Japan: Toyota's Just-In-Time System and the Akihabara Killings (Part 1)

(Note: the translation in this post was a collaborative effort by blogger and translator nofrills, blogger and GV author Taku Nakajima, user Saifis, and GV editor Chris Salzberg.)

(See also Part 2.)

When Tomohiro Kato killed 7 people and injured many more in Tokyo's Akihabara district last month, the details of his life became the talk not only of the mainstream media world, but also of the blogging world. Within Japan, the murder sparked a large number of conversations on the country's temp worker industry, as Kato himself had worked at an automobile factory of Kanto Auto Works (関東自動車) under Toyota, contracted through temp agency Nikken Sogyo Co. [ja] (日研総業).

While many bloggers discussed the temp worker connection, no single blog entry attracted as much attention as did a post by blogger boiledema, published two days after the incident and bookmarked on Hatena by a staggering 1366 users [ja]. The blogger himself was taken aback by the sudden surge of attention [ja], never having experienced in the past anything more than a few bookmarks or comments at his blog.

In the June 10th blog entry, boiledema presented a very personal perspective on the connection between Kato's working life and the inventory strategy employed at the Toyota Motor Corporation known as Just-In-Time (or in Japanese, “Kanban Hoshiki”/カンバン方式). (See also this video.) These views resonated so strongly with readers of the blog that comments immediately began appearing suggesting that the entry itself be translated, to let the outside world know more about the situation of temp workers in Japan.

In the first comment on the entry, for example, user guldeen wrote:



I mentioned this as well in my note on the Hatena bookmarks page [for this post], but this seems like an entry that should really be translated and distributed in English.

As you probably know, Japanese cars enjoy a certain level of confidence overseas, but there would be no stopping the criticism if people overseas saw the conditions of Japanese factory workers who make (or are forced to make?) these cars.

In the notes to the Hatena bookmarks page for the blog entry, there were many similar comments [ja]. guldeen's bookmark comment hit a chord with other readers, scoring 100 Hatena stars. In the comment, guldeen tagged the post with the words (among others) “amazingly insightful” (すばらしい洞察), explaining that:


I'm not being ironic with this last tag. Nobody in the world, let alone Japan, knows anything about these conditions today [that bioledema writes about] in Toyota and in the rest of the Japanese automobile industry. This entry should definitely be translated and sent out in English to “light a fire” overseas.

User popolonlon3965 got 35 stars for this comment:


There were several things [in this post] that I had never heard about through news reports. Now I get it. / This is the stuff that the mass media should be delving into. Who cares about whether he [Kato] liked anime or whatever anyway.

This comment by user poppo-x got 21 stars:


From my perspective as someone coming from Mikawa, I can say that this inhumain treatment of workers at Toyota is no different from the way things were almost 30 years ago. Among my former classmates, there are many whose fathers worked at Toyota or at a company of the Toyota Group, and that's how I heard about these things.

Many other comments mentioned the importance of translating boiledema's entry. m_yanagisawa for example got 7 stars with this comment:


A rare thing, the comment thread is actually functioning as it is supposed to. With this many bookmarks, there must be one or two foreign correspondents out there with Japanese ability who will read it.

Due to to the length of the original post, we are presenting the translation in two parts. In this first part, boiledema describes his personal connection to Toyota, through his father's factory work:

Toyota's Kanban System, Applied to Humans (Part 1)
(Japanese title: 人間までカンバン方式)


The factory where the culprit of the Akiba incident worked is the same place where my father has worked for decades as a regular employee, so I'll try and share what I know.



Kanto Auto Works, Ltd. is an affiliate company of Toyota, contracted for the production line of Toyota vehicles, and not on a subcontract. Some reports said it was an “auto parts factory”, which is not correct.
Toyota-brand cars are pressed, assembled, and painted [at this factory of Kanto Auto Works].
This company could as such be considered a part of Toyota [Motor Corporation].

The blogger then quotes from a Mainichi article [original article is no longer available online]:



Kato was on the auto paint line at the factory. He worked five days a week, from Monday to Friday, alternating every week between day and night shifts. He was a hard worker there, and took no time off other than for legal holidays. He received an hourly wage of 1,300 yen; that is about 200,000 yen per month [approx. 2,000 USD]. His contract was to end on March 31st of this year, but it was renewed for one more year.

The company has planned to cut the temporary workforce from 200 to 50. But it is believed that Kato was told by the temp staff agency that his place was safe.

boiledema then continues:


This is not quite the same as what my father told me on the phone.


Apparently regular staff thought all the temp staff would be laid-off at the end of June this year. [This is what my father told me.]


[There also were so-called “term-employees”, or workers contracted for a set period of time, at the factory.] According to my father, Kanto Auto was going to lay them off as well, by not renewing their contracts.
That is, in the end, there would be only regular [full-time] employees: everyone else [all the temp workers and term-employees] would be laid off.


The reason [for this cut in the workforce] is the soaring cost of materials, resulting from a global rise in the price of crude oil. To make matters worse, domestic demand is not growing, while overseas demand is strong. So, the motor giant has been moving production bases to other countries where labor costs are low.



