Japan is undergoing many cultural, business and political changes simultaneously.  For a nation that once was touted as would be No.1 in national GDP, it must be very painful to see China surpassing it and getting the World’s attention.  This blog observes that the emerging theories of organizational DNA that purport to relate a company’s leadership, strategy, culture and structure to its business success might throw some light on the current Japanese business plight.  For example, disruptive innovation is currently playing a big role in reshaping the market place by Apple and Intel in mobile and cloud computing.  Once very successful, in borrowing and copying innovation, can Japan compete with China and India in the future?  Should the Japanese companies alter their DNA to change the game in the future? Can they leverage their still preserved technical organizations, R&D Labs and investment capital? After all, even if Japan is No.3, their GDP per capita still is about 10 times that of China or India.  Here are some thoughts based on my observations over past two decades.

(日本は今、文化面、経済面、そして政治面でも多くの変化に直面している。日本 は、かつてはGDP世界第一位になろうかと賞賛されもしたが、今やGDPでも中国が 日本を凌駕し、世界を席巻しつつある状況を、痛みを伴いながらも指を咥えて見 ていなければならなくなっている。

本ブログでは、ビジネスの成功と関わりが深い企業のDNA(企業におけるリーダ シップ、戦略、文化さらには構造)について考察し、日本が現在置かれたビジネ ス面での苦境を紐解く新たな理論について示していきたい。 一例を挙げると、モバイルやクラウドコンピューティングにおいて、Apple や Intelが新たな市場形態を作り出したように、今日では破壊的イノベーションが 大きな意味合いを持つようになってきている。 かつてイノベーションを模倣することで大成功を収めたように、今回も日本は、中国やインドとも競い合えるのではないだろうか? また、日本企業が自らのDNAを変革することで、近い将来、Appleのように競争形態を変化させていけるのではないだろうか?さらには、日本企業は技術指向の組織構造をこれまで維持してきたが、Intelのようにもっと積極的に研究所や投資資本を活用していけるのではないだろうか?結局のところ、日本は例え世界第三位に甘んじていても、国民一人当たりのGDPでは依然として中国やインドの10倍近くも維持しているのである。本ブログでは、日本を過去20年以上見てきた経験に基づいて、幾つかの私の考えをまとめていく)

Kabuki Theater

The famous historic theater, Tokyo Kabuki-Za which opened in 1889, closed its curtains in the end of April 2010.  It will be torn down and become a theater and office complex with direct connections to the subway station.  According to Encyclopedia Britannica, Kabuki is a “Popular Japanese entertainment that combines music, dance, and mime in highly stylized performances. The word is written using three Japanese characters — ka (“song”), bu (“dance”), and ki (“skill”). Kabuki dates from the end of the 16th century, when it developed from the nobility’s ‘no’ theatre and became the theatre of townspeople. In its early years it had a licentious reputation, its actors often being prostitutes; women and young boys were consequently forbidden to perform, and kabuki is today performed by an adult all-male cast. Its texts, unlike no texts, are easily understood by its audience. The lyrical but fast-moving and acrobatic plays, noted for their spectacular staging, elaborate costumes, and striking makeup in place of masks, are vehicles in which the actors demonstrate a wide range of skills. Kabuki employs two musical ensembles, one onstage and the other offstage. It shares much of its repertoire with Bunraku, a traditional puppet theatre.”

A. C. Scott [1] writes that the Japanese and Chinese classical dramas have many points in common, yet differ widely from each other.  “The Kabuki, like the Chinese theater, lays great stress upon the virtuosity of the actor.  He supplies the motive for the whole drama.”  The actor must play to a knowledgeable audience within the constraints of tradition but also must display individual style that takes the symbolism to go beyond imitative repetition.  While the Chinese drama emphasizes on the actors singing, Kabuki actors do not sing at all.  “The Kabuki stage is a complex affair with elaborate settings and effects which have been developed to a high pitch of artistry through the centuries.”

For a nation that is very proud of their centuries old tradition and agrarian cultural roots, the symbolism of the Kabuki-Za transition to a modern office complex is just a portrayal of the many changes that are rapidly descending on their culture, business and political landscape.

According to the World Policy Journal [2], “Japan, once considered an economic superpower and potential contender for global pre-eminence, finds itself slipping down the rankings of leading states. Although still the second largest economy in the world (at the time this article was published), it is absent from most realpolitik discussions about the global redistribution of power that is shaping the new world order, which highlight the emergence of Russia, China, and India. China’s rise in East Asia is now eclipsing the land of the rising sun, but Japan’s slippage is not all due to China’s growth. Japan’s maladies stem from three causes largely of its own making: its loss of a distinctive national identity, its international leadership deficit, and its continuing economic and political travails.”

