TOPICS > Nation

Frank Gibney, Jr. Tokyo Correspondent, Time Magazine

August 25, 1997 at 12:00 AM EDT


CHARLES KRAUSE: Joining us now is Frank Gibney, Jr., Tokyo bureau chief for Time Magazine. A veteran foreign correspondent, who’s served throughout Asia, Gibney spent a part of his childhood growing up in Japan. He returned again last year, following in the footsteps of his father, Frank Gibney, Sr., who was also a “Time” Magazine bureau chief in Tokyo. Frank, thank you for joining us.

FRANK GIBNEY, JR., Time Magazine: Thanks for having me, Charles.

CHARLES KRAUSE: How would you compare Japan today to the country you knew growing up there in the 60’s?

FRANK GIBNEY, JR.: When I was a child, but also when I worked in Japan previously, during brief stints in the 1980’s, I found that it was very difficult to become friends with Japanese; that, in fact, through all my years there, I had very few Japanese friends. I could count them on one hand. Now, just in the last year, I have found because so many Japanese have traveled abroad, because there have been–there’s been considerable exposure, not just to the U.S. but to other parts of Asia and the rest of the world, that, in fact, Japanese are much more open now to foreigners than they ever have been before, and in many ways open to themselves, to each other, in ways that they were not.

CHARLES KRAUSE: For example?

FRANK GIBNEY, JR.: For example, now you can have a debate with a Japanese about whether or not there ought to be birth control and what forms of birth control to use. This is a discussion that is actually possible with a Japanese housewife; whereas, just 10 years ago, the housewife might not have been aware if there was a difference between having a Japanese man use a condom, for instance, or have her choice of what sort of birth control she wanted to use. This is now an issue in Japan.

CHARLES KRAUSE: Would a woman, a Japanese woman, have been willing to talk about that with you, with a man, with a westerner, 10 years ago?

FRANK GIBNEY, JR.: I think in a rare case, yes. But more often than not it would have–that question, will you discuss this, or we are doing a story about this, let’s talk, would have brought titters and a general reluctance to even go a minute further in that conversation.

CHARLES KRAUSE: What are the biggest misconceptions which Japanese have about us?

FRANK GIBNEY, JR.: I think if there is a misconception that the Japanese have about Americans, it’s that Americans are unwilling to go beyond the American way to understand how other countries do things. And that has been brought about, I think, mainly because Japanese, in fact, have a real problem, themselves, viewing the rest of the world through any other prism than their own. But, by and large, I think Japanese, in fact, understand Americans better now than Americans understand Japan. Ten years ago, there were misconceptions about our social mores. There were misconceptions about an American teenager’s goals in life. Now, Japanese, by and large, do understand the U.S. and Americans.

CHARLES KRAUSE: What do you think our biggest misconceptions are about them?

FRANK GIBNEY, JR.: Americans’ biggest misconception about Japanese is that–is that it’s an entire country with an agenda and that everybody marches in lock step to that agenda, whether it’s economic domination or in the case of the pre-war era military domination. That’s wrong. It is not a nation that walks in lock step. Perhaps it did. But it certainly does not now. And that’s something that I think Americans need to come to terms with.

CHARLES KRAUSE: Is the old system–the system of sort of this–kind of the major corporations, the government bureaucrats and the politicians–what used to make up Japan, Incorporated, is that changing too? I mean, is that finished now?

FRANK GIBNEY, JR.: It’s not finished by any means. But what has happened in Japan is that the iron triangle, as you–which is what you described–it’s known in Japan as the iron triangle–politicians, bureaucrats, businessmen, all working together for the good of the nation, in fact, for the good of each other and themselves. That relationship doesn’t work anymore because corporate Japan has recognized over the years that in order to be competitive they have to be more global, and they cannot work on a schedule or on an agenda, which is determined by bureaucrats or politicians. In fact, they can’t work by–they can’t play by Japanese rules.

A company like Toyota, a company like Sony–the leading Japanese companies, in short, have recognized that in order to be part of the world, in order to succeed, that they have to integrate themselves more completely with the rest of the world. And they, in effect, are leading what may amount to a revolution in Japan. The rest of the Japanese economy is in very–is in very shaky condition right now. Japanese companies are saying, look, bureaucrats, politicians, get with the program, we can do it, but the country is not going to prosper unless the entire system is changed.

CHARLES KRAUSE: That, though, implies, does it not, a change in the kind of job security and a lot of the other mainstays of the Japanese society, does it not?

FRANK GIBNEY, JR.: Indeed. And what, of course, no Japanese, even the most far-sighted managers, have come to grips with is that if they want to revitalize the economy that will necessarily mean dislocation. It will mean that, in fact, workers have to be laid off. A company like Toyota likes to crow about the billions of dollars that they have lopped off their bottom line over the last couple of years just by fine tuning their manufacturing process. Well, that kind of innovation only goes so far. At some point Toyota is going to have to say–and I’m using Toyota as an example here–but Toyota and all Japanese companies will have to say, look, we have 1500 extra workers who we’re paying to do nothing at this plant; let’s get rid of them, or they’re not going to be competitive.

CHARLES KRAUSE: Do people realize, recognize that this may be on the way?

FRANK GIBNEY, JR.: Oh, yes. The–one of the things that really struck me when I got back to Japan last year was that all over the newspapers, on television, and, indeed, on the streets there was debate over what Japan’s future would be. How will Japan compete as the globalization boom takes over? Well, the answer to that is that individuals in Japan will put their heads–put their noses to the grindstone and make way for themselves; that the old–the corporate, the Japan, Inc. that used to work doesn’t anymore. And people recognize that.

CHARLES KRAUSE: Great. Well, I want to thank you very much for joining us

FRANK GIBNEY, JR.: Thanks for having me.

CHARLES KRAUSE: Thank you, Frank.