic Revolution
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“Made in Japan” was once the mark of an inferior knockoff; now only an incurable chauvinist would draw that inference. How that change came about is one of the great stories of modern industry. Johnstone, who covered Japanese technology for New Scientist and Wired, begins by debunking the myth that Japan’s Ministry of International Trade and Industry (MITI) orchestrated that country’s rise to dominance in electronics. In fact, MITI’s bureaucratic foot-dragging kept Sony from becoming the first company to market a transistor radio (in 1954). Instead, it was a succession of brilliant entrepreneurs, most of whom are unknown in the West, who drove the Japanese electronics industry to its position of preeminence. They were helped, ironically, by the post-WWII disarmament pacts, which meant that their best and brightest engineers were concentrating on consumer products, not military projects. At the same time, the fledgling transistor technology was one in which Japan could compete on an equal footing with bigger, more developed nations—especially after antitrust legislation forced AT&T and other American companies to license their patents to Japanese manufacturers. A generation of visionaries arose. Among them were Morita Akio, one of the co-founders of Sony; Sasaki Tadashi, whose passion for miniaturization led to the first hand-held calculators; Yamazaki Yoshio, who helped perfect Seiko’s liquid crystal display watch; and Kuwano Yukinori, whose unofficial research into amorphous materials made possible the solar-powered calculator. Johnstone gives chapter-length profiles of these and other scientists and entrepreneurs, bringing these largely unknown figures to life. Many of them at first had trouble overcoming the pressures for conformity and subordination to authority so central to Japanese culture. But their example has paved the way for others, and Johnstone confidently predicts that their successes are only the beginning of a long legacy. Johnstone has a sharp eye for drama and a knack for making technical details understandable; this book is a welcome addition and corrective to the Western-dominated histories of recent technology.

Pub Date: Nov. 30th, 1998
ISBN: 0-465-09117-2
Page count: 320pp
Publisher: Basic
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Nov. 1st, 1998