JAPAN IN THE PASSING LANE: An Insider's Shocking Account of Life in a Japanese Auto Factory by Satoshi Kamata

JAPAN IN THE PASSING LANE: An Insider's Shocking Account of Life in a Japanese Auto Factory

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Kamata, a Japanese freelance journalist, worked on a Toyota assembly line for six months in 1972 and published a damning account of his experiences, called Automobile Factory of Despair--which is now brought to us egregiously retitled but with a redeeming introduction by Ronald Dore (British Factory, Japanese Factory; Shinohata). Dore compares Kamata's diary to other assembly-line narratives (American, British, Swedish, Yugoslav) and also, without opprobrium, identifies it as a work of ""the Japanese left, which still sees the primary task as being to evoke moral condemnation of the system."" He describes the Japanese labor shortage that existed in 1972--hence, the pressure to get the most out of each hour of paid labor time--and accurately characterizes Toyota as one of Japan's most ""conformist and regimented"" companies. He takes perceptive note, too, of Kamata's ""integrity"": ""the fact that, for all his alienation, he still admits. . . to feeling guilty about leaving the line early, and he does not conceal the fact that by the end of his six months he had become a model worker."" And this brings Dore to the crucial observation that the oppression Kamata's unalienated fellow-workers do feel ""is not the oppression of coercive external authority. It comes from inner compulsion bred from submission to the norms and targets which the organization has set for them."" (So Westerners, heir to a different culture, should think twice about using the book as a cautionary example.) Kamata's diary itself leads off with forebodings of oppression (in the bus to Toyota City, ""I'm beginning to feel depressed"") and concludes, in the 1980 epilogue, by calling the Toyota situation ""a sad but typical example of the victimization of workers in modern society."" There is much in his account, nonetheless, that's not ideology-bound. The unmarried workers, as at most large Japanese companies, live in dormitory compounds--and Toyota's bear a particularly close resemblance to army camps. (The Toyota propensity for also recruiting from the Self-Defense Forces is one of the book's concrete disclosures.) The assembly line is speeded up, overtime is required, and holidays are canceled without consultation with the union, generally shown to be ineffectual. The workers grumble but don't file grievances. Most appalling is tho high incidence of serious accidents and even deaths--for which worker-carelessness is blamed. (Their supervisors lose standing; their co-workers undergo safety-checks.) All told, these are not the happy workers or the humane employers of simplistic Japanese-management lore--and the book is already attracting attention, pre-publication, on that account. Fortunately it has the Dore introduction to put Kamata's experience, and its implications, in perspective.

Pub Date: Jan. 17th, 1982
Publisher: Pantheon