In the first few decades of the twentieth century, tens of thousands of Japanese left the starvation and poverty of their native islands for the promise of America. Settling mostly in Hawaii, California, and the Pacific Northwest, these issei labored as shopkeepers, fishermen, and gardeners. Despite widespread legal discrimination and wartime exile to internment camps, they managed to lay the foundation for what is today one of the nation's most prosperous ethnic communities.
Now, another generation of Japanese is crossing the Pacific, this group relatively affluent and worldly, seeking to escape the limitations and frustrations of Japan's Theory F style of management.
Some of these new issei have jumped from the highest rungs of the Japanese corporate ladder. Takashi Sakai, for example, joined C. Itoh & Co., Japan's third largest trading firm, in 1956, and quickly showed himself to be a born deal-maker. Sakai helped arrange the financing for the early industrialization of Taiwan and South Korea, helped to form a strategic alliance between General Motors Corp. and Isuzu Motors Ltd., and paved the way for a joint venture between The Southland Corp., parent of 7-Eleven stores, and Japan's Ito Yokado retail chain. By 1983, Sakai was running C. Ioth's West Coast operations, based in Los Angeles, where sales exploded from $440 million in 1977 to about $2 billion in 1984.
Back in Japan, Sakai's bosses were happier with his performance than they were with his steady stream of brash proposals to make the company more truly international -- at one point, even suggesting that the company move its headquarters from Tokyo to Los Angeles. Frustrated with the company's lack of response to his ideas, and unwilling to accept a proposed transfer back to Japan, Sakai left C. Itoh in April 1985. "I had my concept, and they didn't see it," Sakai recalls from his office at Pacific Partners, a small merchant bank he now runs is Beverly Hills, Calif.
Shunji Shinoda has also set down entrepreneurial roots in America. Shinoda ran the U.S. operations for Obayashi Gumi, one of Japan's leading construction companies, for almost 10 years before he learned that he was to be transferred back to Tokyo. Rather than leave the fast-paced, independent life he enjoyed in California, he opted instead to launch his own firm, Toda Construction of California Inc., which last year posted sales of around $3 million. Shinoda finds that his former colleagues at Obayashi Gumi now refuse to have much to do with him. "I worked with them 26 years, but Obayashi has proved to be not a very human-like company," Shinoda says.
Shinoda, 55, and Sakai, 52, are exceptions for men of their age and position. But for younger Japanese, the lure of America is proving increasingly irresistible. For one thing, the financial prospects are often so much better. Kiyoshi Suzaki, for instance, left Toshiba Corp. after 10 years as an engineer and manufacturing expert to become an American consultant. Today, the 38-year-old Suzaki, working out of the downtown Los Angeles office of Arthur Young & Co., earns well into the six figures helping U.S. companies with their manufacturing strategies. At Toshiba, Suzaki estimates, he would be fortunate to be earning $50,000.
But more than money, it is freedom -- freedom to develop new concepts, new companies -- that motivates the new issei to break ranks with Japan's corporate culture. "I never thought I could fit into a big Japanese company, but I knew how hard it is to do something on your own in Japan," notes Norio Sugano, 34, a Tokyo native and founder of Semix Inc., a semiconductor equipment marketing firm in Silicon Valley. "If you want to do something unique in Japan, there's always tremendous resistance. Here, it seems natural."