Japanese Automakers More Patriotic Than the Big Three?

Just when I thought Japan-bashing was a thing of the past, someone decides to crush a Japanese car by rolling over it with an American-made monster truck. Why? To perpetuate the myth that “the best way to support your country is to buy an American vehicle.” (Newspaper story here)

What’s surprising is that the stunt was staged in Hilo, Hawaii where a huge portion of the population is Japanese American. Nah, this isn’t racism–it’s recycled nationalism. Can’t believe people are still falling for the old “patriotism” line.

The irony is that the mighty monster truck–a pumped-up Chevy Suburban–blew a hydraulic hose right out of the gate. What a fitting take on reality–a gas guzzling American vehicle stymied by quality problems in its mission to crush a Japanese competitor.

So many flawed assumptions in the “buying-an-American-car-is- patriotic” propaganda. What irks me as an American is that the folks who came up with the sales stunt are fulfilling the Japanese stereotype of Americans that we blame others for our problems rather than reflecting and improving. In other words, we’re not looking inward to figure out the real causes of our problems so we can solve them; we’d rather take the easy route by blaming the Japanese automakers for all our woes.

We make American automotive executives so happy when we beat up on Japanese cars. Anything that takes the focus off their greed, mismanagement and failed leadership is good for them. They’re hoping we won’t notice the dearth of patriots in America’s corporate boardrooms.

Some Tidbits About the Big Three

After re-reading the last paragraph I’m compelled to say that I hope my prediction is wrong about the Big Three dying. Keep in mind that Ford has enough cash to last longer than GM. Ford has a fighting chance to survive and I wish them luck.

Also note that Cerberus, owner of Chrysler, is a cash-rich capital management company that “flips” companies–ideally for a profit. Not surprisingly, Cerberus would prefer that the U.S. Government bailout Chrysler rather than invest its own cash to keep Americans employed. Once again greed edges out honor and responsibility. (Check this out if you want to get really worked up.)

Tell me, is Cerberus patriotic?

The Big Three have been on life-support for years; profits have been the exception not the norm, while market share has shifted steadily to Japanese and other foreign automakers. Whatever the reason, fair or unfair, the market has spoken. Yeah, and it didn’t help that the Big Three put so many eggs in the SUV/big-truck basket.

Who’s Going to Pay for All This?

If banks are analogous to an electric company, then we won’t even have to pull the plug on the Big Three; it’s just a matter of time before the “electric company” shuts off the juice, probably around the time the Federal Government and by extension, the banks, are insolvent. Seriously, who’s going to pay for all this?

In the throes of desperation, delusion, and political inertia, we’ve chosen to throw $17 billion tax dollars at a lost cause, just to prolong the inevitable? The market is due for a major cleansing. The fact is America has had excess automotive capacity for way longer than it should have. Eventually the weak companies had to die. Either we let the free market take its natural course and get our beating over with, or we blow another bubble to stall for time.

How Will the Japanese Automakers Fare?

Who knows. The top Japanese automakers have reserves of cash, so they are better positioned to survive than the American automakers. Time will tell how long they can weather the storm. I know the Japanese are pulling out all the stops to avoid cutting the workforce, because they truly value their employees–yes, their American employees.

If the Japanese auto companies end up laying-off employees, it will be done with great sadness and embarrassment, a last-resort option. Japanese executives will bear the pain along with the troops. So far the measures taken by Japanese automakers have an egalitarian edge with hours/pay/costs all being reduced top-to-bottom and across all departments.

The truth is, leaders of Japanese automakers would be ashamed to ask for a government handout even if they were eligible. This sense of honor should command our respect–indeed inspire us. It sounds a bit blasphemous to say this, but I submit that the upper-echelon Japanese companies in America have acted more honorably, and therefore are more patriotic, than their Big Three counterparts.

First, let’s consider some unquestioned assumptions hanging out there.

What Does “Made in America” Mean Anyway?

