The Art of Sushi, the Ritual of Sumo, Globalization at the speed of light and the Japanese Technology Transfer Conundrum

October 6, 2009


Japanese have adopted the process of mastery from cultural spheres such as Zen, Imperial traditions and the ritualistic roots of agrarian artisanship and the Japanese management has institutionalized the adoption of innovation and skill through their own unique technology transfer process.  Their process has worked well during the boom eras of the 80s and 90s.  However, the advent of globalization “at the speed of light”, fostered by the Internet, has changed the dynamics of technology innovation, transfer, and operation.  Businesses and mass-market consumers both have become accustomed to real-time access to information, and analysis to react to fast changing global events.  They are demanding low latency process implementations and tolerate responses only limited by the finite velocity of light.  The complexity is compounded by the unpredictable demand for any particular service in the mass market.  This is creating a demand for new processes to eliminate current human latency involved in information service creation, assurance and delivery.  While this creates a radical departure from current best practices of Japanese management, this blog suggests that it is also an opportunity to address the impact of dwindling human resources caused by low birth rates and aging population in Japan.

Over time, skill development, its mastery and transfer processes have changed radically from focusing on the individual as practiced by the sushi chefs and sumo wrestlers to collectivism and global collaboration at the speed of light.  By re-architecting new processes for technology innovation, transfer and operation teams on a global scale, Japanese management can leverage their investment capital and human network management expertise based on their emphasis on collectivism and Kyozon Kyoei (growing together).  This requires changing current models to adapt globalization at the speed of light and create multi-cultural and multi-national teams collaborating with each other in real-time.  This requires breaking the sequential water-fall model of innovation, technology transfer, and operation processes and adapt an iterative collaboration between innovators, technology transfer agents, and operators.  Is the current Japanese Management ready for such a transformation?  This is the theme of my study as a sequel to my thesis published in 1990 on current issues in Japanese management. I am looking for input, comments, and collaboration. I invite anyone with appropriate insight to participate.

The Art of Sushi and the Mastery of the Individual

Every Saturday, during my stay in Japan during late 1990’s, I was eagerly looking forward to my lunch in a small neighborhood sushi-ya.  It had become a routine.  Over time, the sushi master knew what I liked and what I did not.  He knew what I should drink with which food.  While I enjoyed the tasty morsels of fresh raw fish with uniquely Japanese vinegar rice, it was pure theater watching him and his two apprentices work.  During my lunch, he taught me about the uniqueness of Japanese rice.  He talked about how each region in Japan has its own brand of rice and sake and the subtle differences they claim.  It was a small shop with six seats very neatly organized at the counter.  The mistress of the shop was busy tending to the customers, pouring drinks, always making sure to avoid eye contact and profusely apologizing for almost everything.  The apprentices were almost invisible tending to their chores.  The customers knew the master’s skill and were his regulars.  One of the apprentices was his son.  The master’s dream was to transfer his skills so that one day his son would be in his place and will command the same respect.

In Japanese culture, making sushi is regarded as an art, because the sushi master’s “way” (Ryuugi) is as important as resulting sushi’s appearance, its presentation and its taste.  Also equally important is how one eats it and what one drinks with it.  The sushi master, as Frans de Wall suggests, [1] “epitomizes human sophistication, artistry and know-how.  We eat the fugu (the blowfish sushi) trusting the chef’s skills, which he learned from other chefs, and they in turn from those before them”.

In the tradition of Japanese Zen Masters, the sushi chef transfers the “way” to his student in a uniquely “Japanese process”.  There are no women sushi chefs in Japan at least to my knowledge.  A friend told me (Frans de Wall also mentions this in his book) that woman’s hands are too warm for the task.   However, Frans also points out in his book, that the women make sushi at home and the men have no qualms about eating it.

