- Brewed in Japan: The Evolution of the Japanese Beer Industry by Jeffrey W. Alexander
Jeffrey Alexander’s informative study introduces us to the eventful 150-year history of Japanese beer. Increasingly, studies of food—its production, its consumption, its culture, and its global flows—have provided scholars with mouth-watering insights into key historical themes of the modern era, [End Page 392] including capitalism, industrialization, imperialism, gender, social transformation, and popular culture. The present study offers ample opportunities to pursue these themes, and the author has “endeavored to capture and share much of that detail in order to connect the story of this industry’s development with an array of broader issues affecting Japanese society.” At the same time, though, he rightly acknowledges that no one study can do justice to the whole range of these important issues. In his case, Alexander is “a business historian, and this book is chiefly an industry and product history.” As he defines it, the main goal of his book is to analyze the major Japanese beer companies’ “competitive strategies, the influence of Japan’s government on their industry, and the reasons for beer’s gradual transformation from a foreign luxury item into an affordable, appealing, and popular domestic commodity” (p. 5).
Business historians of Japan are somewhat thin on the ground these days. In the heady days of Japan’s global expansion in the 1980s, business history was a popular field in both the English- and Japanese-language academies. In Japanese, the journal Keieishigaku (Business history) was required reading for historians of Japan, and a sizeable industry grew up around the production of company histories (shashi), which were often collaborations with academic scholars of Japanese business history. In English, landmark studies included Mark Fruin’s history of Kikkoman, William Wray’s book on NYK, Michael Cusumano’s work on Nissan and Toyota, and Marie Anchordoguy’s book on the Japanese computer industry.1
Much of this excitement stemmed from the world’s fascination with the Japanese companies that were increasingly dominating its electronics and automobile markets. Scholars responded by trying to explain the roots of those companies’ success. In many cases, those roots were seen as lying in the uniquely “Japanese” characteristics of Japanese corporations and business groups. One area of focus was the keiretsu conglomerates: informal business networks that mirrored the old zaibatsu structure (which had been abolished by the Allied occupation authorities as excessively monopolistic and supportive of militarism). Cusumano focused on these in his study of the Toyota network, as did Fruin in his book The Japanese Enterprise [End Page 393] System.2 Another was the role of Japanese bureaucrats in controlling competition and business strategy, a field pioneered by Chalmers Johnson in his seminal work MITI and the Japanese Miracle.3 This was the core analytical focus of Anchordoguy’s Computers, Inc., among other works. The goal of all these works was to portray the development of a uniquely Japanese management and enterprise system, a system that was often interpreted as having contributed to Japan’s extraordinary competitive success in global markets.
In spite of the high quality of many of the studies published, the trends of the 1980s led to some soul-searching on the part of business historians. By focusing on the stories of Japan’s most successful companies, were they promoting a kind of victor’s history? Much of the historians’ research relied on internally published company histories (shashi)—typically the main source for Japanese business histories, since raw company archives are seldom made available. These company-published histories are a mixed blessing for scholars of business history. On the one hand, they are often treasure troves of useful information, in many cases the only available source; but, on the other, they vary greatly in quality and attention to detail, and they tend to offer a prepackaged narrative that is very hard for the scholar to unravel without access to significant additional sources.
At the same time, more broadly in the global...