Wataru Sato’s family-run restaurant-brewer business was battered by the huge earthquake on March 11th last year, which caused months of lost business and hefty bills for building repair driving it to the edge of bankruptcy.
But when Mure Dickie, the Financial Times’ Tokyo bureau chief, interviewed him before the anniversary of the disaster he did not speak of losses – instead he spoke about his customers’ reaction when he informed them that it was not possible to say when it might be able to ship the sake and beer they had ordered. He told Dickie, “They sent the payment anyway . . . It saved us.”
After the disaster, Mr Sato spent much of the next two months organising aid for the affected areas and has produced a new beer using yeast samples recovered from a safe found in the debris.
Credit came from loyal suppliers, production equipment was donated by peers
Dickie records that in towns turned to wasteland by the tsunami, construction companies did not wait for contracts from local authorities before pouring resources into debris clearance:
“Along the devastated coast, there is now a sprinkling of prefab shops, some stocked entirely with merchandise supplied on credit by loyal suppliers. Small factories are restarting, using production equipment donated by peers around the country.”
Japan still retains a distinctive national business culture, in which the value of long-term relationships is often placed far higher than short-term advantage. Many companies maintain friendly ties with suppliers, customers and also competitors, offering mutual assistance in hard times. Business managers and owners see creating and maintaining employment as a large part of their role.
The conventional can – and do – find fault with many consequences of this culture and some ‘tough entrepreneurs’ do set these traditions sharply aside, but Mure Dickie finds that – despite cases such as the recent Olympus scandal – there is still much to be admired in the Japanese way of business:
“There is value in seeing companies as integral parts of society rather than moneymaking machines.”