The student for his part dedicates about ten years of his life with unquestioned devotion to mastering the subtle skills.  As Frans describes it, “(the student’s) education seems a matter of passive observation.  The young man cleans the dishes, mops the kitchen floor, bows to the clients, fetches the ingredients, and in the meantime follows from the corner of his eyes, without ever asking a question, everything the sushi masters are doing.  For no less than three years, he watches them without being allowed to make the actual sushi for the patrons of the restaurant – an extreme case of exposure without practice.  He is waiting for the day on which he will be invited to make his first sushi”

Two characteristics of the ‘would-be’ sushi master stand out.  First is the inner passion “to master the art of sushi” and become the best there is.  It is not driven by the hope of a monetary reward.  Instead, it is driven by the recognition of the challenge involved, and a strong will to devote a significant amount of his time while postponing near-term gratification.  The second is the unquestioned faith in the master based on a deep respect for the master’s skill.  In a collective culture, these traits are considered virtues whereas in a society where individualism and immediate gratification play a significant role, they may be viewed as a waste of time and unwarranted.  Whether they are virtues or not clearly depends on the context and the value of time and the resources available to the group.

The master on the other hand is looking for a disciple who will carry forward the art and the skill, who will spread the satisfaction of enjoyable sushi to customers beyond his reach.  It is in the teacher’s interest to scale but without compromising quality in favor of quantity. His reputation depends on the quality of his disciples.  He submits the would-be disciples to rigorous tests to baseline their skill and tailors the training to meet their individual need.

Clearly, optimal technology transfer takes place from a willing giver to an enthusiastic receiver and another great sushi master will emerge.

The Ritual of Sumo and the Mastery of the Individual in a Group

Process is an important part of the way of life in Japan.  Similar to the Zen emphasis on the “means” and not the “end”, the Japanese culture has adopted process emphasis to develop a collective approach.  The process compensates for the frailty of the individual, showing up as greed, anger and selfishness that may affect the welfare of the whole group.  The process deals with the potential human failings by using objective measurements, analysis and corrective action that advance the goals of the group both in everyday life and in business.

Ritual is often, used to standardize a process.  Rituals define the protocols of behavior.  A ritual creates a bond of camaraderie that results from the deep knowledge of the substance behind the subtle form (or style) of ritual practice.  For the outsider, the practice of ritual may look pointless and a waste of time but the insider feels the satisfaction of discerning the substance behind the subtle form of ritual practice.  When an American friend complained that the Tea Ceremony, that we attended, was too long, my Japanese friend’s reply was “the Tea Ceremony is not about tea.  If we want a quick tea, we visit a local tea shop or a vending machine, and if we want an overpriced tea, we visit Starbucks!”

Sumo captures the essence of Japanese effort to combine process and ritual to create a unique sport.  Dolores Martinez [2] describes the origins of sumo rituals; “Sumo match seems to have two origins: one is in rural villages, the other in court performances.”  According to her, village sumo was enjoyed as a part of the seasonal ritual at the village shrine as a part of celebrating the completion of a harvest.  It was one of the competitive sports along with tug-of-war and archery.  A Korean prince and his thirty wrestlers who were exiled to Japan have introduced the court performance part of the ritual.  “In sumo there are forty-eight ways in which the match can be won.  The performance of sumo is identified with the image of a god playing in the ring, but the deity can only be manifested in the body of the rikishi (wrestler), at the moment of winning, if the win is correctly performed.  An experienced spectator enjoys the style (kata) of performance at the very moment of winning.  It is the kata which is the ultimate concern of sumo.”  That is why the yokozuna performs the most essential kata during the first ritual of the day of “entering the ring”.  It is believed to bring cosmic energy into the ring.

According to Mark Willacy [3], who followed a sumo stable in Tokyo for a few months, “sumo isn’t just a sport; it’s a ritual and tradition”.  Like the would-be sushi master, the would-be sumo rikishi devotes his time staying in a sumo stable learning the “way” hoping to become a yokozuna (the grand champion). Mark Willacy observes, “Senior sumo wrestlers, have the privilege of being the teachers.  Junior wrestlers coddle them, wait on them and feed them. Life for these youngsters is tough. Often up before dawn, their job is to sweep the ring, get pummeled at practice, prepare tubs of food after practice, serve the breakfast, wash-up, do the laundry, and get the groceries.”  They endure the rigor in the hope of becoming a grand master one day.

