(Originally sent in annotated and non-annotated versions to Fukuzawa, ISSHO, and Friends Sun, 19 Jan 97)

Here's a bit of US-Japan humor that came off of Fukuzawa, via a UCLA grad student named Dave Friedman. Have a look:


American and Japanese big business decided to engage in a competitive crew race. Both teams practiced hard and long to reach their peak performance. On the big day, both teams felt ready. The Japanese won by a mile.

The American team was discouraged by the loss. Morale sagged. Corporate management decided that the reason for the crushing defeat had to be found so a consulting firm was hired to investigate the problem and recommend corrective action.

The consultant's finding: The Japanese team had 8 people rowing and one person steering. The American team had one person rowing and 8 people steering.

After a year of study, and millions spent on analyzing the problem, the consulting firm concluded that too many people were steering and not enough were rowing on the American team.

As the race day neared again the following year, the American team's management structure was completely reorganized. The new structure: Four steering managers, three area steering managers, and a new performance review system for the person rowing the boat to provide work incentive.

At the race, the Japanese won by two miles.

Humiliated again, the American corporation laid off the rower for poor performance, and gave the managers a bonus for discovering the problem.

Yuk yuk. Seriously. But after a meal out at a steak house (after which I walked home to try and work off a few dozen calories in the frigid air), ideas began popping into my mind, and here's what came out around midnight last night:

(NB: I don't want to leave anybody out, so I'll translate Japanese words in brackets [thus], and explain the in-jokes through footnotes. Click on the numbers in brackets thus [1] to link directly to the explanation. There will be a link back to where you came from at the end of the footnote.)

Date: Sun, 19 Jan 1997

From: (Dave Aldwinckle)

Subject: IRONY: Row Your Boat Pt 2

I don't want to be seen as a person who can't get a joke, but let me take up DT Friedman's friend's powerful parable. The problem is that while it depicts Dilbert-style shortcomings in American business, its cardboard characterization of the Japanese side reinforces the image of Japan as invulnerable and insuperable. Don't think so.

So let's retell it from my impression of a "Japanese perspective", much the same way as Oliver Stone tried to do in his underrated movie HEAVEN AND EARTH (where he uniquely tried to depict the Vietnam War from a Vietnamese perspective). Nobody got it in America, and the movie flopped. Let's see how I fare.


American and Japanese big business decided to engage in a competitive crew race, and the Japanese plunged headfirst into groundwork. The pertinent ministries fought for turf, and the usuals won; the MInistry of International Trade and Industry and the Ministry of Finance designated boat racing as a specific industry ripe for development, entitled to the usual protections and preferences. Both targeted funding and threatened industrial noncooperants with administrative guidance [1].

Crew shingikai ["deliberation councils"] and iinkai [committees] sprouted out of nowhere. Feelers were sent out through Mitsui, the Toudai graduate network, and several Peace Foundations [2] to answer the almighty question: Which country had the best boat design? Photographers were soon dispached to Oxbridge, where they took snapshots of every inch of prizewinning boats [3] and crew member postures. After this information was incorporated into the well-funded R&D departments of several boat keiretsu [industrial conglomerates], the crew boat was launched with great fanfare, ceremony, and hours and hours of portentous speeches with ribbons, scissors, and confetti balls. Kume Hiroshi even devoted a third of several broadcasts to the development of a new sport for Japanese to get good at [4].

Now it was time to find the crew. Having spent most of their childhood going to "crew juku" [cram schools] to pass entrance crew exams (and facing both figurative--and literal--"crew cuts"), eight rowers (and one amakudaried [5] steerer) were found that would not only look good on a commercial for vitamin energy drinks, but also would devote their lives to the art of paddling. They even hired a token Oxonian crew member (by law, they were only limited to one [6]), whose experience would enhance the crew's stature and prowess, provide good PR for Japan's internationalization, and give the crew a gaijin who could be fired if somebody needed to be.

The crew spent every waking moment pumping. On the way to work, they'd practice their swings on the subway platform. During morning chourei [pep talks], below slogan-spangled banners, they'd give apparently inspiring speeches about putting in a day's hard row for the good of the crew. During the day, if they weren't out schmoozing with bureaucrats and other crew sponsors, they'd spend the day pushing things back and forth in the name of practice, while the expendable "crew ladies" served tea. During the evening, they would spend hours overtime looking busy stroking until the steerer went home. On the way home they'd sail over to a boat bar and sink themselves. Good thing the government was keeping overseas crews from entering Japan and schmoozing their sponsors away.

At last, the Japanese crew were ready, and on Race Day they faced off against the Americans. The pride of Japan was riding on this, and incentives indicated they could not lose. A huge ouendan [cheering section], with banners, hinomaru ["kamikaze-style" red circle] bandannas, and brass band [7], appeared on the sidelines to cheer if they won, razz if they didn't. A flotilla of reporters (particularly TV Asahi's, which always found ways to get around any obstacle [8]) surrounded them, with huge Canons shooting every single movement. One false move, and stop-action color photos would be appearing in every single sports daily, analyzing how inept any single crew member was [9]. Most of all, the prospect of beating the crime-ridden Americans added the real Jolt to their cola.

The Japanese won by a mile. The next year two miles. Great fanfare was to be had and, in the wake, the sense of Japanese crew superiority was reaffirmed to the entire world. American MBA programs sent their students to do internships behind Japanese oars, and management gurus latched onto the catchphrase of "Japan is a circle", due to the fine synchonized style the crew displayed while rowing round and round. And the Japanese government chuckled in private about how this was, after all, their doing--while in public their gaijin handlers kept up the kabuki [acting performance] about how open markets and free competition kept their rowers lean and mean.


