Immitating instead of innovating

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Immitating instead of innovating

“Matsang,” a Japanese daily morning drama on NHK, started this week and instantly became a hit. The average viewer rating in Japan was 21.8 percent, the highest in the past 10 years. Matsang is the nickname for Masataka Taketsuru (1894-1979), the founder of Japanese whiskey brand Nikka Whiskey. He is considered the father of Japanese whiskey, because he also served as the first factory manager for Suntory Whiskey, another leading brand.

Japanese viewers rave over two aspects of Taketsuru. The first is the diligence that is often considered characteristic of the Japanese. Taketsuru began working for a distillery before he graduated from high school, and at 24, he went to Scotland by himself. He studied chemistry at night and researched distilleries in the neighborhood. He cleaned large distillers and memorized the internal structure.

Another virtue is his obsession with doing one thing right. He was determined to make the best Japanese whiskey and didn’t compromise. Suntory’s founder believed in a type of whiskey that is “easy to drink,” so Taketsuru left the company and founded Nikka. He opened a plant in Yoichi, Hokkaido because the region has a similar climate to Scotland, although the remote location meant greater transport costs. Taketsuru drank a bottle of whiskey every day until he was 80.

The story sounds like a biography of a great businessman. But is it true?

When British Deputy Prime Minister Rab Butler visited Japan in 1962, he said that a young man stole the secrets of whiskey production with a fountain pen and notebook. He was referring to Taketsuru. While he claimed to be making special whiskey, he was actually copying the Scottish delicacy. He left Suntory not solely because of his belief, but also because the founder’s eldest son was ready to take over the company. The company he founded in Hokkaido was an apple juice company, not a whiskey distillery. Nikka is an abbreviation of “Great Japan Fruits.” It is a hidden story that after the fruit juice business struggled for a few years, he made distilled liquor using the apples and made whiskey as well.

Many of the success stories in Japan are “factions,” adding some fictional elements to facts.

The drama “Matsang” is reminiscent of Xiaomi, a Chinese mobile phone maker. Xiaomi copied the design of the iPhone, but the imitation evolved into competitiveness. Xiaomi took successful business models and merged them into its own style. It is a Chinese way of creation through imitation .

The problem is that these success stories are increasing rapidly. How many creations through fabrication, imitation and modification do we have? We may remain docile and advocate a “creative economy” but the world is changing.

The author is the Tokyo bureau chief of the JoongAng Ilbo.

JoongAng Ilbo, Oct. 4, Page 30

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