The Process of Mastery and Technology Transfer Cycle-time

Mastery and the transfer of skills from the master to the disciple require dedication, and patience.  Both the sushi chef and the sumo wrestler exemplify individual mastery in a collective society and associated human latency in technology transfer.  However, the time and resource constraints along with the differing skill levels of the disciples in a group setting require a new approach to the technology transfer in order to scale.  The process of acquiring mastery itself has been thoroughly analyzed and the roles of the teacher and the disciple have been identified to facilitate optimal technology transfer in a group setting where constraints of time and resources are compounded by the wide variation of skill level of the group learning the skills from a master.

According to a monk, with whom I had discussions on the subject of learning, (when I was visiting a famous temple in Koya San), learning has four distinct phases:

  1. Discovery:  the master assesses the would-be disciple to create a baseline from which to start the training.  He sets both short term and long-term goals taking into account external and individual factors.  He facilitates the discovery of knowledge by the disciple.  According to the Monk, knowledge seeking is a self-discovery process and the teacher can only facilitate the discovery process.
  2. Reflection: The student spends time deeply reflecting on the discovery.  This is the most difficult part of the process where struggle to connect the dots, resolving conflicts between appearances and reality and the past and the present continues till that moment of clarity appears.  The resulting “Aha” moment prepares the student with a mental model of what is learned so that he can apply it to the real world and test his understanding.
  3. Application:  The student starts to apply the knowledge to test his understanding and getting feedback from outside to improve his/her mental model.  With practice, he becomes better and starts the next phase.
  4. Teaching:  As the disciple starts to bloom and become the new master, he will start teaching which allows him to facilitate the discovery process to his students.  At this stage, the teacher himself becomes a student continually pushing the boundaries of his own knowledge.  The teaching, the monk says, is the “way” to discover one’s own ignorance and reflect upon it and the cycle begins where the teacher himself becomes the student.

Figure 1 shows the process of learning or acquiring mastery. zen of learning

I thought this was a very interesting way to define the process of learning and I have used this model when I was teaching at Golden Gate University with very good results.  Figure 2 is an application of this process with some product and process metrics, which, I designed, to measure success of the theory in a classroom setting where a large number of students with different levels of preparation and baselines come to learn a specific set of skills in a given period of time.  Unlike a Zen master and his disciple, a classroom teacher has deadlines and students have time and resource constraints.

masteryThe process of mastery in a classroom is a walk on a thin line between student’s anxiety and boredom.  Each student comes to the class with a set of skills (pre-requisites).  If the students do not have the required prerequisite skills, the teacher has to give special assignments to them to make up for the lack of prerequisites or ask them to come back when they are ready.  If the students are overqualified, the teacher must find ways to challenge their skills to keep them interested.  If the student skills are not challenged enough, the student gets bored.  On the other hand, if the student skills are not adequate to meet the challenges posed in teaching, it leads to student’s anxiety, which may lead to eventual quitting.

A skilled master will attempt to balance the student’s acquisition of skills and the challenges presented to reach the objectives taking into account the teaching goals, external factors, and human factors.  The assignments, exercises, and skill tests are all designed to monitor and optimize the process and the outcome.

The students for their parts, will progress by acquiring new skills and testing them with the appropriate level of challenge while avoiding excessive boredom or anxiety.

In my class, I started with a baseline quiz that gave questions consisting of both the prerequisites and what they would learn in the class.  The result gave a good assessment of the skill level of each student.  Based on this result, I gave customized assignments that used higher skilled students to share their knowledge in discussions in the class.  For those with inadequate prerequisites, I gave special make up assignments.  I facilitated the discovery and reflection phases by giving reading assignments, discussions, tests and lectures.  Every student is required to apply the knowledge by writing a paper and present the learning at the end of the course.  This presentation allowed them to teach their learning to the class and the class by asking questions facilitated the discovery process for the presenter.

The process metrics are designed to provide them feedback on their discovery, reflection, application and teaching process. The product metrics measured their understanding of the subject based on their application of the knowledge to finish the paper assigned.

This discussion illustrates the complexity of technology transfer process, which is further affected by the limitations of time and resources.  A Zen master’s time scale spans across multiple reincarnations.  Self-imposed isolation of the group from real world reduces external constraints.  However, the technology transfer process for most Zen masters usually is limited to only one lifetime.

