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Postwar industrial relations and the origins of lean production in Japan (1945-1973) Price, John


This thesis examines the evolution of postwar industrial relations in postwar Japan from 1945 to 1973. It analyzes the impact of postwar industrial relations institutions on the origins and development of “lean production” or, as it is otherwise known, the Toyota production system. It uses three case studies, Mitsui Coal’s Miike mine in Kyushu, Suzuki Motors in Hamamatsu, and Moriguchi City Hall as an empirical basis for analysis and constructs a schema of industrial relations institutions that challenges the conventional “three pillars” interpretation (lifetime employment, seniority-based wages, and enterprise unions). From a historical perspective there were three distinct stages in the evolution of industrial relations. The first, from 1945-1947 was a labour-dominated period during which unions began to develop a distinct factory regime in which they were equal partners with management and could veto layoffs. Employers rejected this regime, however, and led an offensive against the independent union movement. This offensive was relatively successful in weakening labour and overturning the new institutions, but it engendered further antagonism. Thus the 1950s were characterized by instability in labour relations and new institutions had to evolve out of the workplace. A stable Fordist regime consolidated in the 1960-1973 period. From a comparative perspective and in the context of the development of lean production, the author stresses four institutions: tacit and limited job tenure; a performance-based wage system controlled by management; unions with an enterprise (i.e. market) orientation; and joint consultation. These institutions gave Japanese industrial relations their distinctiveness and also help to explain why lean production developed in Japan. Under the traditional Fordist model, work was broken down into short, repetitive cycles and organized along an assembly line. Employers exerted control by keeping conceptual activities as their mandate and workers were to simply follow instructions. This study found that work itself did not change substantively under lean production but workers participated more in conceptual activities. One of the key reasons for this was that employers in Japan were able to exercise control not only through the division of labour but through the wage system and enterprise unions as well. These mechanisms put discrete limits on the scope of worker innovations. They also limited the benefits workers could expect from the system. Lean production represented a new stage in production, identified as lean, intensified Fordism.

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