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  • “No, No” to Making a Cake in a Rice CookerModernization Is Not Synonymous With Westernization
  • George Fields (bio)

Fields, George. 1983. “No, no” to making a cake in a rice cooker. In From Bonsai to Levi’s. New York: Macmillan, 30–45. Reprinted with the permission of the author.

Drinking Coca-Cola, But at Heart a Japanese

Whether imported or locally manufactured, a foreign product’s failure is often due to the marketer being bedazzled by the so-called Westernization of the Japanese life-style. Certainly, cultures are influenced by the taking in of foreign elements. Some of these elements will be absorbed, some rejected, and on the rare occasion some will become a catalyst for cultural change. In any event, the new cultural entry, like a bacterium entering the host’s body, would be expected to create some reactions, although most bacteria that enter our body have little effect on it.

The Japanese refer to the opening of the Meiji era as bunmei kaika, meaning “the coming of civilization and enlightenment,” and there was, superficially at least, complete acceptance of things Western in a country that had been closed off from the rest of the world for over three centuries. A similar phenomenon occurred at the end of World War II. The very same nation that had mounted kamikaze suicide attacks turned around and welcomed American influence with open arms. Both were results of the traumatic acknowledgment that there was a force more powerful than their own, but national pride was preserved because the superiority was seen as being material rather than spiritual. There is an underlying faith that the Japanese race will always adapt to adversity yet eventually prevail. The moment of adversity is accepted with stoicism, but like a swinging pendulum, the sense of national feeling returns. I fear that we are now entering such a phase.

Western influences are visibly evident in Japan. Regretfully, businessmen will make judgments by observing their immediate environment. The post-World War II businessman, be he Western or Japanese, saw the marketplace changing as a result of the industrial revolution that emanated from the West. Since all economically advanced nations were Western and all technologically advanced products came from the West, Westernization was equated with modernization. When a Westerner comes to the East and sees Western products being used, he feels more secure in the environment, somehow feeling that the local inhabitants are Westernized. This is a form of cultural arrogance, but one that can be forgiven as it is not a conscious form of condescension. Nevertheless, I often like to say that a New Yorker who eats sushi is no more Easternized than a Tokyo-ite who eats hamburgers is Westernized.

Coming into contact with a different culture often generates a sense of anxiety, so when the Western observer sees the Japanese consuming Cokes and Big Macs with relish, it does seem as if the Japanese are not fundamentally different from Westerners. The observer then thinks that his own methods— marketing, financial, personnel management, or whatever — are easily transferable. He holds the illusion that the Cokes and hamburgers impart the producers’ value system to the consumers. The foreigner who consumes sushi is also more approachable to the Japanese, so the leap in logic exists on both sides.

In the historical context, Japan suffered from a shortage of foreign exchange. The Japanese government artificially undervalued the yen for longer than was necessary; this, along with other policies, helped create a mighty export machine that was sprung on the unprepared West. Until recently, the average Japanese consumer found imported foreign products scarce curiosities. These were times when “from the United States” was considered an effective advertising-copy phrase. This tendency was at its peak in 1965 when I returned to Japan. We have a habit of not knowing that we are on the peak until later. We seldom realize that the crest of the wave is only a temporary phenomenon.

Faith in permanency or a continuation of a trend by many ensures that there will always be those who lose money on the stock market. Establishing a new company in a different culture is no joke; if I knew then what...

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