National GDP

According to an estimate by Japan’s Cabinet Office, Japan’s second-quarter in this fiscal year, unadjusted GDP totaled $1.2883 trillion on a nominal dollar basis, against China’s second-quarter unadjusted GDP of $1.3369 trillion.  In the first six months of 2010, Japan’s GDP before seasonal adjustments totaled $2.5871 trillion, surpassing China’s $2.5325 trillion.  “People have been expecting the Chinese economy to grow at a rapid pace and become physically larger than Japan for many years, so it is not a surprise,” said Robert Feldman, chief economist at Morgan Stanley MUFG Securities in Tokyo. [3]

“The issue is whether this will be a trigger for policy changes in Japan,” he said, and he added that in the short-term, domestic political considerations were paramount as prime minister Naoto Kan struggles with a hung parliament and a potential leadership challenge from his own party.  Given the history, being surpassed by China may be not palatable but Japan still leads China in per Capita GDP by more than a factor of 10!

Table 1 shows both nominal and per capita the GDP [4] in 2009.

Japan’s GDP surpassed that of West Germany in 1968 and became the second biggest in the world, topped only by the United States. This achievement was credited to a national effort that supported the Japanese industries who established leadership in exporting automobiles, telecommunications and consumer electronics. Today, the illustrious Toyota is saddled with quality issues [5].  Fujitsu’s ambition in the 90’s to be number one in Information Technology [6] has proven to be totally elusive.  NEC’s leadership in supercomputing has all but vanished and the company is struggling today to find its niche while selling its various assets globally.  Once considered legendary, Sony’s innovation in consumer electronics has been usurped by Apple.  Nintendo’s attempt to change the game with Wii does not seem to be sustainable.  The Samurai business men (even today, there are no significant Samurai business-women) have proven to be not invincible.  What can Japanese businesses do to prevent further decay even if they cannot completely re-engineer to regain the past successes?  How can they leverage their still preserved technical organizations, R&D Labs and investment capital?  After all, Japan is still no. 3 in GDP and No 2 in Per Capita GDP among the top three GDP leaders!

The answer may lie in revisiting the tradition of renewal practiced by the Japanese at the Ise Jingu [7], ”the most sacred shrine in Japan, with great spiritual and historical significance.  One of the most amazing things about Ise Jingu is that the wooden sanctuaries are rebuilt and rededicated to the enshrined goddesses every 20 years in a process called “shikinen sengu”. This tradition began with the first rebuilding in 690, and is still being practiced. The sixty-first rebuilding was completed in 1993, with the sixty-second scheduled for 2013. Ise Jingu is actually divided into two large shrine compounds, containing over one hundred and twenty smaller shrines in addition to the two major shrines: Naiku (Inner Shrine) and Geku (Outer Shrine). The Inner shrine enshrines the sun goddess Amaterasu Omikami, who is believed to be the ancestor of the Japanese imperial family. For this reason, the Emperor visits this shrine when he assumes office, and on other important occasions. It is said to have been erected roughly 2000 years ago, and its location was chosen by the 11th Emperor of Japan, Suinin. The Outer Shrine enshrines Toyouke no Omikami, the goddess of harvest, and was erected in 478 A.D. It is customary to visit the Outer Shrine first, but if you don’t have much time on your hands a visit to the Inner Shrine is recommended.  The entrance to the Inner Shrine begins at the Uji Bridge, which passes over the sacred Isuzu River. There are two large torii gates at either end of the bridge, and it is said that by crossing the bridge one’s mind and heart are purified.  The Uji Bridge is also rebuilt in this ceremony.  What strikes visitors to Ise Jingu the most after passing through the gates is the sense of nature and life around them. The grounds are comprised of 5500 hectares of natural forest as well as young hinoki (cypress) trees, which were planted in 1926 for future harvesting. The trees tower over one passing through the grounds. Along the way to the main building in the Inner Shrine, one can wash their hands and mouth with the water from the Isuzu River at the Mitarashi. This is also done for purifications purposes.”

A Japanese friend of mine says “change or renewal from time to time itself is in the DNA of Japan. We think preservation of old things is important, at the same time, we like new and fresh things as the Ise Jingu demonstrates.  Probably, we have it in our DNA not to stick to the materials much and want to see beyond it.”

Disruptive Innovation and Japanese Business Conundrum

There are now a few theories emerging which identify an organizational DNA [8, 9, and 10] and its impact on business success.  These theories deal with how to identify the DNA and change it to meet the evolving business needs.  While each theory attempts to claim that their model identifies the patterns that have evolutionary advantage, one stands out.

According to the website of DNA Global Network Inc.,  [8] a management consulting firm in the Silicon Valley, a company’s DNA consists of four building blocks – Leadership, Strategy, Structure and Culture.  Leadership has the responsibility to define the strategy and align the structure and culture of the organization to shape the core DNA building blocks.  Evolution it seems, has defined a set of successful patterns for each building block.  Every organization either by choice or happenstance evolves by following a path where they define the core DNA that determines their success or failure.  Leadership’s ability to shape the strategy, culture and structure determines their destiny.  The right alignment of strategy, culture and structure results in creating the value to all stake holders and a sustainable organization.

