HAKONE, Japan — Last Saturday, I was the unlikeliest participant at the VeriSilicon Japanese Semiconductor Industry Executive Forum, where VeriSilicon CEO Wayne Dai assembled a team of chip industry veterans, analysts, academics, and journalists (including my wife, Hotlips), to discuss the near-collapse of the semiconductor industry in Japan.
While the guys (and Hotlips) lamented the death of DRAMs in Japan, Toshiba’s defeat by Qualcomm in smartphone chips, and other high-tech esoterica, I kept thinking about sumo.
I know a little about semiconductors. I know a lot about sumo, enough to have written the book on the subject — SUMO: A Thinking Fan’s Guide to Japan’s National Sport (Tuttle, 2010). Like the chip industry, sumo is withering in a country where it was once dominant. In a way, the sumo crisis is of greater import. Semiconductors, after all, will go on being made, somewhere (probably China). But sumo, without Japan and the unique culture that nurtured it for centuries, will disappear, as surely as, elsewhere, the dodo bird and the Playtex living girdle have become extinct.
The insight that came to me at Wayne Dai’s confab in Hakone was that many of the same problems are killing both semiconductor manufacture and sumo wrestling in Japan. Above all, both activities are plagued by a surfeit of foreigners, horning in where the natives once ruled.
echoing some complaints about the semiconductor memory business.
Too much quality?
One of the speakers, Takashi Yunogami of the Fine Process Institute, pointed out that Korea bypassed Japan in production of dynamic random access memory (DRAM) chips years ago, because Japan kept making DRAMs with “excessive technology and excessive quality.”
This assertion raised an outcry from Marco Landi, a VeriSilicon board member and a former executive at Apple and Texas Instruments. Landi found unbelievable the contention that the Japanese DRAM business was “killed by too much quality.” But Yunogami was right. While Japan continued making the best quality chip — a DRAM that might last a decade or more — Korean rival Samsung understood that consumer electronic products like PCs were becoming obsolete and being replaced with new models in five years or less. In a chip market where obsolescence follows swiftly on the heels of Moore’s Law, Japan’s insistence on maximum performance has been the kiss of the spider woman.
Wrestling with similar problems
I’ve been watching the same slow-motion disaster unfold in the venerable sport of sumo — except that a similar Japanese refusal to compromise, by the reactionary geezers of the Japan Sumo Association, has resulted in a catastrophic decline in the quality of the product.
Sumo, nowadays, sucks.
For more than seven years, the champions of Japan’s national sport have not been Japanese. They are Third World refugees from Estonia, Bulgaria, Tonga, Mongolia, and other hungry countries. Promising Japanese athletes nowadays look at the miserable living conditions and primitive training practices in sumo, a regimen of forced obesity and indentured servitude — traditions the Sumo Association has refused to change — and they recoil. Instead, they choose their athletic careers from a cornucopia of sports — rugby, soccer, baseball, cycling, swimming, skating, skiing, gymnastics, basketball, American football, even boxing and professional wrestling. Any sport but sumo.
The protectors of sumo’s feudal traditions still sign up kids to join the sumobeya and strap on the mawashi. But these kids are the bottom of the Japanese barrel. Most recruits are fat-boy junior high school dropouts from the deep inaka (boondocks), uncoordinated slobs who mostly end up not as gladiators battling for the yusho on the great dohyo on Tokyo, but as unpaid flunkies who wait on the grand champions from Mongolia.
Pinned by success
The clear and immediate danger to sumo’s future, of course, is that the standard of living in Mongolia is getting better. As it does, that pipeline will dry up, too.
The Japanese semiconductor industry can recover from its years of stagnation and mismanagement. Japan’s electronics companies retain a wealth of underemployed engineers now languishing in companies with top-heavy management and rigid seniority systems. Japan remains one of the best-educated countries on earth. The raw material of a recovery is here.
Sumo also harbors the seeds of revival. It can modernize without appearing to change at all. It remains one of the most elegant sports in the world, a seriocomic pageant of sights and sounds, silk and sand, costume drama, and sudden violence that cannot be credibly duplicated outside of Japan’s handful of sumo arenas. Sumo is truly unique, and, externally, it is changeless, beautiful, and perfect.
But, like the semiconductor industry, sumo is bleeding internally. My favorite sport has been wounded, perhaps mortally, by the negligence of a calcified hierarchy of geriatric shut-ins who are going to need an army of really persistent weathermen to tell them which way — in the 21st century — the wind is blowing.