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Hitachi

Hitachi Research Institute

President Column

Commentary by our President, Hitoshi Shirai

President Column #15: Coming to Terms with Technological Innovation

  It was 1969 when the movie Otoko wa Tsurai yo (It’s tough being a man), the first of a series comprising 48 works in all, was released. Actor Kiyoshi Atsumi played the main character Torajiro Kuruma, popularly known as Futen no Tora. In the early episodes, his younger sister Sakura was still single and was working as an office girl in the Marunouchi District. Sakura worked as a keypuncher, which was perhaps one of the more glamorous jobs for a woman at the time. Around the middle of the 1980s, after prices of magnetic disks and terminals fell, the role of the punch card in data input for computers suddenly diminished, and work of a keypuncher soon became obsolete.

  When Japanese people make a telephone call, they always begin by saying Moshi moshi! (Hello!). In the days when telephone operators notified the receiver that there was a call from a caller, the operator always used the polite phrase Moshi agemasu (Please allow me to inform you) to avoid being impolite to the receiver. This is believed to be the origin of the initial salutation moshi moshi the caller and the receiver of a telephone greet each other with today. In other words, the word moshi said twice was used as a shortened form of Moshi agemasu. The role of the telephone operator also diminished significantly with the introduction of automatic telephone exchanges in 1979 in Japan.

  Technological innovations have significantly changed the lives and work of people. In the near future the sector set to change the most due to technological innovation is the automobile market. Electric cars and hydrogen cars are already on the market, and commercialization of self-driving cars is not far away. Cars have continued to evolve, and if self-driving cars become widely available, the very act of people driving cars will decrease drastically and the impact this innovation will have on the automobile industry will greatly surpass any other technological innovation to date.

  There exists the work of a car critic who follows the technological progress of cars and checks them from the perspective of a journalist with a critical spirit. The first of these critics was Aritsune Tokudaiji who published a book in 1976 called All the Wrong Ways to Choose a Car* in which he leveled scathing criticism without reserve on various cars, even citing specific models. With the publishing of this book, Mr. Tokudaiji carved a path for himself in the field of automobile criticism in Japan. At the time when domestic cars varied greatly in quality and performance, All the Wrong Ways to Choose a Car became a bestseller immediately after its release. After that, Tokudaiji continued to write until just before his death in November 2014, after forwarding his manuscript to the publisher for the 2015 edition, the final of the series. Tokudaiji cast his critical view not only on car manufacturers but also on car users. This is because he believed that while car manufacturers are the ones that produce the cars, the manufacturers will only take advantage of the users of cars and will not produce superior cars if the quality of the users remains low. At the beginning of his first work in 1976, Tokudaiji remarked, “Recently I started to feel that the users of cars should bear half the responsibility for the current state of cars in Japan remaining in a deplorable state.” He went on to declare, “If we look at the cars produced in a certain country, we can gain an insight into the way those people think,” and then added, “Because I love Japanese cars, I must sound out the alarm on the current state of cars in this country.”

  It is still possible now to purchase All the Wrong Ways to Choose a Car over the Internet such as on sites like Amazon for each year it was published from the very first to the latest edition. An interesting phenomenon is occurring, however. Only the editions published in the first half of the 1980s are attracting high prices of 10,000 yen or more. My arbitrary interpretation of this phenomenon is that while there was significant variation in the quality and appearance of domestic cars during this era, there were a number of highly distinctive cars at the time and, therefore, it was perhaps the era when Mr. Tokudaiji’s critiques were also the most colorful.

  At that time, there was a genre referred to as “specialty cars,” which were defined as “Cars with a sporty body on a general passenger car base that happen to have both the design of a sports car and the ease of use of a passenger vehicle” (1981 edition). It was the era when young men yearned for cars and believed that they had to have a car, first and foremost, to attract women. The specialty car answered their needs, and while it was never inexpensive, it was somewhat within reach if they worked hard and took out a loan. Toyota’s Celica, Nissan’s Sylvia, and Honda’s Prelude are typical “specialty” cars that were popular in that era. Tokudaiji took a stand by leveling defiant criticism at young people, telling them to focus on the essential qualities in a car instead of being bamboozled by its external appearance. Starting with the comment “There’s something about a specialty car that smacks of being fake” (1980 edition), he proceeded to heap unforgiving criticism on each model such as, “The only sporty thing about it is the body” (1980 edition), “They should be too embarrassed to boast of it as a specialty car” (1980 edition), and “The Kawagoe Benz resembles a Mercedes-Benz in style but has nothing in common in the way of substance” (1981 edition). On the other hand, when cars showed improvements after a few years, he did not refrain from praising their progress when he felt it was warranted, by making comments such as, “After gradual improvements, it has turned out to be a fine sports car” (1985 edition), or “This is a car for adults that I would like to see people 35 and over riding in” (1985 edition). It was an era full of distinctive cars. When Isuzu, which at present has withdrawn from car production, released the 117 Coupe designed by Italian car designer Giugiaro, Toyo Kogyo (present Mazda) released the Savanna RX-7, a sports car with a rotary engine, despite it being criticized for being a gas guzzler. This must have been an exciting time for Tokudaiji as well.

  While Tokudaiji always took a relentless and severe critical viewpoint, he kept sending hearty words of encouragement to carmakers and engineers that took up the challenge to create next-generation cars. His last manuscript was about Toyota’s fuel-cell car Mirai (released in December 2014), which he himself test drove a month before he died. He commented, “While any manufacturer can make empty talk about the environment or a hydrogen energy-based society, Toyota actually realized a product that embodies what it preaches. I cannot praise Toyota’s resoluteness enough.” After Toyota’s technology briefing, more than 10 engineers responsible for the development of this car gathered to introduce themselves to Tokudaiji, and met him with “a look of confidence and pride” (2015 edition).

 The performance of cars has improved dramatically since the first half of the 1980s, and “unruly horse-like cars” that chose their riders have disappeared. The number of young people who aim to become automotive critics or hope to work for automotive magazines is said to be declining recently. On the other hand, the results of technological innovations have been forged by the spirit of critics with a credible viewpoint and vision for the future, who had a firm grasp of the present and calmly took a stand. In society in the future, there will be a need for roles that will indicate in as specific a way as possible without generalizing the direction we should take. While the viewpoints may differ, I believe think tanks in economic society have a part to play in that role.



  Reference
* Aritsune Tokudaiji, Machigai Darake no Kuruma Erabi (All the Wrong Ways to Choose a Car), Soshisha
Note: 2011-2015 editions were co-authored with Yasuhisa Shimashita