Not everyone agrees on the “local-content” formula. Critics say that it’s voodoo math, an art not a science. However you choose to calculate content, foreign-bought parts are a reality throughout the industry. The Japanese automakers have lots of “American” parts; Big Three vehicles have lots of “Japanese” parts. (To further muddy the waters, check out this article.)

As you’d expect, the Big Three have a higher domestic content than foreign automakers (voodoo mathematicians calculate it at around 80-85 percent ). Outside the Big Three, Honda has the highest local content at 59%.

Rest assured the Japanese automakers, true to their cultural DNA, are in this for the long haul. They are not in the business of flipping companies. They take time to develop long-term relationships with employees, suppliers and the community because they believe it’s the intelligent and honorable thing to do.

After the market picks the winners and washes out the losers, the survivors may very well end up increasing domestic content to take advantage of the newly, freed-up capacity in their backyard. Until then, the current economic crisis will affect everyone. It’s not going to be pretty.

The elite Japanese automakers are patriots because they are not just in business to make a profit; they believe they have a moral responsibility to take care of their employees and contribute to the communities they serve.

Will crushing a Japanese car solve the American automakers’ problems?

More to the point, will buying Big-Three cars solve the American automakers’ problems? It’s a moot point because American consumers just don’t have the money–or credit–to buy a new car right now. But supposing they could, it would only put more pressure on the Japanese automakers, who also employ thousands of American workers.

History will prove that the presence of the Japanese automakers in America is making a positive impact on American society. The elite Japanese automakers have, in fact, become model corporate American citizens.

Are Japanese Automakers More Patriotic than the Big Three?

Before waiving the flag while you shell out forty grand for a hydraulically-challenged Chevy Suburban, ponder this (I welcome your stats to support or refute):

  • Who has been bringing more jobs to America of late, Japanese or American automakers?
  • Who has been exporting jobs from America to foreign countries of late, Japanese or American automakers?
  • Who has laid off more workers in the past twenty years, Japanese or American automakers?
  • Who has been more fiscally responsible?
  • Who is more willing to sacrifice profits in the short-term to provide stable employment for its American workers long-term?

It’s difficult for the American business mind to grasp this, but the Japanese automakers are genuinely pulling for the U.S. automakers to survive. From purely a PR standpoint, they are sensitive to how they are perceived by the community, and therefore aspire to maintain an image as a “good corporate citizen”. Deservedly or not, failure of an American automaker would draw negative attention the Japanese would prefer to avoid.

The reality is that Japanese automakers rely on many of the same suppliers as the Big Three for components. If key suppliers go belly up for whatever reason, then the lifeblood of all the automakers–car components–is cut off and production grinds to a halt across the industry. Some companies will be affected more than others, but it wouldn’t be a good turn of events for anyone.

The Japanese see the world as complex, dynamic, interconnected. This means their business leaders understand and appreciate the importance of maintaining a balance between profitability, and the company’s duty to contribute to society. They accept and welcome healthy, profitable competition. Without it, they know, the free market withers and dies

The Japanese understand that society and the business organization are interdependent; that a company can only be healthy in the context of a healthy society. For this reason, it’s safe to say that even more than the average American, the Japanese automakers are rooting for the Big Three to survive. Rest assured that Japanese automakers have America’s best interest at heart, because America’s interests are intimately intertwined with their own.

The Enemy Within

The Japanese automakers are patriots in my book. My hat is off to any company that truly values and cares about its employees and the community it serves. American companies could indeed learn a thing or two about patriotism from the elite Japanese companies.

The crush-the-Japanese-cars demographic represents America’s two Achilles heels: defensiveness and complacency. Defensive people point fingers, make excuses, spend all their energy deflecting criticism. They never improve because they refuse to look inward for the truth. It’s time to stop beating up Japanese cars, and reflect on what really got us here.

Copyright ©, Tim Sullivan, 2008

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