The Dark Side of Process & Ritual – Entropy Management

Entropy is a measure of randomness or uncertainty in a system and left to its own device, the entropy of a closed system always increases.   Process and ritual attempt to manage entropy; process by implementing measurement, analysis, and intervention; the ritual by following the “rules of practice” derived from experience and encapsulated in tradition.

However, both have their limitations.  Implementing a process takes time and resources.  Process is only as good as the measurements it relies upon.  The measurements are only as good as the systems that provide them.  Making people believe in a ritual takes effort.  The ritual is only as good as the experience it encapsulates as “rules of the ritual”.  They are both affected by the human element with all its frailty and shortcomings.  The literature extensively has documented the subversion of processes by individuals and groups [4].  Despite sumo’s popularity, most people in Japan still do not know how the wrestlers make their money, and how that money is distributed.  This has led to some accusations against the Japan sumo association.   Similarly, business processes in corporations and the government may be well defined but in reality, people circumvent them using personal relationships thus undermining the original purpose of the process.  This has often resulted in crony capitalism that favors one group from the other or one individual from the other.

Transparency and timely access to information are essential to improve process effectiveness in both personal and business life.  This is creating a need for real-time information systems.

Globalization at the Speed of Light and the Drive for Real-time Information Processing

With the advent of the industrial revolution, access to information and resources was made available across the globe through transportation networks and the resulting mobility.  The power grids, and other utility networks enhanced efficiency of resource consumption through sharing.  Communication networks improved global communications, allowed human networking across the globe, and facilitated information access.  The new global human networks made it possible to transfer technology from where it was invented to where it can be used.  The latency caused by the human factors dictated the speed of technology transfer.

The velocity of information took a leap forward with the advent of the Internet and high bandwidth networks.  Businesses became global demanding instant response transcending space and time.  Moore’s law speeded up information processing and business workflow implementation.  Social networks exploded across the globe demanding immediate attention reducing the attention span of individuals to twitter chat of 140 characters or less.  Data mining websites have created a new level of urgency to respond to the explosion of both relevant data and unproductive noise.

The acceleration of technology transfer is evident when you examine how long it took various networking solutions to mature.  The telecommunications network matured during a period of a hundred years.  It took about 30 years for the Internet to mature.   It took about 15 years for Storage Area Networks and mobile networks to mature. It now takes only months to develop a business application and deploy it.  It takes only days and weeks to develop a web based consumer application and deploy it.

However, globalization at the speed of light also has introduced an uncertainty in the demand fluctuations.  The new constraints of time and resources demanded by instant response with unpredictable and wild fluctuations have started changing the dynamics of technology innovation, transfer and operation.

Japan and its Technology Transfer Conundrum

Both the industrial revolution and the information revolution have altered the technology innovation, transfer and operation by making them capital hungry, human resource intensive and time sensitive.   Isolated masters no longer can play key roles  in innovation and technology transfer because their success requires collaboration between multiple disciplines with both technology and its management playing equally important roles.  Mastery is institutionalized, requiring investment of capital, human resources, and compliance with legal, regulatory and cultural constraints of the nations in which they operate.

If a conundrum denotes an intricate and difficult problem, technology transfer in Japan is surely a major conundrum for two reasons:

  1. The graying of Japan coupled with low birth rates, and strict immigration policies, is shrinking the pool of available masters and would-be disciples.  In a technology transfer model that depends on human element, dwindling human resource becomes a major issue.
  2. Globalization along with the accelerated pace with which innovation is occurring and changes are propagating is putting strain on the old-school, ritualistic, process intensive  and time consuming technology transfer approaches of the past.

In the past, Japan consciously chose to optimize its limited space in the island nation by trading off time.  Just-in-time supply management is a good example.  They traded the limited shelf space to just-in-time arrival of the inventory using the transport networks.  The success ofcourse depends on the latency and bandwidth of the transport network and the end-to-end process management.  Collectivism allowed sharing and optimizing limited resources with collective goals developed through consensus.  They traded off time in allowing the consensus process to take its course.  That is the reason why it takes a long time to make a decision in Japanese society, which frustrates the outsiders who guard their time preciously.

