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The Reckoning

By David Halberstam

Sometime during the 1980s there was a clever advertisement that ran on the radio. It was sponsored by a major American automobile manufacturer. In the commercial, a car buyer complains that he has been to all of the Japanese car dealerships and all that they were selling was trucks. “Pick-up trucks, flatbed trucks, panel trucks, trucks, truck, trucks! I hate trucks!” The smooth talking salesman at the American car dealership is reassuring. “We have any style car that you could ask for. We have sedans, two-doors, convertibles, luxury vehicles, everything.” “And trucks?” “Of course we have trucks, too.” “I HATE TRUCKS!!!” the customer screams.

Cute. I heard that commercial and chuckled. But what I did not know at the time was that the Japanese car manufacturers had “voluntarily” restricted their exports to the American car market in response to pressure from the US government. A senior official at the Ministry of International Trade and Industry, Naohiro Amaya, had negotiated the details after watching with apprehension the growing protectionist sentiment in America. Japanese cars were being smashed on camera for the media by American workers in the car industry and the Japanese were vilified with escalating rhetoric. In “The Reckoning,” David Halberstam depicts that moment in US-Japan relations.

Amaya began to fear that the issue was getting out of hand, that there was a danger of it becoming a focal point of tension and hidden resentments on both sides of the Pacific. The name-calling did not bother him, but he was made nervous by any issue that could appeal to such emotions. So he invited Ishihara [Takashi], the head of both Nissan and the Automobile Manufacturers Association, to a restaurant in the Ginza [the most expensive district of Tōkyō, similar to Rodeo Drive in Beverly Hills] to persuade him to agree to a compromise. Until then Ishihara had taken a very hard line on the issue. He felt, in the most personal way, that he was being cheated of his own success. [Detailed earlier in the book, of how the Japanese painstakingly built up the market for their automobile industry.] It was not fair that his company [Nissan] should have to pay for the Americans’ mistakes. Amaya heard him out, then bowed on the tatami mat and begged him not to repeat the mistakes of the past by fighting the Americans. Do not, he entreated, be like Yosuke Matsuoka [Japanese Ambassador to the US] when he led the Japanese out of the League of Nations and thus intensified Japanese nationalism. (Asked later about the moment when he prostrated himself, Amaya said that a little theatrics never hurt.) It had, however, been a difficult night for both him and Ishihara. Amaya had not doubted for a moment that he would win. He knew that Ishihara would have to concede, that his obligation to his country was greater than his obligation to his company. Ishihara, for his part, was also aware that he did not really have a choice. If he and the other auto makers rejected this compromise (which was not that bad a deal, after all), the full power of the government, the press, and public opinion would be turned against them. The ceiling was set at a rather high 1.685 million cars.

Unfortunately, the US car makers did not use the respite they had been given to retool their plants, improve their designs and build better products. They just jacked up prices to take advantage of the temporary lack of competition. Naturally, that was only a continuation of failed policies.

David Halberstam, one of the finest writers in the field of popular documentary style history, takes two companies, one American and one Japanese, as subjects to examine as to how the automobile industry evolved in their respective countries.

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This is an advertisement on the back cover of Kidō, October 1977, for the Toyota Sprinter, forerunner of the Corolla. The Japanese copy reads: ひた走る、GT。雲よ、追いかけてくるか。Hita-hashiru, GT. Kumo yo, oi-kakete kuru ka. Run swiftly, GT. Hey you, Cloud! Can you catch me?

Ford Motor Company and Nissan are the companies that Halberstam examines, from their inceptions to the problems they overcame to become leaders in their fields, to the crises they encountered along the way and how they evolved through the years. Their competitors, like GM and Toyota are also covered, along with many other related persons. It is fascinating to learn everything about those matters, especially because history has been repeated in our own time. The Obama Administration bailouts of the automobile industry are a repetition of the earlier ones. (Lee Iacocca figures prominently in “The Reckoning” as head of Chrysler during the period after it received the huge US government bailout in 1979.) It is often said that history repeats itself. This book offers empirical proof.

It is a shame that David Halberstam died a couple of years ago. This book is desperately in need of updating. But in the absence of anything better, I’ll take Halberstam’s work any day.

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