Ever since the Sony story, in the form of Akio Morita’s Made in Japan, won a nitch on the best-seller lists, Japanese executives have been turning out memoirs on business success for American audiences. Sadehei Kusumoto’s biography, written with the help of Edmund P. Murray, is a chronicle of Minolta’s rise from the ashes and the ensuing camera trade wars that ended with a large chunk of domestic American market share in Japanese hands.

The Japanese love Hollywood. Their first films were straight Westerns—only wandering Samurai were cast in the parts normally filled by the Lone Ranger or John Wayne. Those Samurai Westerns are the forerunners of the Japanese business biographies that now appear monthly. And Minolta’s Kusumoto isn’t content simply to make the connection between the Samurai spirit and business success. He also quotes Gary Jacobson and John Hillkirk’s Xerox: American Samurai to point out that from 1976 to 1982 the American copier firm saw its worldwide revenues cut in half by Minolta, Canon, Ricoh, and Sharp.

But Kusumoto has another point to make as well. Having grown up in Korea as the son of a Ford dealer, then spending the immediate postwar years in Japan, and having lived now in America for two dozen more years, he wants us to know that Japanese success is more owing to America than to the Samurai spirit. Having visited China on Malcolm Forbes’ yacht, the Capitalist Tool, Kusumoto can’t help but repeat that Japan’s biggest debt was run up by what it learned in America. And he knows the irony is the pupil has become the master, with the U.S. now more than in debt to the Japanese.

The causes are familiar ones. The importance of family strength is a strong theme throughout this biography of the president of Minolta’s American operation. Kusumoto’s marriage was family-arranged, though his wife was free to reject the arrangement. Elitism in education has also paid off for the Japanese, whose executives are recruited from among the nation’s brightest men. General MacArthur’s occupation shielded domestic Japanese industry from American competition, nourished new and efficient factories built on bombed rubble, and helped control communist labor influence. MacArthur sounds like just what post-perestroika Eastern Europe needs.

The Japanese got quality control from Dr. W. Edwards Deming, revered in Tokyo when he was disregarded at home. And marketing, what Kusumoto does best, was learned directly from Americans by hundreds of young Japanese executives in the course of their U.S. tours. Kusumoto came early with a suitcase of Minolta demonstration models that he had to repair nightly in his hotel room. Thirty years ago—Kusumoto’s years—”Made in Japan” meant exactly the reverse of what it means now. And what has the American auto industry done about that?

But Kusumoto’s analysis goes further. He sees that resource-poor Japan developed an export economy early in its history. The importance of exports is a truth deeply woven into the fabric of Japanese business thinking. It underlies the idea of keiretsu, the union of export bank, trading company, and manufacturer that contributes to Japan’s export strength. Here, as Kusumoto notes, banks have only recently caught on to the idea of export consulting. Most just prefer to make bad Third World loans. And Kusumoto notes the huge effect of American military spending—over $10 billion—in Japan up to and including the Vietnam war years, in helping back the subsequent Japanese export drive. There is also JETRO, the Japanese government export-promoting agency, the likes of which, as Kusumoto points out, still doesn’t exist here. JETRO makes the U.S. Commerce Department look plain silly. Despite all this, Kusumoto still writes: “We learned about exporting from America. Meanwhile, America forgot.” Those are the most important sentences in his book.

Kusumoto would like his fellow native Japanese to remember how things were when the shoe was on the other foot. He’d like the Japanese to open the doors to American rice and other agricultural imports. But he also wants the U.S. to stop ranting about penetrating the Japanese domestic market. That penetration has been accomplished, he notes. But it is also very important to recognize that the Japanese market is not the be-all and end-all some Americans think it is. If Americans learn only one thing from Minolta’s success, it should be the need for the U.S. to beat Japan, not in Japan, but in newly emerging global markets.

If it is difficult for American businessmen to operate in Japan, as Kusumoto notes, still he finds them significantly absent in the world’s established free-trade zones. American importers overwhelm Hong Kong, but not American exporters. “Even in Panama, with its close ties to the United States, the neon signs alone offer convincing evidence that the Japanese traders are much more active than the Americans.” American business is still much too slow to adapt to global marketing, says Kusumoto. And he points out that when the weakening dollar curtailed Japanese auto exports by raising the price of Japanese cars sold here, American manufacturers raised prices to make short-term profits, rather than hold the line on prices to recapture lost domestic market share.

According to Kusumoto the U.S. will have a long wait before the Japanese catch up with our cultural sag. Recently, William Emmott of The Economist, in The Sun Also Sets, predicted a decline in Japanese savings rates and a future dethroning of the global liquidity king. That may not happen. Already rumblings that suggest a repeat of 1930’s Japan have been heard. The best way out for the U.S. may well be to listen to Kusumoto’s message and recover the commitment of the Yankee traders who opened up the Orient in the first place.


[My Bridge to America, by Sam Kusumoto (New York: E.P. Button) 340 pp., $19.95]