Well, what can I say? This is the way that Toyota does things. They are famous for their effective management policies — their “Just-In-Time system” [or in Japanese, “Kanban” system]. Rather than stockpiling a large number of parts, they just place an order to subcontractors for the parts they need at the moment.

What they have done here, though, is nothing other than to [apply the] Kanban system to human beings.


They strike down the wages of laborers, and as a result, the domestic market shrinks, leaving young workers with less wages. Then they move their plants to other countries where the market is strong.


On top of this, the Higashi-Fuji factory is extremely spread out, and sparsely staffed. My father says that [in the factory] “you are 100 meters apart from a person on the line next to you.” Everybody knows he always exaggerates, but he is probably not far off here — perhaps several dozen meters apart.
Unless you consciously try to talk to your co-workers at lunch or break time, or when entering or leaving the factory, there is otherwise apparently no small talk [at this factory].


Temp workers come and go so frequently that hardly anybody knows who you are. My father says he doesn't know anything about them because they're temp workers. It's completely outrageous.


There was a report that [a few days] before the crime, Kato went into a rage when his work clothes went missing from his locker — he assumed that he'd been laid off. If you just read the report [in the newspaper], you'd think this was ridiculous, to think that you were going to get fired for something as trifling as that.


But [there was a reason why he took it so seriously]: there was very little communication at his workplace, so he had become oversensitive to every little thing.
On top of this, there was a conflict between what the temp agency was saying and what they were told at the factory. Although the temp agency said that he was not going to be fired, I wonder if the company saw this as a way of getting him to work up until the day they wanted [to fire him].


If you tell a person that they're going to be laid off, then they just slack off or lose their drive, and as a result they are less productive.
[Temp employees] work at a place only for a couple of months, so commitment to their work and loyalty to the company where they are working [in this case, Kanto Auto and Toyota] is, in general, very weak.
My father told me one example: once there was a serious problem at the factory after a temp worker, instead of screwing in four bolts as you are supposed to, found it bothersome and so only screwed in two instead; the [product] was shipped this way, and it caused a huge uproar.


Also, even when a [temp worker's] contract is extended for a short time, the fact remains that, as a policy of management, the contract is ultimately heading for termination. This just means [the worker] is forced to work more time doing work that is not motivating to them, and that in itself is aggravating.


If Kato's workwear went missing from his locker in these circumstances, then I personally think he might well have taken it very seriously. He thought the factory management was telling him that he was no longer needed in a way that was extremely dehumanizing and malicious.


And besides that, are the temp agency Nikken and Kanto Auto Works telling the mass media the truth [about not planning to firing Kato]? Isn't it possible that they had determined that Kato would be fired, and are just lying to save face?


Even so, there is no justification for indiscriminately murdering people. It is a totally unforgivable act.


And yet, I am so appalled at the inhumane treatment of temp workers by the corporation.


I read a news story, and what others thought of it on Hatena Bookmarks [Japanese bookmarking service]. One user commented: “There is absolutely nobody else but him. It's a completely a monologue. He is the only actor on stage, and it's really scary.”
[This may be true,] but the environment within which he found himself in is a system where there is no communication with other people.
Brought to an unfamiliar place, treated by regular employees as though you were non-existent, as though you were nothing more than a car component, you are robbed of your future life. [You think to yourself:] I am not just some stupid bolt!
There may have been some communication between fellow temp workers. I don't know how much, though the press has shown there was some, to a certain extent at least. But it was quite weak, it seems.


Aimlessly doing work that is not motivating, no communication with other people, frightened about his own future.
In a life lived entirely in isolation, without any feedback, [the image of] one's own self becomes bloated. [There is nothing but “me”.]


He seems to have had a sense of inferiority because he didn't have a girlfriend. The “girlfriend” was, for Kato, a symbol of recognition, wasn't it? Of course, there's a general attitude in Japan that it's normal that you have a boy/girlfriend, and it's abnormal if you don't. Also as a young man he had quite a bit of sexual desire, I suppose. But wasn't there any possible substitute for that? [Wasn't there anybody he could go to,] friends, father, mother, or a boss that he could depend on? Even a cat. At least, that would have steered him away from the path that he chose.



Many people say that it would have been better that he had just killed himself, without involving other [innocent] people. Well, the city he lived in, Susono of Shizuoka, is near to the Mount Fuji's black forest [widely known as a popular place for committing suicide]. But even if he had gone by himself into the forest, instead of to Akihabara [Tokyo], nobody would have gone looking for him.

The temp agency as well as his co-workers would most likely have thought that he had just run away, and regular employees would not even have noticed that he was gone.


I felt a shiver run through my whole body when I realized this.


This is an isolation so total that it makes you shudder [from fear].


A person who is not regarded as a human will not see others as human, either. In the background to violence, there is a negative spiral created by an isolation so complete it is chilling.


I am repeating, but again this is not to say that this is an excuse for murdering innocent people.

(The remainder of boiledema's post will be translated in Part 2.)

Saifis, nofrills, and Taku Nakajima contributed to the above translation. The author (Chris Salzberg) however takes full responsibility for the contents of this article.


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