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Small Firms in the Japanese Economy

Author(s):Whittaker, D. H.
Reviewer(s):Blackford, Mansel G.


Published by H-BUSINESS (July 1997)

D. H. Whittaker, Small firms in the Japanese Economy. Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press, 1997. xii + 238 pp. ISBN: 0-521-58152-4

Reviewed for EH.Net by Mansel G. Blackford, Department of History, The Ohio State University. (

This densely packed volume is a very valuable contribution to our growing, but still limited, knowledge of small manufacturing firms in Japan. Whittaker examines the historical evolution and recent operations of small manufacturers in the Ota Ward of Tokyo, one of Japan’s leading industrial districts. Throughout his account Whittaker compares the companies of Ota Ward to the development of small manufacturers elsewhere in Japan; and in his penultimate chapter Whittaker, a Lecturer in Japanese Studies and Senior Tutor at the University of Cambridge, offers a revealing comparison of what has taken place in the Ota Ward to the development of small manufacturers in Birmingham, the United Kingdom.

In his first three chapters Whittaker presents a broad overview of how Japanese policymakers have looked upon small manufacturers, the formation of industrial districts in Japan, and the historical contribution of small industrial firms to Japan’s economic ascent. Whittaker succinctly relates the development of small industrial firms from the time of the Meiji Restoration of 1868 into the post-World-War-II period, carefully delineating fluctuations in that development to the growth of larger manufacturing firms. His balanced account calls into question facile assumptions sometimes made about the development of a dual economy in Japan. Small industrialists, Whittaker observes, have remained very important in recent decades. The world of small and medium-sized firms or SMEs (those employing no more than 300 workers), he asserts, is “every bit as representative of modern Japan as that of large firms” (p. 3). SMEs, Whittaker points out, accounted for just under three-quarters of Japan’s manufacturing employment and over half of its industrial output in 1993. Nor are most SMEs simply subcontractors for larger firms; in fact, over 40 percent do not subcontract at all. Instead, most SMEs have been, and remain, Whittaker shows, independent enterprises horizontally linked in industrial districts (Whittaker looks especially at the historical evolution of such districts in Gunma and Nagano Prefectures). Even so, governmental officials, Whittaker notes, long denigrated SMEs as archaic holdovers from feudal times, only very recently coming to see them as possible engines of economic growth.

Following his overview, Whittaker turns to a close examination of small firms (those with fewer than seventy employees, and usually with no more than twenty) and medium-sized companies (those with seventy to eighty employees) in machine industries (metal products, machinery making and equipment, transportation equipment, electrical machinery, and precision equipment) in Tokyo’s Ota Ward. Whittaker derived information about the firms from a wide variety of surveys, reports, articles, and his own interviews with the owners and workers in twenty of the businesses (he conducted the interviews between 1989 and 1995, visiting most of the businesses at least twice, once at the height of Japan’s “bubble” boom and once during the recession following its collapse). What emerges is a compelling picture of small manufacturing companies in present-day Japan and, in addition, useful insights into fundamental changes occurring in Japan’s economy. Whittaker takes a topical approach to his subject, devoting separate chapters to discrete issues.

Chapter 4 surveys the industrial development of Ota Ward, an area of fifty-four square kilometers in which 40,000 businesses employed 350,000 people in the early 1990s. From modest beginnings in the Meiji era, Ota Ward became one of Japan’s leading industrial districts during the interwar years and then especially after World War II. As large firms moved out of the ward in search of more land and workers in the 1970s and 1980s, small firms became even more important than they had earlier been. The number of factories in the ward peaked at 9,190 in 1983, declining to 7,160 a decade later. Most of these were small: only one-tenth had more than twenty employees in 1990, down from one-third thirty years earlier. Despite recent problems (dealt with in a later chapter), Ota Ward remains, Whittaker concludes, a viable entity: “The combination of flexibility and specialization within individual firms (as well as across firms) has in turn endowed the district with a flexibility, durability, and adaptability, as well as an upgrading dynamic” (p. 74).

