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An insider's dark view of Toyota

An American engineer chronicles three years spent working in Japan.

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In 1996, Darius Mehri, a wide-eyed young American engineer, went to Japan to work for Toyota's production system. There, the firm would play the role of benevolent patriarch even as employees worked in harmony toward a common goal. At least, that was what Mehri imagined.

What he found instead was an abusive environment where the company controlled every movement - inside and outside work - of its employees.

Bosses publicly bullied subordinates, sometimes even physically, as in one incident Mehri describes in which a manager wrestled an unfortunate employee to the floor - several times - at a department dinner party.

Based on the author's diary of a three-year stint as a contracted employee, Notes from Toyota-Land runs contrary to the image many Westerners have of an efficient and enlightened Japanese workplace.

Mehri's account clearly leaves itself open to questions of credibility. (For instance, in many cases Mehri relies on secondhand accounts when he tells the stories of accident victims.)

Yet, despite its faults, the book offers interesting glimpses into a work setting - and a world - most Westerners know only at a distance.

At first Mehri wondered why his fellow employees deferred to their sometimes brutal managers. But he eventually realized that, because there were no formal training programs, many workers felt they had no choice but to curry the favor of supervisors who they hoped would act as their senpai, or mentors.

For some this meant attending frequent and expensive after-work drinking parties that ran late into the night. Absence would be risking ostracism, which, in group-oriented Japan, could mean the end of your career.

Providing sharp insights into the culture that created this environment, the author explains how the importance of belonging to a group is drilled into the Japanese consciousness from the first day of school.

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