JAPAN: An insider's dark view of Toyota

An American engineer chronicles three years spent working in Japan.

In 1996, Darius Mehri, a wide-eyed young American engineer, went to Japan to work for Toyota's production system. There, the firm would play the role of benevolent patriarch even as employees worked in harmony toward a common goal. At least, that was what Mehri imagined.

What he found instead was an abusive environment where the company controlled every movement - inside and outside work - of its employees.

Bosses publicly bullied subordinates, sometimes even physically, as in one incident Mehri describes in which a manager wrestled an unfortunate employee to the floor - several times - at a department dinner party.

Based on the author's diary of a three-year stint as a contracted employee, Notes from Toyota-Land runs contrary to the image many Westerners have of an efficient and enlightened Japanese workplace.

Mehri's account clearly leaves itself open to questions of credibility. (For instance, in many cases Mehri relies on secondhand accounts when he tells the stories of accident victims.)

Yet, despite its faults, the book offers interesting glimpses into a work setting - and a world - most Westerners know only at a distance.

At first Mehri wondered why his fellow employees deferred to their sometimes brutal managers. But he eventually realized that, because there were no formal training programs, many workers felt they had no choice but to curry the favor of supervisors who they hoped would act as their senpai, or mentors.

For some this meant attending frequent and expensive after-work drinking parties that ran late into the night. Absence would be risking ostracism, which, in group-oriented Japan, could mean the end of your career.

Providing sharp insights into the culture that created this environment, the author explains how the importance of belonging to a group is drilled into the Japanese consciousness from the first day of school.

This mentality was a key element of the company culture, where group loyalty - especially loyalty to your boss - was more highly regarded than talent, and disloyalty was punished severely. When one worker asked his former boss - instead of his current boss - for permission to publish a research paper, he was transferred to a plant hours from his family for the better part of a decade.

Mehri also demonstrates the way that politics intertwines with company life.

He tells of a company man, handpicked to run for city council. Workers were bused to local polling stations and told to vote for him.

Discrimination against foreigners was the unwritten policy at Toyota, Mehri claims, with Japanese-Brazilians at the top of the non-Japanese hierarchy, followed by Chinese, Koreans, Iranians, and, at the very bottom, the Bangladeshi workers.

A constant theme in company newsletters was the supposed weakness of female workers, Mehri says, who were patronized even as they were praised. One employee profile read, "Ms. Sawa [a female employee] is like a flower in the shop and works very hard every day to resolve quality problems."

As the book progresses, the reader wonders how, in this environment, Toyota continues to be a leader in the auto industry. Mehri's answer: by working its people to death, sometimes literally.

Emphasis on speed at the expense of safety caused frequent accidents and sometimes even resulted in fatalities. Banners with meaningless safety slogans, such as "Let's work hard to make our shop safe and clean" hung on factory walls, without any explanations on how to be safe. Accidents often went unreported and bosses tended to blame the workers, Mehri charges.

Worst of all, he says, the company could legally avoid government inspection by claiming that proprietary technology was in place.

One of the book's weakest points is that Mehri offers no comparisons with Western firms for the sake of perspective.

Still, despite its flaws, "Notes from Toyota-Land" is an attention-grabbing look at the dark side of company that many experts predict will soon be the world's number one automaker.

• Matt Rusling is a freelance writer in Tokyo.

Notes from Toyota-Land: An American Engineer in Japan
By Darius Mehri
Cornell University/ILR Press256 pp., $26

AMP Section Name:Labor
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