From Toyota to Pokémon, from food to gadgets to art, Japanese products have permeated global culture. We asked writers to consider an object that they own or have owned that was made in Japan.


New Delhi, where I live, is a city laid out for cars. In 2001 there were still few enough of them that driving felt like real freedom. When, in that year, my partner and I acquired our first car, a second-hand Maruti 800, our lifestyle was therefore suddenly amplified.

We loved our little amplifier. Battered but resilient, she was painted in the amateurish chocolate brown that the company stopped using years before, when they realized not only that drivers in hot countries suffer more in dark-coloured cars, but also that it was fantastically ugly. And yet our baby’s personality shone through her unappealing hue. While her functional box shape seemed rigid and humourless, her seats swayed as merrily as a fairground ride; her engine defied the instructions of the jiggling gearstick with the impishness of a child. She was childishly diminutive, in fact – her wheels were about as wide as a toddler’s thigh, her exhaust pipe was like a drinking straw – which brought her endearingly close to our own scale. When, as sometimes happened at the end of an evening, we discovered her blocked in by a much larger parked car, three adults sufficed to lift her out of her spot.

Above all, she drove. She was not powerful but she was plucky and well-made, and on the roads she zipped through the throng of sterner vehicles ten years her junior.

Like a tiny old woman surrounded by strapping grandsons, the Maruti 800 was in fact the progenitor of all that new, muscular, vehicular variety. Introduced in 1983, she was the inexpensive ‘people’s car’ who first made car ownership, previously reserved for the business and bureaucratic elite, a part of wider middle-class life. In our first flush of Maruti 800-powered mobility, my partner and I were discovering only very late what millions had first encountered a decade or more before.

 

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The idea for what would eventually become the Maruti 800 came from Sanjay Gandhi, son of India’s then prime minister, Indira Gandhi. In 1967, twenty-one-year-old Sanjay Gandhi went to do an internship with Rolls-Royce Motors in Crewe, where he began to realize that, in his nation of half a billion people, the demand for cars could probably greatly exceed the existing supply of a few hundred thousand. In the context of India’s patrician car market, which was held in check by strategic under-supply (the 1950s models cranked out by the automobile duopoly took as much as seven years to reach their buyers), this was a populist thought – though as with some other proponents of the automotive society, it coincided in Sanjay Gandhi with an excessive taste for social control and eugenics.

Inspired, anyway, by his enthusiasm, Mrs Gandhi invited tenders for the development of a low-priced, mass-produced car; out of the eleven submitted, only her son’s ever got off the ground. His company was called Maruti Motors Ltd, ‘Maruti’ being an epithet for the ultra-mobile monkey god Hanuman, whose father, the god of winds, was called Marut.

Maruti Motors did not have the expertise to make cars, and, by 1980, when Sanjay’s affection for pistons led to his death in a flying accident, the company had done rather little except defend itself against charges of corruption and nepotism. However, the loss of her favourite son turned Maruti into a sacred mission for Mrs Gandhi. The assets of his now-defunct company – which mainly comprised 297 acres of land close to Delhi’s international airport, in a wild and inaccessible village called Gurgaon – were transferred to a new, state-owned entity called Maruti Udyog Limited, which in 1981 was given a mandate to manufacture 100,000 passenger cars and 40,000 commercial vehicles per year.

It had become clear by that time that the know-how for a project of that scale would have to come from abroad, and now a search began for a foreign partner. Given that Cold War politics had India on bad terms with the US, American firms were out, and after detailed discussions with European manufacturers – British Leyland, Renault and Fiat – Maruti’s directors inclined heavily towards Japan.

Even now, when Maruti is a private corporation majority-owned by the erstwhile Japanese partner, such that the old wings logo has given way to the Suzuki ‘S’, most consumers think of their Maruti car – and there are millions on the roads, of every size and shape, not only in India but in about fifty other countries – as a fully Indian creation. The feeling of ‘Japan’ has never been much transmitted through the actual products of this partnership. But the Maruti 800 was not developed in India: it was a rebranded version of Suzuki’s pre-existing Alto, and for the men and women who worked in and around Maruti, Japan made itself felt in an electrifying way. The Japanese industrial machine was a revelation to those setting up in the North Indian brushland, as indeed was the startlingly foreign approach to corporate hierarchy. The impact is still palpable in the 2010 memoirs of Maruti’s first chairman, R.C. Bhargava. In The Maruti Story, he writes:

A. Shinohara, who was the director of production, would not allow the assembly line to start unless all the equipment and the shop floor were absolutely clean . . . Initially Maruti employees thought that sweepers would do the cleaning. But in Japan there are no sweepers and everyone does his own cleaning. Shinohara picked up a broom and a bucket of water. Maruti employees could hardly refuse to do the same. For the next ten days the cleaning work continued, with Shinohara as the leader. Assembly operations started when he was fully satisfied.