Chapters 5 and 6 look at ties linking Ota Ward’s small industrialists with larger manufacturers in vertical subcontracting arrangements and, even more importantly, varied horizontal webs connecting the ward’s small companies to each other. Subcontracting, Whittaker shows, entails more than the exploitation of small firms by large ones. To be sure, elements of exploitation exist, but in many cases “the line between cooperation and coercion may be a fine one” (p. 90). Becoming increasing significant in the 1990s are horizontal ties–often very informal connections–of all sorts between Ota Ward’s small industrialists, creating some sense of community among them. One of the great strengths of this book is how Whittaker carefully explores those ties, a major contribution to an understanding of how work flows from firm to firm in industrial districts. Chapters 5 and 6 will be of special value for scholars interested in the dynamics of industrial district development. Upon reading them, I was struck by some similarities to the development of industrial districts in the United States, as described by Philip Scranton.

Chapters 7 and 8, by contrast, peer inside the small industrial firms to understand their internal dynamics. Whittaker is able to uncover the motivations of the founders of the small manufacturing firms, finding “a type of individualism at odds with the normal groupist image of Japanese society and industry” and a type of entrepreneurship that “is not of a swashbuckling, high-risk-high-return nature” but, is, rather, “craft or productionist” oriented (p. 127). Here, I was reminded very much of James Soltow’s findings about machinery makers and metal workers in New England. Innovative and skilled, the founders of Ota’s small industrial firms and their workers–many of whom went on to start their own firms–are, Whittaker finds, a dying breed. As these founders retire, few members of the current generation are taking over the helms of the small manufacturers. Disliking the long hours and hard work, the sons and daughters are turning to other pursuits, (as are the offspring of employees in the firms for similar reasons), leading to more small business closures than start-ups, and bringing into question the future of small industrial firms in Ota Ward and elsewhere in Japan.

In Chapter 9 Whittaker discusses the impacts of national and regional governmental policies upon Ota’s businesses and the involvement of the businesses in formulating those policies. He concludes that on balance “government support for SMEs is significant,” especially in the realm of financing, but that “the primary reason for the survival and upgrading of small firms in Ota and in Japan has been their own efforts” (p. 165).

Chapter 10 presents a comparative look at the development and present-day activities of small industrial firms in Birmingham. While small businesses in Birmingham and Ota Ward were similar in some ways, they shared different fates, with Birmingham’s “fall being spectacular” (p. 182). Misguided government policies, an unwillingness of workers to change their ways, mergers creating inefficient big businesses, and excessive competition among small firms are the salient factors cited by Whittaker for Birmingham’s industrial decline.

In Chapter 11 Whittaker directly addresses the issue of whether or not small industrial firms can be a prime source of economic revival in present-day Japan. Whittaker is no cheer leader for small business. In a balanced analysis, he concludes that both large and small companies will continue to play important roles in the future: “For better or for worse, large companies and their offspring will remain key players in Japan’s economy in the foreseeable future, even if their contribution to economic growth is muted. Rather than wishing them away, an important question will be what types of relationships can small, entrepreneurial firms forge with them” (p. 212).

Both scholars and policymakers can profit from reading this book. Historians, political scientists, and economists will benefit from this detailed look at the evolution and present-day operations of one of Japan’s leading industrial districts. Whittaker’s account is the most valuable analysis of small business in Japan currently available in English, complementing and going beyond David Friedman’s analysis of Sakaki and providing both more depth and breadth than Penelope Franck’s survey of small business development across the nation. Policymakers will learn a great deal about the effectiveness and lack of effectiveness of the Japanese government’s efforts to nurture small business development. In short, Small firms in the Japanese Economy is a sophisticated account which I hope will find a large audience.

Mansel G. Blackford Department of History The Ohio State University

Mansel Blackford is the author of A History of Small Business in America (New York: Twayne Publishers, 1991); and The Rise of Modern Business in Great Britain, the United States and Japan (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1988, second edition in preparation).


Subject(s):Business History
Geographic Area(s):Asia
Time Period(s):20th Century: WWII and post-WWII