Japan also chose to send technology scouts to Europe and USA, imported innovation, and adopted it to fit uniquely the Japanese culture.  It also leveraged its process innovation and collectivism to focus on manufacturing high quality products for export.  The technology transfer process took about two years to bring it in and customize it to fit uniquely Japanese needs.  It took another couple of years to package the Japanese products to meet export requirements.

As information technologies move from hardware to software through virtualization technology, and as globalization at the speed of light demands faster response to meet wildly fluctuating consumer needs, Japan is no longer able to compete in the world of fast-paced technology transfer.  To leverage innovations that occur globally (this becomes even more critical as the domestic resource pool of innovation decreases and is not replenished by liberalization of immigration as in the US), the technology transfer has to occur at a more rapid pace.  In addition, other countries such as China, Vietnam and India, which Japan is counting on exporting technology and engage in outsourcing, are not going to wait when they can go directly to the source cutting out the Japanese middle layer overhead and reducing technology transfer time.

This is already occurring, as India and China directly are becoming competitors to Japanese technology.  In a global economy operating at the speed of light, outsourcing as a way to extend a country’s borders as Japan is doing with outsourcing to China, India and Vietnam will not be sustainable in the long term.  The outsourced countries will eventually become equal partners in developing innovation and demand equal shares of the profits.  In the long run, there is no reason why a Vietnamese engineer is paid a lower wage for equal work than a Japanese engineer in Japan is.  The days of colonialism, in any form, are over, in a world that is globalizing at the speed of light.

Unless, Japan addresses the speed of innovation and technology transfer by rapidly adapting to the imminent changes, it may not be long before it loses its current place in the world economy as number two.  The information technologies are increasingly becoming software intensive because of virtualization.  Computing clouds with pools of virtual computing power provide rapid cycle time reduction in business and consumer service creation, assurance and delivery.   It will fundamentally alter the way new services are created, assured and delivered in the future.

Global Kyozon Kyoei and Technology Innovation, Transfer and Operation at the Speed of Light

An alternative is to use Japan’s  investment capital and its human network management skills and Kyozon Kyoei expertise to create collaborative groups that are equal partners in technology creation, transfer and operation and share the benefits.  This requires creating teams of global technologists, managers, marketing and operations experts consisting of US, Japan, and the other Asian countries as equal partners.  In fact, the Asian countries that are not yet well developed have shown aggressive adoption of new technologies to give them a differentiation whereas well developed countries are saddled by their existing investments in older technologies and processes that are hard to change.

Such a global collaborative team will bring the best of their core competencies and resources (institutional and individual knowledge, capital, technology labs, human resources etc.) and create a continuous cycle of innovation, transfer and operation taking advantage of globalization at the speed of light.

Is the current Japanese management ready to think global again just as they did in the 80’s and 90’s when Fujitsu, NEC and Hitachi established leadership in telecommunications infrastructure and supercomputing.  In the past, they imported technology, added value to it and exported it.  They also started innovation with their first Broadband switch.  In the future, globalization at the speed of light will demand real-time information systems and mandate emphasis on collaboration with equal participation to bring the best of breed global teams and share the benefits.  The response involves rethinking current concepts of transfer price, involving global infrastructure providers, global service creators, global service providers and global service users and creating globally networked teams collaborating at the speed of light.  It means current large corporations rethinking their current strategies to reduce IT complexity by eliminating layers of management systems, and human latency involved.  It means redesigning systems to eliminate current  product strategies that force labor intensive services on their customers to generate recurring revenues.  It means global collaboration with equal pay for equal work independent of physical location, national boundary or cultural difference.  It means blending the best of individualism and the best of collectivism and instituting new global processes with transparency to guard against the frailty of the individual harming the group or preventing the monopoly of one group at the expense of other groups.

 References Used:

[1] Frans de Wall, “The Ape and the Sushi Master: Cultural Reflections of a Primatologist”, Basic Books, 2001, p 23

[2] Yamaguchi Masao, “Sumo in the popular culture of contemporary Japan”, The Worlds of Japanese Popular Culture, edited by Dolores P Martinez, Cambridge University Press, 1998, p 19


[4] An excellent discussion of lack of transparency and resulting issues with sumo is presented by  Mark D. West, “ Law in Everyday in Japan: sex, sumo, suicides and statutes”, University of Chicago Press, 2005, p57
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