The crew members were never fired per se. After many years of racing, some graduated up to be steerers, making the boat full of bosses and list to one side. Several times capsizes were feared, but seats were added to the boat and called "growth". The enormous crew were buoyed by "anti-overcompetitive laws" [10], which stifled the new entry of both domestic and overseas crews, and also by accounting rules that allowed dead crew members to be still counted as assets [11].

But of the original crew members :

The steerer was caught bribing a government bureaucrat, and resigned to take responsibilty.

One rower, after stroking every day, including weekends, for at least twelve hours a day, died of karoushi [overwork].

Two other rowers became stricken with cancer-related ailments due to taking up smoking habits--the only way that they could leave their oars for a break was by going to the smoking room for some puffs.

The token gaijin was laid off after a mandatory three-year contract, and, after hearing several translated speeches on how much Japan's crew culture had been fortified in this joint venture with Oxford, went home to obscurity. He was swiftly replaced by a real Japanese and forgotten [12].

The other four just took their base-ups [salary raises] and regular steerage appointments, and faced early mandatory retirement when the boat looked like it was going to sink below the water line [13].

None of the nine saw their children grow up.

But at least Japan kept winning the races.

Dave Aldwinckle



[1] "Administrative guidance" (gyousei shidou) is a weapon the Japanese bureaucracy uses to make sure that industries do as the government says. Includes denial of import/export licences, cutting off of loans, elimination of subsidies, restructuring of companies, threats to a company's suppliers and sellers, etc. Great stuff you don't see much in America. (go back to where you were in the essay)

[2] "Mitsui, the Toudai graduate network, and several Peace Foundations"--this refers to the regular channels that the government uses to collect data for national purposes. Mitsui, a trading company, is also an outpost for spying--a Mitsui branch in the Middle East even told the 19th-Century Japanese government that hostile foreign ships were going to be passing through Japan's Shimonoseki Strait. Cannons were waiting and the foreign strike force was ambushed. Toudai is Tokyo University, the trainer of almost all important bureaucrats. Peace Foundations refers to the money-pots that carry out the mandate of filthy-rich Japanese often in cahoots with the government or organized crime. They collect information, spread disinformation, and fund a lot of stuff that helps with Japan's image control. (go back)

[3] "Photographers took pictures of every inch of the boat". Not so far-fetched as you might think. When Japan decided to participate in the America's Cup, they sent shutterbugs down to that year's winner (I think it was Australia), and did some big-time industrial spying on the boat. And next year, Japan had a yacht that made waves. Amazing is that the Aussies actually let them aboard! (go back)

[4] "Kume devoted a third of his news broadcast to covering the crew." This will be familiar to those of you who read my Kume Gaffe posts. Sports, a great fount of nationalism in Japan, is a sacred cow on the nightly news here, and scoops there easily crowd out real news. (go back)

[5] "Amakudari" means a retiring high-ranking bureaucrat gets hired by a private company that wants somebody with govt connections. It also means that the govt has a mole and a way to control the company from inside. (go back)

[6] "Limited to only one gaijin on the crew." Baseball teams in Japan are only limited to hiring 2 or 3 (forget which) foreigners per team, by rules of the Japanese Baseball Association. This is a parody of that fact. (go back)

[7] "A cheering section with banners, bandannas, and brass band." Baseball games here have exactly this sort of fanfare. Did anybody watch Judo in the Atlanta Olympics? The Japanese fans looked just as rabid with their banners and bandannas. (go back)

[8] "TV Asahi's reporters get around any obstacle". This is a joke about how tenacious Japan's reporters are. In Peru during the current Japanese Ambassador's Residence Hostage Crisis, TV Asahi snuck into the compound for a few hours and did some filming. Peru's security forces didn't like that at all, and it caused an international incident. (go back)

[9] "Stop-action photos of the crew in all Japan's sports dailies". This is no joke. When athletes flub in this country, esp in international competitions, it's a big source of shame. When figure skater Midori fell on her butt during her program in the Calgary Winter Olympics, there was a full page of stop-action frames of her wind up, stumble, and crash in all the sports papers. Her fault, they said, she didn't get the Gold. Similar pressure gets put on swimmers, judo participants, any sport that Japan oughta be strong in. And it's one reason why Japan's athletes often flub at the last minute--because they are competing less for their personal best, more for the honor of their country. And the Japanese media are rarely satisfied with anything less than a gold medal. (go back)

[10] There are actually "anti-competitive laws" in Japan--created to stop waste from companies having to sell too cheaply to consumers. Includes official guidelines for how close certain types of stores can be to each other, how big the store can be, what it can sell, ceiling and floor prices, etc. (go back)

[11] "Dead crew members counted as assets." This is a reference to Japanese accounting, where unrecoverable loans in financial institutions are still allowed to be "accounts receivable", and thus inflating the assets side of the balance sheet. The problem is that this allows Japan's banks to cover up, in fact *not write off*, their bad loans. And it's one reason why Japan's financial institutions have such ballooning debts. (go back)

[12] "The token gaijin was laid off after a 3-year contract". As you might have heard from me before, Japan has no need for long-term foreigners in its public service or education system, putting almost all of them on non-tenure tracks and firing them after a year or three. Same with sports. Japan's baseball, soccer, and basketball teams hire foreigners in order to inject some overseas experience into Japan's athletics. Once they've done their job, the foreigners are (with few exceptions) sent home, like the guests they were from the start. Then Japanese are very often hired in their place, to keep things "Japanese". (go back)

[13] "Mandatory retirement" is Japan's modern answer to having to "restructure" their companies, while maintaining their image of "not firing their precious labor force, unlike the Americans". Companies just find a person heading a dead department, or in his late forties or fifties, and offer him a few years' salary if he quits. Much the same as in the US--the guy does get fired--but it looks better in the press than just passing out "pink slips". (go back)


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