A Japanese Philosophy for the Quiet Generation
One man who devoted his life to solving this puzzle was Kazuo Inamori, one of the giants of post-war Japanese industry, who died last month at the age of 90. He founded electronics maker Kyocera Corp. and what would later become KDDI Corp. The 48th and fifth largest companies in Japan by market value – and was completely obsessed with improving management, boosting engagement and worker happiness.
For Inamori, working was living. For quiet quitters looking to spend more time on hobbies, he cautioned that such pleasure is fleeting.
“The thing humans really enjoy is in work,” wrote Inamori, who was also an ordained Buddhist monk. “You might find temporary pleasure in neglecting your work and enjoying your hobbies or having fun, but it won’t be the type of pleasure that wells up from the bottom of your heart. There is no greater pleasure in life than that which comes from working hard and earnestly, overcoming difficulties and suffering and building something.
In his later years, he spent much of his time sharing what he learned. In addition to his considerable business achievements, including taking the state monopoly of Nippon Telegraph & Telephone Corp. to build Japan’s second-largest mobile phone operator, he became known for his management credo. Kyocera’s website lists 46 books he has authored or co-authored, mostly on the subject of management or philosophy. Thousands of students flocked to his school of management Seiwajyuku, from the founder of SoftBank Group Corp. Masayoshi Son to Hakuho, the most decorated sumo wrestler in history.
What binds them is the commitment to success that Inamori demanded. He was famous for calling on workers to produce “not the best, but perfection”.
For Gen Z silent quitters, it can feel like the turmoil culture they’re trying to escape from. But Inamori’s difference is that he was not a slaver: he understood the importance of having both management and employees on the same team. “If you want eggs,” he said in a 2015 interview with Bloomberg, “take care of the chicken.”
Inamori was perhaps most famous for this promotion of “amoeba management,” which sought to enthuse workers by letting them operate as independently as possible. For him, it all came down to involving workers.
While “employee engagement” probably wasn’t a phrase when Inamori was creating Kyocera in the 1950s, he understood the paramount need to have worker buy-in. He promoted radical transparency of company results with workers and initially wanted to make Kyocera something closer to a legal or accounting partnership, where workers would also be co-owners.
With a Gallup survey showing that disengaged or silent workers may make up half of the American workforce, a trend amplified among young Millennials and Gen Z workers who complain of a lack of support, development and opportunities for growth, some of Inamori’s writings now read like a prescient warning.
“Management should not seek to satisfy only its own desires,” Inamori said. “They have to think about the happiness of each employee.”
In Western profit-driven, shareholder-driven corporations, the pact between management and workers has long since broken down. Compensation for CEOs has risen 1,300% since 1978 and is now 351 times that of a typical worker, according to the Economic Policy Institute. Disengagement seems a natural consequence.
Inamori promoted seeing workers as more than replaceable tools that can be tempted by beanbags and baristas in the workplace, then discarded when they have lost their usefulness. Management must work as hard as employees, if not harder, he said, and the CEO must work harder than anyone. Management must be in the trenches, just as it often was, sleeping on the factory floor.
For Inamori, it was more than lip service. He fought to protect jobs, resisting Kyocera’s restructuring when it was hit by falling demand triggered by the oil crisis in the 1970s. Instead, he put employees to work to trim weeds and clean mud from ditches on the factory grounds.
He also insisted that shareholders should not have priority over workers. Yet Inamori is committed to slashing costs and prioritizing profit. No wonder he was tapped to lead the turnaround of Japan Airlines Co. when it went through bankruptcy proceedings, cut costs and yes, jobs and relisted the struggling airline in record time in 2012.
As the West shifts from a slavish devotion to shareholders towards a more inclusive corporate philosophy, Inamori could in time be seen as one of the earliest advocates of stakeholder capitalism – a philosophy deeply rooted in the Japanese corporate culture. It is also the one that is making an attempt to come back with Prime Minister Fumio Kishida’s “new capitalism” policy.
And while Inamori hasn’t actively put shareholders first, they may have few complaints: KDDI more than doubled its net profit over the past decade to $4.7 billion last year, while doubling its profit margin and dividend payout rate – even as a mobile operator. the industry and its big profits became the object of political anger. Kyocera may no longer be a household name, but has never recorded a loss in over 60 years of history.
Perhaps in a time of rising cost of living, this is one reason silent (and not-so-silent) dropouts should carry one final piece of advice. “Instead of looking for the job you love,” Inamori said, “love the job given to you.”
More from Bloomberg Opinion:
• Some employees cannot afford to “resign quietly”: Kami Rieck
• A mysteriously important part of Gen Z doesn’t work: Justin Fox
• What a Netflix hit reveals about risk-taking in Japan: Gearoid Reidy
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the Editorial Board or of Bloomberg LP and its owners.
Gearoid Reidy is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering Japan and the Koreas. He previously led the breaking news team in North Asia and was the deputy chief of the Tokyo bureau.
More stories like this are available at bloomberg.com/opinion