Japanese Adaptability & Business

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There was a time in Japan when clans, such as the Taira and Minamoto, were at war to protect their interests and a time when the Mongols wanted to conquer the world. There were events during those times that showed Japanese adaptability, which the newer generations were able to inherit and bring to business practice.

Though the Samurai is not purely a Japanese creation, it has a long history in Japan and evolved to benefit the Japanese society. The concept of Samurai was learned from China’s warrior class but social unrest made the Samurai’s identity the way we know them today: Adaptable among others.

In one account, the Mongol Armada attacked Japan through the bay. The Japanese, within their “war code”, were used to fighting based in ranks, which was not present with the Mongols. This culture difference made the Mongols shower the Samurais with arrows and stones from their ship.  Japanese being inferior in navy warfare devised a way to beat the Mongols. The Mongols were anticipating a night attack coming from the land so the Mongols prepared for a land combat, but the ingenious Samurais went around and attached from the sea, using smaller unmanned boats which they allowed to float near the big Mongol ships. Once the boats were near the Armada, the Samurais shot their fire-lit arrows setting the small boats on fire causing fire on the bigger Mongol ships.

This characteristic of adaptability is also present in the Emperors that time driven by the need to survive. Here’s a story from Hogen Monogatari (tale).

Emperor Nijo, son of Emperor Go-Shirakawa, came under siege when he was 13. In order to escape safely, he disguised as a young girl. His young physique, make up and heavy kimono, made it easier to fool the enemy guards. His father, Emperor Go Shirakawa escaped by dressing as a lowly attendant on a horse. He was able to pass gates without attracting attention.

In another attack, his older brother, Prince Mochihito, adopted the ruse that worked before. He let his hair down, put on a woman’s robe and shielded his face with a large hat. A group of samurai holding an umbrella over the Prince’s head accompanied him as they hurried down the street. He was such in a hurry to reach his destination that he didn’t mind his demeanor. Faced with a large ditch on the road, He athletically jumped across, making the passers-by shake their heads in disbelief seeing a “woman’s” lack of ladylike air.


In the Mongol attack, the Japanese knew they had no match against the fierce Mongols if they allowed them to a land combat, and the Emperors knew that they were no match against the enemies if they fought against them. Instead of fighting, they turned to understanding the situation and responding to the needs of the situation. They were adaptable.

These stories tell us that adaptability is part of Japanese culture which they brought in how they do their business. The roots of the world renowed Kaizen principle, the principle of continous improvement, can be traced back to Edward Deming. Deming, a management consultant from the US, introduced Total Quality Management in post-war Japan. Both TQM & Kaizen tackle continous improvement.  Understanding the difference between the 2 will help us understand why Japan did not just adopt TQM. A paper called An Analysis of Relationship between Total Quality Management and Kaizen, has this to say on the difference between the 2, “TQM features primarily focus on customer’s satisfaction through improvement of quality. It is both a top down and bottom up approach whereas kaizen is processes focused and a bottom up approach of small incremental changes. Implementation of TQM is more costly as compared to Kaizen. Through kaizen, improvements are made using organization’s available resources.” This paper gives me a clue that if Japan used TQM instead creating TPS, it would have not worked.

One of the first applications of TQM in Japan was when Taichi Ono converted the principle of TQM into Toyota Production System (TPS), which also uses the principle of Kaizen. Here we see that the Japanese did not just adopt and use TQM, if they did, it would have not worked. Remember that that was post war and Japan had very little resource and if they used TQM, which is resource heavy, they would either borrow money or close. So, instead of using TQM they adopted its principles and made TPS, which is something, the fits their needs.

Aside from principles, Japan is also known for their technology. Comparing them with the west where part of grand vision is to dominate planets and space travel, most of Japan’s technology is used for practical reasons, adapting for social needs such as those robots for the elderly care, automating agriculture to make it efficient for home delivery or safer mobility. This can be seen in their society 5.0 policy.

The Japanese adaptability is something to admire. It made them survive and win against their enemies, and it is also something they used to bolster their economy after the war. In such a short period of time after the war, they were able to bring their economy back.

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