It’s all falling apart

Opinions - September 20th, 2002
Robert J. Collins

by Robert J. Collins

Maybe it’s just me, but don’t you get the occasional idea that it’s all falling apart? (Maybe it is just me—I’m scheduled for more dental work, right after my knee gets better and asthma season ends. It’s me that’s falling apart!)

The collapse of the Dot Com world in the States was the begin­ning of things falling apart in recent times, and continuing events are epitomized by Enron and the crooked behavior of the chief officers of major corporations. (Hello, Martha Stewart, I’m interested in making tea cozies out of dollar bills. Any ideas?)

And while the overseas busi­ness world is reeling with the almost daily discovery of firms and investors being silently and efficiently ripped off by manage­ment stars, Japan has its own thing going on.

The thing about things falling apart in Japan, it’s simple and can be understood even by the most casual observer. While money overseas is stolen through the establishment of paper companies and the cooperation of auditors in on the game, money here is stolen by the equivalent of bundling up meat, changing the labels and reselling the lot for cash. Money whizzes through cyberspace overseas; in Japan it goes out the front door then turns around and returns through the back door.

Oddly, it’s relatively easy to understand the motives of errant behavior overseas. Top corporate officers are dealing with more money, often floating loose for long periods of time, than any time before. During the manufac­turing age, money came in from sales, and the product—some­thing you could touch and rub— went out the garage door. Money wasn’t hanging around loose. It was used to build the product.

Now, of course, we don’t even know what the product is with some of these latest companies in the news, but there are the officers faced with the prospect of squirreling away more cash than they could possibly have imag­ined as they started their careers. Multi-millionaires? Take it and run. I can sort of understand that.

The confounding thing is in Japan. Here I understand the crime (no cyberspace involved), but I don’t understand the moti­vation. People are not becoming rich beyond their wildest imagi­nations. Instead, it’s crummy, dirty little stuff that… what? Demonstrates the value of follow­ing orders without questioning them?

During the last three years in Japan, we’ve been through a nuclear “accident” at a power plant when workers were appar­ently following orders and skip­ping a safety procedure and instead filling a reactor by hand. With buckets. And, of course, something screwed up. It put thousands of lives at risk. Man­agement apologized.

A milk company was caught skipping a maintenance proce­dure involving cleaning pipe valves. Rotten milk went to stores. Thousands could become ill. When caught, the milk was called back, powdered or made into butter, and went back out to the stores. When re-caught, manage­ment apologized.

Most recently, we’ve watched the macabre dance of cow torsos being switched from pillar to post to avoid the primitive new laws designed to prevent Mad Cow Disease and all the related illness­es from entering the food chain. Nippon Ham, and others, figured out a way to make a couple mil­lion yen (a couple million yen!) by selling some of the meat back to the government which intro­duced a reimbursement scheme. (A couple million yet—that’s less than one employee’s salary.) Management apologized.

As I write this, Tepco (Tokyo Electric Power Company) is being charged with covering up obvious damage to one of their nuclear reactors. Tens of thousands, if not millions, of lives could be endan­gered by these actions. (Plastic sheeting was hung over some of the damage—that’ll take care of things.) When this is all over, management will apologize.

What is this in Japan? People don’t care? If the boss doesn’t rec­ommend something, nothing can be done? Cheating to save a cou­ple million yen? Are we still in the Occupation? Are workers too stu­pid to see what’s going on, or do they just want to stay uninvolved? Is it, and this is my theory, just empty at the top? Nothing up there?

Okay, the executive crooks overseas ripped off great sums of money, doing the most damage to fellow employees whose retire­ment investments were with the companies. That’s bad. I hate it. But I understand the motivations. Greed, and what it can buy. It’s the high school locker room macho thing of “my thing is big­ger than yours.” Zillionaires. Quad-zillionaires.

All in all, I’m more worried about things I don’t under­stand—motivation that is not fathomable. Is it a cultural thing? I don’t think so. I’m worried about Japan falling apart.