Made in China, Made in Japan

You often hear the phrase “that cheap Chinese junk” meaning that products made in China can’t possibly be of anywhere near the quality of products manufactured in the United States, Europe, or Japan.  Wait… Japan?

How is it that Japan made the list of countries that ostensibly produce high-quality goods?  In the 1950s and the 1960s it was known as the “junkman of Asia”, a place where cheap labor produced vast amounts of cheap goods.  And, by all accounts, those goods were indeed faulty.  So faulty that there are people alive today who refuse to believe that anything marked “made in Japan” can possibly be a quality product.

But in the 1960s and the 1970s, a well-educated middle class of artisans and engineers started producing goods that were superior (and still less expensive) than their European and American counterparts.  So much so, in fact that European and American governments began complaining of trade deficits with the (erstwhile) “junkman of Asia”.  But no matter how much they complained, their populations would not (and still have not) stopped buying Japanese products.

There are many theories about how the Japanese created a high-quality manufacturing sector from less than nothing.  Some say it was simply a case of Japanese management understanding that quality is key to success (a lesson American companies learned during the Second World War but discarded afterwards); others argue that the key to Japanese success lay in a combination of their pioneering steel method production and the 1970s oil embargo which led Americans to opt for more fuel efficient (Japanese) cars; while still others point to Japanese innovations in the camera industry that came to international attention thanks to the Korean War.  I confess my favorite explanation of this phenomenon involves the toy car industry which underscores how the Japanese attention to detail in the toy car industry may have “spilled over” into other (more serious) enterprises.  But no matter how it came about, by the 1980s the label “made in Japan” most definitively did not mean “cheap junk”.

And there is every evidence that something similar is happening to the label “made in China” today.  As with Japan, we hear that made in China is synonymous with cheap junk.  Yes, there are legitimate concerns about product safety.  But by and large, the same things that were once said about Japan and the Japanese in the 1950s are said about China and Chinese today.  So it should not come as much of a surprise when we hear that the Japanese consumer electronics companies like Sony that have dominated the markets throughout my lifetime are being overtaken by Chinese competitors like TCL. Why?  Because these upstart Chinese companies make better quality products.  (This is true; we have a TCL TV and I am a little in love with it.)  And the TV is hardly the only quality Chinese product we own.

I bet you own quite a few quality Chinese products yourself.  And yes, you (like me) probably have some junky ones too.  And yes, product safety is still an issue.  But there is evidence that Chinese manufacturing is improving.  And I predict that in not too distant future China will join Japan in the pantheon of countries from which we expect quality goods.

Of course there will always be people who will refuse to accept that anything made in China can be quality.  But.. what can you do?



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