A few years ago, I attended a speech by Karel De Wolf, export manager at Ganda Ham, a well-known Belgian cured ham company. The event was organized by the Belgium-Japan Association, so it was no wonder that De Wolf focused on his company’s exports to Japan. His biggest challenge? Living up to Japanese quality expectations.
The first batch of Ganda ham that was sent to Japan, De Wolf told us, was promptly returned. Not because of the quality of the ham itself, but because the way it was packaged did not impress Ganda’s Japanese business partner.
For the next batch, De Wolf went down to the production line himself and showed his staff how to prepare the products destined for Japan. The ham had to be lined up just so, and only the best-quality slices made the cut. The packaging had to be pristine, the labels all glued on straight. Perfectionism was required down to the exterior packaging, which had to be robust enough to survive transport to Japan and still appeal to the buyer upon arrival.
De Wolf’s story is by no means unique. Almost every type of export to Japan undergoes this rigorous scrutiny, especially consumer goods. Anyone on the consumer side can see the result. The products we buy in stores here are nothing short of perfect, and Japanese consumers expect nothing less.
But where, one might wonder, do these high Japanese standards come from? Perhaps the answer lies in two ingrained cultural concepts: monozukuri and mono no aware.
The concept of monozukuri (literally, “the making of things”) is somewhat similar to the German Meister system, in which a master passes on specialized knowledge to his apprentice to maintain a legacy of high-quality products. In much of the world, this kind of master-apprentice relationship has died out, except in some industries that require extremely skilled manual labor. In Belgium, for example, it survives in diamond cutting and lace production.
In Japan however, there are still many masters teaching traditional skills like carpentry, tatami mat making, kimono dyeing, and even tea ceremony.
The core aspect of monozukuri is the craftsman’s desire to delight customers by making something unique and valuable. But it goes deeper – the craftsman associates his identity so closely with his product that any flaws reflect poorly back on him. In essence, the quality of a product is equal to its appearance. A less visually appealing product may be cheaper or even more functional, but the Japanese sense of value demands more.
Mono no aware
Mono no aware (“empathy towards things”) refers to the appreciation for a beautiful object and the inherent sadness that all beauty eventually fades. From an early age, Japanese children are taught to take care of everything they own, to a standardized degree. There are accepted ways of folding clothing, leaving your shoes in the genkan of your house, putting away your futon in the morning – the list goes on. What’s more, these rules go largely unquestioned.
Which is probably why it seems natural to Japanese importers to expect every label to be glued on straight, or for only the best representations of a product to reach the shelves. When you think about it, perhaps it’s not so unreasonable to expect the maker of a product to show the same respect for his product he hopes for from customers.