I hesitate to disagree with a renowned Harvard professor, but I think Michael E. Porter is out of his mind when he says Japan does not play by different rules.
Prof. Porter, writing in the July 22 issue of The New York Times, had this to say:"The notion that Japan is somehow playing by different rules from ours is misguided and nothing more than a smoke screen to justify suspending competition."
It isn't that Mr. Porter is unaware of Japan's history of protective trade practices. In the next breath he tries to justify them by saying:
"Import protection, reluctance to buy foreign goods and 'copying' foreign technology were characteristic of America and also Germany when they were developing. Japan is behaving just as we did."
Is Mr. Porter telling us Japan is a developing country?
C'mon Mr. Porter, Japan is the world's second largest economy, rich,
innovative and as competitive as it is efficient. Everyone knows that.
Japan's only flaw is that it is having trouble giving up the posture of a developing country.
I'm sure Carla Hills, U.S. trade representative, groaned when she read Mr. Porter's piece. His comments hardly help the Bush administration's efforts to get Japan to change its ways, an endeavor that is showing some signs of progress.
Japan doesn't play by different rules? Toyota has 1,700 retail outlets in this country, and Toys 'R' Us is having trouble opening more than one store in Japan, where Japanese auto dealers for years refused to handle American cars.
Mr. Porter did have some good insights with respect to what makes Japan so successful at exporting. The United States needs to learn from Japan and, I think, is learning. And Japan can learn all about importing from the United States.
Importantly, Japan's government concedes that it must change, so the nation can increase imports - which seems to me a de facto contradiction of Mr. Porter's contention.
By the way, lest anyone call me a Neanderthal protectionist, I'd support a totally free trade common market in goods and services between Japan and the United States! I'd bet such an arrangement would definitely reduce Japan's $50 billion trade surplus with this country.
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American business leaders are often criticized for not being able to see past the coming quarter's financial results. Such short-term thinking, the criticism goes, prevents U.S. businesses from properly planning.
Of course, the Japanese also think in terms of quarters - 25-year quarters.
Speaking of long-range planning, A.B. "Ted" Ruhly, president of A.P. Moeller's Maersk Inc., has the highest respect for the long-term prospects of Japan's container shipping industry.
''If I had a son who wanted to go into the shipping business, I'd advise him to work for a Japanese company," he said. "They are going to be around 100 years from now. They are great long-term planners. Everyone else is wondering what's for dinner tonight. That's their long-term plan."
Mr. Ruhly is clearly not sanguine about some container carriers. He foresees a further shakeout "because most carriers are generally failing to adequately price their services." And he does not see any near-term change or solution.
Personally, he said, he'd like to see the industry deregulated, conferences disbanded and the antitrust immunity eliminated.
"It would take about two years for the shakeout to occur, but only the 'can do' companies would remain," he said, adding it might be better than the current "slow death."
"The Japanese will be there regardless of the cost," he continued. ''They see that if they stick it out, they will dominate. No one can compete with a big Japanese trading company."
The optimist in me hopes that Mr. Ruhly is being too pessimistic.
Somehow, one hopes, the carriers can work themselves out of the morass without the need of a bloodbath.
For more of Mr. Ruhly's views on the future of the maritime industry, see tomorrow's Journal of Commerce.
Mr. Ruhly, unfortunately, won't be active in the industry much longer. He retires in 18 months, an event that will mark the departure of one of the industry's most colorful characters. His candor and sense of humor will be sorely missed.