Recently I watched a few feature-length movies about automotive plants America. The first one is Gung Ho, a fictional comedy from 1986 featuring Michael Keaton. The movie shows a Japanese car maker purchasing a closed-down plant in the USA, and lots of cultural clashes that threaten to close down the plant again. While not Academy Award-worthy, it offers insights into the cultural differences between Japanese and US Industry, although often exaggerated on both sides for comical effect.
Gung Ho is a 1996 comedy film by Paramount Pictures. The automotive plant in a fictitious town – Hadleyville, Pennsylvania – closed, and the foreman, Hunt Stephenson (played by Michael Keaton), flies to Japan to convince the fictitious Japanese automotive company, Assan Motors, to take over the plant. There he meets his (future) boss, Takahara “Kaz” Kazihiro, played by Gedde Watanabe.
Cultural clashes threaten to close the plant again, but eventually the two sides prevail and the plant and the economy of the town are saved. They used the Fiat plant in Córdoba, Argentina, for the scenes inside the plant, producing Fiat Regata vehicles. Spoiler Alert!
As it is a comedy movie, the cultural stereotypes are wildly exaggerated. The Americans talk like a waterfall with exaggerated slang and crude jokes, whereas the Japanese often don’t say anything. The “boot camp for failed managers” in Japan at the beginning of the film is also something that I do not expect to see in reality.
Nevertheless, it does contain some truths. Toyota Motors even used this film as a training video for their employees who were sent to America – as an example on what NOT to do. For example, Japanese work does indeed often begin with calisthenics, which is a hard sell to the American worker. Overall, three contrasts stuck out to me:
The Individual vs. the Collective
Japan as a society puts a much higher focus on the group than the individual. In America, it is often said that “everybody is special.” In the movie, the Japaneses often complain to Hunt that “Everybody thinks they are special, nobody wants to be part of a team, they are too busy getting personalized license plates.”
Priority of Work vs. Family
Another recurring aspect is the priority of family over work in the USA, and reverse in Japan. When Hunt (Keaton) asks his Japanese boss how his family likes America, he responds, “I did not ask,” playing on the lack of communication and interaction between spouses in Japan. Similarly, when the Japanese wife asks her husband to help her to assemble a bicycle for their son’s birthday, he is busy with work. She laments, “Why do American fathers have time?” to which he replies, “Because their work sucks.” On another occasion, the Japanese manager complains that “American workers come in five minutes late, leave two minutes early, stay home when sick, and put themselves above the company.” Only toward the end do the Japanese realize that they “work too damn hard. This is not our lives. This is a factory. Our friends, our families should be our lives. We all kill ourselves!”
Quantity vs. Quality
Probably the biggest thing is the Japanese focus on quality. The Japanese manager states clearly, “In Japan, goal is 0% defects!” to which Hunt snaps back, “How did you slip by?” When the tire falls off a scale model of the produced vehicle, all the Japanese say, “American car,” and laugh.
Probably the most striking example is when Hunt invites his Japanese colleagues to a softball contest, stating, “We play for beer. Afterward, we piss for distance,” to which the Japanese reply, “We piss for accuracy.” Having never been part of a pissing contest in Japan … or America … or Europe, come to think of it … I cannot verify these objectives. But I do like the colorful comparison.
Hunt and his boss make a deal: If they produce 15,000 cars this month, and hence more than any Japanese plant, they get a raise and the plant stays open. This leads to a dramatic showdown, with a race to complete the target quantity. Here, the film becomes unrealistic, with the Americans slapping the cars together, quality be damned. Wheels are bolted on with a single screw, cars are produced without engines, windshields break, and when Hunt tries to drive off, the car simply falls apart after five meters. In reality, this would be a disaster. Just finding the errors in a car would probably take longer than assembling it in the first place. Not to mention all the issues you may miss. Nevertheless, for the sake of a happy ending, the visiting Japanese CEO accepts these as good cars, they make the 15,000, everybody gets a raise, and the plant stays open.
The movie even started a short-lived TV sitcom, also named Gung Ho, with nine episodes. Most of the Japanese actors continued with the series, but Michael Keaton was replaced by Scott Bakula. The TV series covered industrial conflicts like flashes with rule books, theft, computerization, and women at work, but also romantic problems (for example, infidelity). Below is the intro for the TV show, which is about as 80s as it can get – music, hairstyles, clothes, exaggerated emotions … it has it all.
Not a brilliant movie, but an entertaining way to understand more of such culture clashes. Be aware, however, that a lot of cultural differences are exaggerated, and it also includes a lot of fremdschämen (the German word for second-hand embarrassment). However, it is one of the few shows that use realistic automotive assembly processes, since it was filmed in a real Ford Automotive plant in Argentina. Additional scenes were filmed in Pittsburgh and Tokyo.
Unfortunately, I could not find it streaming anywhere, but the DVD seems to be still available. If you want some light entertainment that you can also call work, then this film may be the right thing for you. Next week I will look at a very similar cultural clash, but then it is all real: the documentary American Factory. Now, go out, bridge the cultural barriers, and organize your industry!