While most European and American firms remained unwelcome in India until the opening up of the economy in 1991, the partnership with Suzuki heralded the beginning of an influx of Japanese products, investment and expertise which was to dominate the 1980s.

This Japanese preference did not arise out of nothing. Long before, in the British era, Japan’s military, industrial and cultural achievement had inspired many of those – including Rabindranath Tagore and Subhas Chandra Bose – who had wished to imagine for India a non-European future; at the time of independence, Jawaharlal Nehru – India’s first prime minister and Indira Gandhi’s father – had implemented a new, state-controlled economic system inspired by planners in both Japan and the Soviet Union. Despite this long history, however, it was ultimately the Japanese corporation which was to exert that country’s greatest influence over Indian society. For a surprising number of the entrepreneurs who were to sculpt India’s economic landscape in the years after the ‘liberalization’ of 1991 were groomed by their exposure in the 1980s to Japanese companies.

Sunil Mittal, the Delhi billionaire who over the last twenty years has built up the world’s fourth-largest mobile telephony empire (which has since expanded into insurance, retail and real estate), was in the early eighties buying import quotas from established businesses to allow him to import such commodities as brass scrap, aluminium sheets and stainless steel plates. A revolution in his outlook arrived, however, when he began importing Suzuki electricity generators from Japan. I met Mr Mittal while interviewing business people for a book about Delhi’s experience of globalization.

‘Those three years shaped my life,’ he told me. ‘The gentleman I used to work with closely, he was working from very early in the morning to late in the night. I’ve never seen such passion and commitment from a professional – and he was not a very senior guy. He was middle-level. One day when he was dropping me at the hotel – it must have been eleven at night – he told me he had to go back to the office because he still had work to do. I asked him, “Do you get overtime for this?” He looked at me with surprise and horror. “No!” That was the culture in Japan.’

What attracted Indian businessmen to Japanese corporations was not simply hard work. It was something civilizational, something about kinship and loyalty that they found disturbingly lacking from equivalent organizations in America.

‘I’ve never liked America,’ another businessman told me, a thirty-six-year-old named Rakesh. ‘It’s too opportunistic. Too lacking in culture.’

Rakesh’s father ran one of the many companies that supplied components to the Maruti-Suzuki partnership. He sent Rakesh to apprentice in Suzuki’s headquarters in Hamamatsu, Japan, where the President himself took him under his wing.

‘It was a beautiful relationship. My desk stood right next to his,’ he said. ‘Nearly everything I know, I learned from Suzuki. Look at their systems, their processes, their people. The collaborative approach they have in managing their supply chain. We’ll teach you and we’ll be with you for life.

 

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With the number of Indians now going to do MBAs in the US, this moment in Indian capitalism has largely receded into the past. Some of the impulse behind it – the preference for corporations modelled on, and owned by, the Asian family – has also been responsible for the much-criticized ‘insider’ nature of contemporary Indian capitalism (which of course is the case, also, in Japan). But it is instructive to remember where some of India’s first globalization-era winners found their initial inspiration. It is often thought that globalization equates to Americanization; but many of those who determined the course of India’s ‘global’ era had hoped to use capitalism to build something very different. They modelled their operations on what they had seen in Japan: it was the expansion of Asian might, not the conformity to America, that they intended.

After my partner and I sold our Maruti 800 (for the same amount we had paid), we continued to spot her zipping around on the Delhi roads for years. Her little chocolate box was too ramshackle by then – and too humble, of course – to speak of such monumental things as the nature of Indian capitalism. But with her origami lines and netsuke scale, she allowed herself, perhaps, to drop a few hints.

 

Photo by TuRbO_J

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