Various components of the building blocks they discuss in their website are shown in Table 2.  The claim is that certain patterns formed by a combination of these components are more successful than other combinations.

Figure 1 shows my attempt to understand the relationship patterns of the key components in the three building blocks that they claim (on their website) have proven to be successful in today’s business environment:

An organization’s DNA perceived by its customers, R&D experts, Product business units and operational groups can be measured using appropriate surveys to create clear patterns.

If this is the case, using these patterns, we can examine various companies on how close they are to the winning patterns.  Notice that the strategies have to be matched with right culture and structure to gain evolutionary advantage.  For example, a control culture to create disruptive innovation may not be ideal.  On the other hand, a control culture may be just what the doctor ordered for achieving operational excellence.  Similarly, we know that a hierarchical structure works well to achieve operational excellence whereas a matrix style works well in establishing product leadership with cross-functional coordination.

It would be very interesting to analyze individual Japanese company’s DNA and identify its current state.  If we represent each component with a color green if the organization measures high, yellow if it measures medium and red when it measures low, we can depict the DNA of an organization as a pie-chart.

The pie chart on the left shows a low scale on disruptive innovation, medium on cultivation culture and Program and functional matrix characteristics required to harness disruptive innovation.  The pie chart on the right shows a market leader with a well-balanced strategy.  Similar analysis can be performed on various component relationships.

Another way of describing the DNA-print of successful strategies is shown in Figure 3:

Different organizational DNA is required to execute a different strategy and successful companies either develop these organizations within or collaborate with others who have complementary DNA to successfully compete in the market place.  Examples of successful companies with disruptive innovation as part of their core DNA are Apple and Intel.  What would be the patterns for Japanese Companies?  How are they different from other world-class companies?  Given the differences in these patterns, can one company organize itself to create different groups with ideal patterns to deliver on all four strategies?

Twenty years ago, I concluded (in a thesis submitted as JMP-17 student at JAIMS, Japan American Institute of Management Science, Hawaii and Sophia University, Tokyo) that the Japanese companies were good at incorporating innovative technologies that are borrowed from US in hardware but were not so adept in borrowing innovation in software [11 and 12].  With the advent of Chinese and Indian competition in borrowing innovation (both in hardware and software domains which was virtually absent twenty years ago) the pressure is now on to adopt disruptive innovation in both hardware and software to differentiate.  Will Japanese companies step up to this challenge or embrace mediocrity while watching China and India surpass them in borrowing and improving innovation.  The economics of communication, collaboration and commerce at the speed of light levels the playing field in product leadership, operational excellence and customer intimacy, and China and India will no longer be Japan’s customers.  They will be more Japan’s competitors to become number One; After all, there is room at the top for only one number One.  As every one starts to battle in establishing product leadership, operational excellence and customer intimacy using same technologies that get commoditized, only choice open for nations to be number one is to bring disruptive innovation to differentiate.  Time and again, evolution has proven that architectural simplification through disruptive innovation brings orders of magnitude productivity. Life forms survive and thrive by changing their DNA and adopting to external changes.  Will the differentiation in the future come from organizing yourself to excel in disruptive innovation?  What are the limits?

This is the subject of my current research and I would like any one with appropriate insights to participate.  I am interested in listening to what the Japanese business leaders today will say about these observations.  Twenty years ago, I concluded my thesis with these remarks. “The differences in approach from hardware and software are large enough at this time, that it will be difficult to gain the competitive advantage in software as in hardware. The management is well aware of this situation and will be looking in the future to rectify it. For example the new president of Fujitsu Mr. Tadashi Sekizawa (who will start his term in June 1990) has recognized the importance of software and his motto for the future is ‘Sofuto de rieki wo koujou’ (Kogyo Shinbun, 1990).”  However, history has proven that changing at least one company’s culture in Japan was not so easy and the focus of the company still remains on hardware.   The profits from software are still elusive.  May be it is time for Japanese companies to adopt the tradition of the twenty year renewal “shikinen sengu.”  Toki wa ima.


[1] A. C. Scott, “The Kabuki Theater of Japan”, The Dover Edition, Published 1999



[4] 2009 World Economic Outlook Database-October 2010, International Monetary Fund.  Accessed on October 6, 2010. (reproduced from Wikipedia)

[5] Bunraku, Toyota Quality Woes, Japanese Hardware/Software Prowess and Management Lessons

[6] Lyne, Jack. “Fujitsu PC Corp. CEO Akio Hanada: Coming to America . . .And Just about Everywhere Else” 1996,






[12] Current Issues in Japanese Management – A Second Look – “Is Japanese Software Thrust As Powerful As Their Hardware Thrust? Or Does It Really Matter Anymore?”