The Japanese term kaizen, which just means something like “good change,” has come to signify in global management culture a process of continuous small-scale improvement — an element of the “Japanese business philosophy” so enviously scrutinized during that country’s postwar economic boom. Toyota has done the most to associate themselves with the idea of kaizen-as-continuous-improvement, but it has made its way to countless other businesses, including foreign ones selling completely different products; even the American grocery store Trader Joe’s has worked the word into their internal customer-service lexicon.
But the nature of kaizen comes most clearly into view in the systems of Japanese manufacturing. Japan has long possessed a strong culture of hand-craftsmanship, and, for almost as long, a strong culture of automation as well. You can see both at work in The Making, a series of videos from the Japan Science and Technology Agency’s Science Channel on Youtube. “There are from 2 to 150, and 151 to 309 videos to choose from,” writes Metafilter user aroweofshale, who highlights the episodes on mayonnaise, “the making of steel balls (available in English), the construction and testing of sewing machines, how rice crackers are made, a thermos factory, the recycling of PET bottles, a matcha tea factory and the creation of bamboo whisks.”
These mini-documentaries take in-depth looks at the nuts and bolts (sometimes literally) of production systems that have evolved, small improvement after small improvement, over decades or indeed centuries. You can see in action every stage of these hybrid processes of advanced and highly specialized technology with skilled and sometimes even artisanal human labor, somehow at once elaborate and elegant. This goes for every product featured, no matter how important or trivial it may seem. (I got hooked myself after watching one on chicken-shaped sweets.)
Even non-Japanese-speakers can enjoy all of The Making‘s clear and almost completely visual-driven episodes, but the JST has also made select ones available with English subtitles (see top playlist) in order to tell the world all about what it takes to make what it has come to see as quintessentially Japanese, like urban railroad cars, steel balls (of many uses, including but not limited to pachinko machines), and Hina dolls.
Any American old-timer will tell you that, back in their day — a time when the United States’ former enemy had yet to fully rebuild its economy, let alone to become a technological leader — the “made in Japan” stamp signified a piece of junk. These videos show us, in detail, what it took to refute that notion for good.
Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and style. He’s at work on a book about Los Angeles, A Los Angeles Primer, the video series The City in Cinema, the crowdfunded journalism project Where Is the City of the Future?, and the Los Angeles Review of Books’ Korea Blog. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.