It seems an unlikely source of salvation for this city's run-down, industrial Ota district: a black two-person bobsled about the size of a sofa that sits in a cramped workroom tended by men in blue jumpsuits. Yet, if its creators' dreams come true, it will race in the Winter Olympics next year as proud proof that this area's tiny, family-run manufacturing workshops can build a better bobsled than the world's leading sled makers, a group that includes the likes of Ferrari and BMW.
"The mood has grown so dark in Japanese manufacturing," said Junichi Hosogai, 46, a leader of the group of 32 small-factory owners who joined up last year to create the bobsled for Japan's Olympic team. "Beating Ferrari would be a real boost." By thus setting its sights, Hosogai's group is intentionally making a challenge that echoes Japan's glory days in the 1960s and '70s, when the nation captured global industry after industry through hard work, sticking together and making a determined effort to overtake the front-running companies in the West. But Hosogai and his small band of bob-sled builders say this is more than an exercise in nostalgia or morale building.
They say they are trying to rescue a tradition of industrial craftsmanship that once made blue-collar Ota a centre for the high-quality manufacturing that propelled Japan to economic greatness. During the district's heyday, its densely packed neighbourhoods teemed with about 20,000 tiny workshops, most no larger than a garage, that churned out the finely crafted metal parts that went into the Japanese-made automobiles, ships and electronics that flooded world markets. Today, the local government estimates that fewer than 4,000 of those workshops survive, with their numbers dwindling quickly. Yet, despite these obvious signs of decline, Ota has failed to revive itself because it remains shackled to its past triumphs, Hosogai and others say.
After experiencing almost unimaginable economic success in their youth, the now-aging small-factory owners of Ota have grown too entrenched in their ways to keep up with changes in the global economy. To hear Hosogai and many others here tell it, too many owners have pushed local workshops to collapse by trying to compete with mass-production countries like China and South Korea, which are beating Japan at its old game of under-pricing rivals.
Breaking old habits
Instead, they say, Ota must adopt a new strategy and break into the more customised, high-end manufacturing now dominated by countries like Germany and Italy. These are also the places that build the world's leading bobsleds. A victory against them in the Olympics would be proof that Ota can beat them at other times, too, Hosogai said.
Still, he and his supporters admit that breaking old habits is hard, especially in graying Japan. The biggest change would be for Ota and its small companies to stop relying on big corporations or the government to point the way, and instead learn to innovate on their own. "We have to kick the habit of just mindlessly following big companies," said Koji Okuda, a director at Ota's Industrial Promotion Organisation. "Ota needs to become to manufacturing what Kobe is to beef." To revive the area's industrial fortunes, Hosogai gathered together a group of small-factory owners who, like him, are mostly in their 30s and 40s, with many who inherited businesses from their fathers and grandfathers.
Hosogai proved the natural leader because of his different background: After working an apprentice period at a small factory, he broke away to start his own manufacturing company in 1992, just as Japan's economy collapsed. Despite the difficulties, his company, Material, which makes parts for communication devices, now has 28 employees, making his factory large by Ota's standards.
Many in the group have known harder times. One is Shinichiro Yokota, 43, whose camera parts company went bankrupt two years ago. "We all feel the crisis in Ota's future," said Yokota, who managed to restart his company as a producer of custom-made car parts. Hosogai says he hopes such tenaciousness will help give Ota the drive to build a better bobsled. He also hopes to tap another cultural asset, Japan's perfectionist obsession with quality. In Ota, where manufacturing started a century ago when local fishermen learned how to make metal parts for a now-defunct Imperial Navy shipyard, this tradition is displayed in a still-evident pride in craftsmanship.
Enter one of the district's grimy little workshops, and the owner is sure to demonstrate how he can shape a metal part by hand with more precision than most computerized machine tools. This is overkill in an era of cheap, mass-produced smartphones and digital music players. But last year, Hosogai and his friends set out to find a way to put those skills to better use in revitalizing Ota.
Hosogai chose the Olympics because Tokyo was making a bid to host the Summer Games. His first idea was to make the composite bows for archery, which are now produced in South Korea, but gave up after learning that Japan severely restricted anything that could be used as a weapon.
Then an official in Okuda's office hit on the idea of a bobsled, which needs precision metal parts for its frame that must withstand the stresses of shooting down an iced track at highway-like speeds. The problem was that few in Ota had ever seen a bobsled.
The local government asked a university's sports department to lend it an old German-made bobsled, which members of Hosogai's group then reverse-engineered. Within two weeks, they had made their own parts, which they said were stronger than the German ones because they were shaped from single pieces of steel, instead of welded from separate pieces.
The sled has had a strong start. Last month, it was used by a women's team to place first in national tryouts. The group now plans to build a second sled for men. It eventually hopes to persuade both the men and the women to use Ota's bobsleds in the Winter Games in Sochi, Russia."We need a dramatic breakthrough to convince Ota to be more open-minded and creative," Hosogai said. "A gold medal would do the trick." (Martin Fackler/The New York Times News Service)