KAWASAKI, Japan (AP) – Yasuhisa Konno is so proud of the fine-tuned skills required to make metal parts at his greasy yet humming shop that he and several like-minded neighborhood factory owners have formed a social club called Republic of Manufacturing.

The club, which meets regularly over beer to trade notes, has one key message: Japan Inc. was built on quality manufacturing delivered by dedicated workers like the club members, and they deserve social respect.

Konno, 40, isn’t alone in fretting about the possible unraveling of mighty manufacturing, long credited with helping modernize this nation to become the world’s second biggest economy.

Although such concerns have been around for some years, the recent spate of recalls at top names in Japanese manufacturing – Sony Corp., Toyota Motor Corp., Canon Inc., to name a few – is serving as an all too painful reminder that the fears are looming ever larger.

The concerns are especially relevant coming amid intensifying competition from nearby China. A rapidly declining birth rate is threatening Japan with a worker shortage that could chip away at its craftsmanship tradition.

Konno is adamant the recent surge in recalls has nothing to do with people like him who’re trying to uphold pride in manufacturing.

“Those recalls aren’t about true Japanese production,” he said.

But even Konno acknowledged his company, which boasts some 200 corporate customers, has serious trouble attracting younger Japanese, who look down on production work as dirty, dangerous and tough.

The number of people employed in manufacturing has gradually dwindled to about 12 million, down 20 percent from about 15 million in 1990, as jobs grew in retail and services, according to the government Statistics Bureau.

The sense of crisis is great.

Tokyo has adopted as its buzzword for a national vision “monozukuri,” which means “making things,” including not only industrial production but also arts and crafts and other activities that involve working with your hands. A declining birth rate is seen as a threat to ensuring an adequate work force for monozukuri as the Boomer generation approaches retirement age.

The government started a monozukuri campaign last year, earmarking funds to dozens of robotics, nanotechnology, genome and other technology projects, to survive global competition.

Many Japanese feel that much of this nation’s economic success was won through workaholic labor-intensive values.

Politicians, intellectuals and educators alike are engaging in hand-wringing about how such qualities are dwindling among younger Japanese, who are growing more like their Western counterparts in job-hopping and seeking dot-com riches.

Workmanship that comes from years of on-the-job experience is getting lost as more youngsters opt for white-collar work, said Seiichi Osawa, an official at the Nagano Prefectural Institute of Technology, a government training program set up especially to produce quality workers in manufacturing.

“What’s important is learning by getting your hands covered with grease,” he said. “But kids these days think everything can be done by just sitting in front of a computer.”

Japanese workers in manufacturing have been aging at a faster pace than white-collar workers, according to a government “white paper” on monozukuri released earlier this year.

In 1990, workers ages 15 to 29 made up 23 percent of the manufacturing work force, but just 17.5 percent in 2005. School graduates who chose jobs in manufacturing were about a third of the total in 1990, but has shrunk to fewer than one-fifth in recent years, according to the white paper.

Eighteen-year-old Chihiro Kawata is typical in looking for a clerical job after odd jobs at fast-food chains and convenience stores. She is considering work in elder care and nursery schools for the future.

“I never thought about it,” she said of a manufacturing job. “My parents recommend I get a basic office job.”

No one is suggesting that respected names in Japanese manufacturing are about to sink into oblivion. But the tales of trouble strike a sharp contrast from the historical success stories of Japanese companies, which depended more on fortitude, self-effacing team work and attention to detail, rather than individualism and innovative breakthroughs.

Among the embarrassing list of Japan’s recent recalls:

• Sony’s massive recall of faulty lithium-ion batteries for laptop computers numbering 9.6 million worldwide, affecting laptops from practically every major maker in the world.

• Toyota has been tarnished by auto recalls in Japan, the U.S. and China. President Katsuaki Watanabe has vowed to beef up quality control by reviewing quality in every stage of development and production.

• Last month, digital camera and copy machine maker Canon said it will inspect and provide free parts replacements for 1.87 million copiers worldwide because some may catch fire.

• Matsushita Electric Industrial Co., which makes Panasonic brand products, has recently recalled 6,000 batteries used in its laptops that may overheat. But the company was plagued last year by a more serious problem of thousands of heaters sold in Japan, suspected in two deaths from carbon monoxide poisoning.

• Mitsubishi Motors Corp. is still struggling to regain public trust after a scandal first surfaced in 2000, in which the manufacturer acknowledged it had systematically hid auto defects for more than 20 years.

Katsuaki Nagaike, professor of business and technology management at Kyushu University, said the recalls highlight the adjustment problems encountered by Japanese companies amid globalization.

Japanese strengths were based on developing core technology in-house over a long period. But the recent price drops in electronics pitted the old-style business model against a cost-cutting commodity model, seen in companies like Dell, he said.

“The recalls are like mistakes in fielding during a baseball game even for a good team,” Nagaike said. “Chinese companies still have a long way to go before they can catch up in design, engineering and technology with Japanese companies.”


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