I have an economic theory that partly explains how capitalism works in Tokyo. It’s a modern Japanese spin on famous economist Adam Smith’s “Invisible Hand”, from his 18th century treatise The Wealth of Nations.
Smith used the metaphor to imply there’s a moral logic to free markets. That the Hand represents unchecked individual economic behavior that brings unintended public benefits (a theory you hear plundered in the film Wall Street during Gordon Gekko’s “Greed is Good” speech).
My Tokyo Invisible Hand is the unintended benefits created by the unchecked individual incompetence of Tokyo corporate management. It drives its rank-and-file salarymen crazy, instilling in them a monstrous hunger for retail refreshment to deal with their pent-up frustration.
This mechanism – deflationary incompetence converted into triumphant consumption – reveals the power of the most brilliant jewel of the Tokyo economy: it’s amazing, recession-proof retail wonderland.
(I’m not sure Smith would agree with me that this proves another thing he wrote: “Consumption is the sole end and purpose of all production.”)
So basically, Smith’s Hand theory predicts economic growth from production gains, and my Hand theory predicts consumption gains that equalize the big production losses caused by terrible Tokyo managers, saving the economy from deep recession:
I should clarify that incompetence is no more rampant in Japanese business than anywhere else. The difference is how Japanese manners handcuff everybody from doing anything about it. Companies basically just put up with it.
This drives my Hand theory: the GDP void caused by a useless Tokyo manager, who cannot get fired because of Japan’s lifetime employment laws, is filled back in by all the café and bar-binging and night-crawling needed to blow off the steam of carrying on with the charade of politely following such leadership.
To illustrate, as I’m writing this, our ENTIRE office is sitting in a 3-hour meeting to listen to EACH employee one-by-one state his four goals for the next year, ignoring whether your jobs are even remotely connected (only a big Tokyo company can waste people’s time like this, and only a Tokyo salaryman quietly lets them waste it).
Naturally, and in-line with my theory, the company is holding an all-you-can drink “dinner” after the meeting.
Robokoppu is the nickname of my former boss at one of my former companies, and he’s an instructive case study for my Hand theory. His chief activities as a middle manager was fiddling with rules, using them as a ceremonial tool to reconfirm his seniority, and trying to look busy.
The Japanese on my team came up with Robokoppu (the Japanese pronunciation of the famous Robocop movie character) behind his back not only because of his stickler-ways, but because of his mechanical gait and very erect way of walking.
His stiff bearing was exaggerated by his taste for heavily-starched shirts with high-collars. His black hair, heavily-gelled, was pressed-down and pushed straight back, as if he were punishing it for trying to stick out.
An unusual case, he entered our little world from the Tokyo unemployment line – laid off from one of Japan’s dying memory device makers, a totally different industry from our company – and seemed to have been randomly thrown into his position as sales director over us, not being remotely qualified to do the job of even his subordinates.
He was an expert at the Tokyo managerial art of using company rules to compensate for incompetence. This and his blend of manners and shiftiness made him very difficult to deal with.
My Invisible Hand theory crystalized during the experience of dealing with this man.
5 highlights from the Robokoppu experience, and how it inevitably converted into a net positive economic event:
(1) To look busy, he’d bring documents with him to the office urinal, hold them up and read them under his breath.
(2) To avoid the personal exposure of being in charge of establishing a new customer, and ignoring each team member’s valuable familiarity with their accounts, he reshuffled our account assignments, making them alphabetical. He assigned himself the letters A-F, which contained our top 3 existing, and easiest to maintain, Japanese customers. When somebody pointed out that one tough, new American customer that started with a “B” was in his range, he later announced that since the company’s name started with “The”, the customer would be listed under the letter “T”.
(3) Every morning during our 8:30am roll call, he made us read aloud in unison two company rules from the company rulebook. He knew that I in particular hated this formality, and so one morning took my being 3 minutes late as a rebellion:
Me (arriving at 8:33am): Sorry I’m late, I had to get off my train to use the men’s room.
Robokoppu: Why you no call!
Me: When? You aren’t suppose to talk on the phone on trains in Japan, right? Anyway, I texted you.
Robokoppu: I don’t read text before 8:30am. Rule is MUST call . Must do after you go bathroom.
Me: I didn’t know if I’d actually be late then. Another train came right away and I got on.
Robokoppu: Well you must get off again and and call and say why late.
Me: Why? Then I’d have been much later. I wanted to get here as fast as I could.
Robokoppu: No, late is late, most important is tell me.
Me (frustrated laugh): Sorry, but that’s nutty.
Me: Yeah. Doesn’t make sense.
Robokoppu: I your boss.
Me: What’d I miss? Two minutes of everyone repeating stupid company rules! What a crock of shit!
Robokoppu: “Clock of sheeet“?
(4) One time while I was in the middle of giving a presentation to a room full of U.S. customers, he suddenly interrupted – no doubt feeling that as the manager he had to look managerial and do something – and blasted me for being too casual in my manner (His gripe: I’d put my hands in my front pant pockets in the American-guy style).
(5) We had two printers in our office: one for making copies and one for printing things out (which was silly in itself). Both were leased machines, and the company paid by the page, with the copying one being like 3 yen more expensive per page than the printing one. So because of this and the underperformance of our team’s sales the year he was there, he declared that anyone in our sales team that wanted to make any copies had to scan them, convert them to PDFs, and then print them out. To celebrate when he left the company, our sales team estimated how much money we saved by following his rule (if memory serves, about 7000 Yen, or $60). We used this number to convince our new sales director to partially treat us to a rampaging night on the town, thus replacing our lost productivity from following the Robokoppu’s rule with a consumption gain, and proving my Tokyo Invisible Hand theory once and for all.