February 1st, 2010
11:48 AM GMT
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Tokyo, Japan - It’s been a rough start to 2010 for some of Japan’s top executives.

Toyota Motor Corp’s management has been in damage control mode, out to protect its now-tarnished brand. The global recall for its sticking accelerator pedals has meant hundreds of millions in lost revenue but more importantly, battered the automaker’s reputation for reliability and quality.

But Toyota is just the latest Japanese corporate icon to lose its way.

A few weeks ago, Japan Airlines executives were feeling similarly uncomfortable, though for a different reason. Japan Airlines filed for bankruptcy, one of Japan’s largest ever corporate failures. The airline collapsed under a mountain of debt, accumulated by ballooning pensions and unprofitable flights.

They’re two very different companies struggling with two very different problems. But analysts agree what they do share is getting too big, too quick, and losing focus of the basics.

Tokyo based financial advisor Timothy Kirkwood says it’s a path that Japanese companies have taken as they’ve expanded globally. In Toyota’s case, it was so focused on cost cutting while becoming the world’s #1 automaker that it lost focus, like making sure the accelerator wouldn’t stick.

“There has been some outward looking management that’s enjoyed the global consumer spending boom in the good times. But they were overexposed to the downside. That’s what’s causing the problems in Japan right now,” said Kirkwood.

But he follows that up with the strong belief that if there will be a company that can recover from being overexposed, it’s Toyota, a well-run company with years of a proven brand.

It will only happen, though, as long as Toyota’s boardroom takes a hard look at itself and gets back to basics.

July 11th, 2008
08:18 AM GMT
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TOKYO, Japan – The scene is uniquely Japan: Techno-freaks dressed up like cartoon characters, young women dressed like maids and superheroes, and even a dancing storm trooper.

Me interviewing our stormtrooper.
Me interviewing our stormtrooper.

They'd gathered early this Friday morning for the latest tech event: The release of the new Apple iPhone 3G in Japan.

Some 1,500 people camped out overnight through a hot and humid Tokyo summer, but that's hardly a sacrifice, to finally get their hands on the iPhone.

But here's what's unique about this latest tech gathering: The device is American. Made in Japan? Where did that familiar stamp on the back of your electronics go?

While these techies lost one night of sleep camping out for the device that promises portable device nirvana, Tokyo's corporate executives have been losing sleep for months wondering why they didn't invent it first.

In a recent lunch with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, a good source moaned to me about the state of Japan's electronics market and how it was falling behind.

Why? Items like the iPhone represent, in many ways to the Japanese boardroom, the symbol of the new era of doing business.

Apple and Google are taking not small steps, but leaps and bounds in innovative technology. Japan, once the unchallenged ruler of the world's consumer electronics market, now watches as the Western world schools the East. Remember Sony's Walkman? Neither does anyone who wants an iPhone.

The debate is raging in Japan's government halls and in its corporate pikes. Bloggers are suggesting a coup of Tokyo's grey haired boardrooms so Japan can break from its rigid business rules. Others suggest that slow and steady, like Toyota's model of "kaizen," incremental improvements, wins the game.

There are no such debates on the streets outside of the virgin sales of the new iPhone in Tokyo.These weirdly dressed consumers are merely punching the air with joy, pronouncing a new digital era has finally arrived in their hands. The excitement here is being repeated all over the globe and celebrated in an American company. It's a party Japanese companies know all about. They're just not leading this one.

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