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Monozukuri: A unique spirit in manufacturing

May 30, 2017

The Japanese take the concept of monozukuri so seriously that they apply that ethos of craftsmanship to every step of production, whether they are making food or assembling electronic devices consumed by billions of people around the world.

Since the 1980s, Technican Co. Ltd. has ensured the freshness of Japanese food. Seeing that dining out was becoming more popular, company founder and president Yoshio Yamada developed new freezing technology that preserved beef and seafood for weeks, and in some cases for years, without compromising their taste, appearance and texture.

INOAC’S headquarters in Nagoya

“I see that our freezing equipment will revolutionize the food industry in terms of transportation, supply management, and business benefit for food companies. Food can be frozen during its peak season at its lowest market price and sold in other seasons when high in demand. On a bigger scope, we envision a stable food supply for our future world. Imagine all the food that won’t go to waste,” Yamada said.

“For the first time since I started the business, government and large organizations have taken notice. Although we already have a large share in the market, we are excited to take this idea farther, to the rest of the world,” he added.

Technican, based in Kanagawa, is also working with the medical sector to study ways its technology can help the industry, such as with blood banks.

In neighboring Shizuoka, where food also occupies pride of place, wasabi has become the definitive product of the prefecture, which accounts for 76 percent of the country’s production. Family-run Tamaruya Honten, led by fifth-generation president Hiroyuki Mochizuki, went from selling only wasabi pickles to forming business-to-business relationships with food companies to make wasabi-flavored products.

Monozukuri is not limited to industrial products alone. Creating food products is also an art. To invite more partnerships, we will be focusing on further product development and on looking for more applications of wasabi,” said Mochizuki, who is eyeing the United States, the UK, France, Singapore and Hong Kong for potential partnerships.

That same spirit is alive in Eureka Lab President Seiji Katayama. Eureka Lab Co. was mostly involved in the R&D of medical supplies. This led to the development of an emulsification device for hydrogen water that can erase oxygen radicals.

Since then, Eureka Lab has been devoted to the development of a new technique to cure diseases related to reactive oxygen.

It has also acquired a patent in the United States for its system and is looking for research and product development partners.

With an inclination to build things, plastic models producer Tamiya is a brand recognized by millions of hobbyists in Japan and the rest of the world.

“We want to encourage people, especially children, to construct our kits and to nurture their creative side and that monozukuri spirit,“ said Chairman Shunsaku Tamiya.

“To achieve this, we have to be first in quality. After all, that is the ultimate edge of Japanese brands. With that, everything is done in-house, from design to production to packaging,” said Tamiya, whose company entrusts its U.S. subsidiary and at least 30 partners worldwide with the distribution of its scale model kits, radio-controlled cars and modeling tools and supplies.

Despite concerns that Washington may adopt protectionist trade policies, Yoshimitsu Kaneyuki, the president of Kyushu-based Canycom, remains generally optimistic about its prospects in the massive North American market.

The manufacturer of small construction and agricultural machinery is among the thousands of Japanese family-owned SMEs that recognize possible risks of doing business in the United States. But having lived in the United Stated, he understands that the key to success in this market is in delivering more specialized value to its specific customers bases.

So, Canycom is responding to such specific market needs by collaborating with specialist companies in North America, where it has operated since 2001.

“We changed our business model there from agricultural machinery to small construction and brush cutting machinery. We have been co-developing new products with our U.S. partners for a couple of years now. We keep a close eye on our markets and come up with the best solutions for each of them,” Kaneyuki said.

Mie-based Nabell Corp. is another company that has shown how to adapt swiftly to changes in its industry and venture beyond its original boundaries. Starting out as a producer of optical camera bellows, Nabell had to develop other applications for its technology.

“The smartphone phenomenon changed the landscape completely. We had to examine what purpose our products truly served,” President Norio Nagai recalled. This led to a new line of products and innovative applications.

“Our solutions involve things that can expand and contract. With this idea, we changed our domain strategy and entered the medical field and even solar power,” Nagai said. In partnership with Mie University, Nabell launched a foldable modular solar panel that weighs only three kilograms. The company currently holds 27 patents for its various products. 

In Aichi, one company has taken innovation to its very heart. Inoac Corporation, whose name is a mix of innovation and action, started out as a manufacturer of bicycle tires and tubes and introduced polyurethane foam to Japan. Over the years, rather than specializing in one thing, it extended its technological know-how to rubber, plastic and new materials.

Apart from expanding its expertise, Inoac also widened its operations around the world to include data gathering and R&D. It is present in North America, Europe and Asia.

“We want to continue making innovation on a global scale. For example, we see the U.S. not only as a sales partner but also as a technology partner,” Chairman and CEO Soichi Inoue said.

Aichi-based Tajima Group has stuck to its original product while constantly innovating it. Starting as a small sewing machine manufacturer, the Tajima family set up its first assembly factory 50 years ago. Today, it has a one-third share of the global market and a 60 percent share in the United States, with 60 distributors worldwide.

Chairman Hitoshi Tajima noted that they did not attain this success easily. “The market has been quite tough recently with players coming in from China, Korea, and Germany. To survive, we have to remind ourselves that we are Japanese manufacturers, and our advantage is in upgrading and developing our products,” he said. 

“Companies sometimes ask for our technology and we develop something new together. We welcome business collaboration and seek innovation. We will never be satisfied with the present and will always aspire to grow,” Tajima stressed.

In the field of semiconductors, the monozukuri spirit is exemplified by Teikoku Taping System, a producer of semiconductor manufacturing equipment based in Nagoya. The company has stayed ahead of the competition by using 3D semiconductor fabrication and packaging technologies.

President H.C. Lee sees great potential within the IoT and automotive sectors. For these fields, the company is targeting large progressive markets, such as the U.S. and Europe, where companies generally appreciate the high quality products that Japanese brands, such as Teikoku Taping System, can offer.

Spurred by the West Coast’s vibrant and cutting edge semiconductor industry, the company is confident of its business in the US. At the same time, Lee believes that maintaining its manufacturing base in Japan is better for the long term than relocating to a country with cheaper production costs. 

“If everything were the same, we could leave Japan because it’s cheaper. But we remain in Japan because we are after the intellectual resources to create solutions for more challenges and technological breakthroughs. We want to stay in a place where there is an active culture of monozukuri,” Lee said.

Aside from adopting that craftsman-like ethos, Aichi-based engineering company Chuozuken adds to its work ethic the idea of kotozukuri.

“Japan industries are known for their craftsmanship or monozukuri, which literally means creating things. We would like to introduce the concept of koto, which is the solution that adds value to mono or things,” President Masashi Yanagida explained.

Chuozuken has built a strong reputation in mechanical design and in computer-aided engineering analysis, as well as in operations and maintenance. More than half of its business comes from its operation and maintenance services, with many of its clients coming from the aerospace and automobile industries.

Yanagida notes that although Chuozuken is heavily involved in the manufacturing industry, it does not do any manufacturing.

“There are already so many companies producing things so we do not need to play that field. What we can do instead is add value,” he said. 

Yanagida’s priority is helping raise the standards of Japanese manufacturing through Chuozuken’s innovative solution. “Although we are open to doing business with global leaders like Raytheon, we also want to focus on the domestic companies because we want to support them in upgrading and innovating the monozukuri arena in Japan.”  

Japan 2017, Part 2 was prepared for and originally printed in Foreign Affairs magazine.

PDF of the printed report

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