Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Japan Global Links

(C) 2002 - NGM
Fifteen years ago, I wrote a short article about Commodore Perry's 1853 mission to Japan, which ended a period of determined isolation under the Shogun rulers, and is eventually credited with the end of the Shogun era. Writing in National Geographic (October 2002), Scott Elder describes the events in Last Stand at Edo Bay. Ben Griffiths also describes the Perry expedition in some detail.

The East Asian Library at UC-Berkley provides online access to its vast collection of Japanese Historic Maps, including an 1853 detail map of the coast that appears to depict this encounter (see below) and several world maps depicting Japanese cartographic understanding of the world at the time. To me, the great accuracy of these maps -- such as one called "Chikyu Bankoku Hozu" -- helps to correct a mis-perception I had about Japan's isolation. The decision to remain isolated was carefully taken by Shoguns who understood far more about the rest of the world than I previously realized. Elder's article explains why Japan's leaders decided to accept the U.S. overture at the time they did.

Scarcely a generation later, a Japanese student actually studied at Bridgewater Normal School, which eventually became BSU, where I now teach. After leaving Bridgewater in 1877, Shuji Isawa went on to become an important leader in Japanese education. He befriended the geographer Alexander Graham Bell and became the first person to speak Japanese through a telephone! In the nearly century and a half since he was here, scores of Japanese nationals have enriched our campus as they completed their undergraduate education here. In recent years, a growing number of Bridgewater students have had the opportunity to study in Japan on short- and long-term programs.

By the late 20th century, of course, connections between the Japan and the United States -- and indeed between Japan and the entire world -- became increasingly intertwined as manufacturing has become almost unbelievably globalized. Thanks to the digital descendants of Mr. Bell's telephone -- among other innovations -- it is now possible for manufacturers to compete not for the sale of products but for control of each step of a  product's manufacture. As reported in Foreign Policy (and hundreds of other outlets in recent weeks), the tragic earthquake of March 11, 2011 has highlighted just how interdependent the world space-economy has become, as Japan now occupies a central position in many global supply chains.

According to a story in USA Today, Ford Motor Company is advising dealers not to order certain vehicles in black. Aside from the ironic contrast to Henry Ford's old saw about Model T color choices, this story is interesting as an example of the extreme complexity of global supply chains. Ever-increasing sophistication in transportation and communication technologies allow for intricately specialized manufacturing with remarkably short lead times. In this case, Ford uses special paint that in turn relies on special pigments -- in a supply chain with minimal inventories and rapid connections that link a customer back to original pigments a half-planet away with lead time of only a few weeks. It allows for a remarkable array of features to be delivered, but with equally remarkable vulnerability to interruption.

As reported by the Financial Times, it seems that the unbridled pursuit of cost-cutting has come at the cost of increased vulnerability to disruptions in ever-longer supply chains. It is common for products to be put together through Just-in-Time systems. The current disruptions in the automotive and electronic sectors that are resulting from the tragedy in Japan are extreme examples of what is becoming quite common across many sectors. Even minor regional disruptions can now have global reach.

For more information about Japan, the earthquake, relief efforts, and BSU responses, see the Japan Earthquake MaxGuide, maintained by our BSU Maxwell Library.

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