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We Were Burning: Japanese Entrepreneurs and the Forging of the Electronic Age

Author: Bob Johnstone
Publisher: New York: Basic Books, 1999
Review Published: September 2002

 REVIEW 1: Shane Butterfield

In a veritable who's who of major twentieth century technological advancement, Bob Johnstone, in We Were Burning: Japanese Entrepreneurs and the Forging of the Electronic Age, offers his readers the intricate history of recent electronic innovation. And though the title indicates otherwise, only in the broadest of terms is the Japanese story his sole focus, as a nearly equal portion of the book is devoted to the United States, for practical reasons that Johnstone makes clear in this preface. Thus, while the Japanese experiences make up the foundation of the book, the scenes and times of the stories encompass nearly the entire globe, resulting in a web of explanations of interrelated and deeply connected progressions, both linear and not.

The book also benefits from the international experience and perspective of the author. A former Japan and technology correspondent for assorted publications and a freelance journalist who has specialized in writing about science and technology for over a decade, the Scotland native Johnstone admits his primary motivation for beginning the project as being "a curiosity about the origins of key semiconductor devices and technologies" (Preface, XVIII). Indeed, this declaration fits well with what the reader encounters in the pages that follow. And, as the book begins, it is soon apparent that the balance of the writing will best be described as simple, unadulterated narrative history, with only few and subtle deviations from this most direct of genres. Following a short preface detailing further his personal infatuation with such technology, his own writing career, and an introduction explaining the genesis of the Japanese/US connection in the field, Johnstone begins part one of his study. Titled "Calculators & Watches," this 150 page, five-chapter section describes in witty and interrelated narrative history the stories of the development and innovations of several of the most important recent breakthroughs in the development of the modern calculator and watch. Examples of specific technologies covered include MOS (metal oxide silicon) integrated circuits (chapter one), liquid crystal displays (LCDs) and transistors (chapter three), and the general value and use of silicon in these and related innovations (chapter five).

Part Two, "Camcorders and Synthesizers," does similarly; chapter six explains the coming of charge-coupled devices (CCDs), transistors and semiconductors in image recording, while chapter seven shows the effect of the integrated circuit chips on the keyboard/synthesizer industry, with special focus on the case of the well-known company Yamaha. Johnstone's third and final section, "CD Players & Printers; Cars & Lights," includes chapters eight through eleven and contains studies of, among other things, semiconductor lasers and laser diode technology most commonly used in CD (compact disc) players (chapter eight), light emitting diodes (LEDs) of various colors (chapter nine), and the high electron mobility transistor (HEMT), the key innovation in modern mini-dish systems (chapter eleven). Appendices follow, including a thorough timeline of related events (covering the years 1935-1996), a helpful alphabetical listing of the industry's pertinent innovators, those discussed in the book and otherwise (including a short description of their contribution to the field), as well as the author's sources, a fine glossary, the notes to the chapters, and a general index of topics.

Though the individual stories told in each chapter are distinct and self-sustaining, all share several qualities that not only help to make the book consistently smooth reading but, often, also connect chapter to chapter and the entrepreneurs covered to each other, or to a common idea or motivation. In addition, Johnstone reveals his understanding of the field he studies by explaining in understandable terms several of the most important physical and technological processes relevant to a more complete understanding of his discussion. For instance, Johnstone offers a very helpful explanation of RCA's liquid phase epitaxy (LPE) method of layering crystal for use in early compact disc research, as well as several other detailed treatments of useful processes (283). Among those similarly explained include: the science behind liquid crystal, the creation and properties of single crystal silicon and polycrystalline silicon, and the nature and value of semiconductors (121, 130, and 254, respectively).

Though clearly a work of history, there is one underlying topic that continues to resurface time and again that by the book's end reveals itself to be a constant and vital cog in the story of the US/Japan connection in the field of electronics. This crucial aspect, remarkable simply for its frequent contextual importance, is the role of the Japanese as imitators of US research and technology, in general. Of course, the reason for this close relationship is quite easily explained, as following the end of WWII and the demise of the Japanese empire, it was the US who most strongly influenced Japan's post-war political and societal (hence, technological) direction. The result of this on Johnstone's story is huge; because of the breakdown of their traditional society, the Japanese by necessity soon took on the general trend, including in the field of electronic innovation, of their most influential ally, the US. In the electronic field, this meant unlimited curiosity from the Japanese resulting in countless request for licensing of US technology from patent holders, as well as plenty of travel to US companies and technology conferences and the insatiable reading of any and all related US papers on any recent discoveries, all finally leading to the now familiar competition between the two nations to innovate for a global market. In many ways, then, though the US was clearly the leader, both countries came of age, technologically speaking, at the same time and as such these "siblings," after reaching practical equality, became competitors for the right to dominate a burgeoning industry.

Not that the Japanese were or ever intended to be merely imitators in the field for very long; as Johnstone points out, they were only seeking to cancel the head-start that the more stable American research environment had afforded that country. The talent and work ethic of the Japanese were simply too great to allow any lasting satisfaction with merely replicating American products. Regardless, the Japanese were all too anxious to reorient their societal compass after the disasters of war, and the field of electronic innovation, with the US as the model, seemed a perfect goal and rewarding new mission. Thus, it was in this copy-cat, looking-over-the shoulder climate of political relations between the two nations that many of Johnstone's stories take place, and though it is seen throughout the work, this important aspect is most directly addressed in the introduction (1-19). Here, we see not only the fascinating relationship that prevailed during the time period Johnstone examines, but also a glimpse, though ever so brief, of the realities of post-war Japan and the intriguing influence those surviving traditional norms placed on their rush to electronic innovation, both in regards to the competition between they and their US counterparts, as well as between the Japanese, themselves.

Using everyday language, Johnstone attempts to make the book enjoyable for both the novice as well as for the techno-savvy and the true savant of Japanese "electronic history" and culture. His occasional yet carefully worded descriptions of the process and realities of Japanese life and standard business practices do, early on, for the casual reader what the well-researched chapter titles (many of which are taken from old Japanese sayings or are simply witty comments taken directly from the statements of those profiled) and detailed descriptions of the struggles of the Japanese entrepreneurs discussed do for the more educated audience. While focused on the human side and the Japanese experience, Johnstone successfully and with surprising consistency broadens the readers' horizons, most notably by not limiting his study in any practical sense to national boarders or by ignoring the technological side of their work entirely. In this way, the work does not fall prey to any self-imposed and ultimately self-defeating limitations regarding his subject matter. As a whole, the author shows an international story of human and machine, of trial and error, of repeated failure followed by ultimate success.

Ironically, it is this lack of limitations and broad concern with revealing the entire picture that most hurts the effort at times. While the international scope, interaction, and interrelatedness of many of the subjects and people covered constitute an intriguing and important element of the historical story he presents, Johnstone is soon embroiled in several stories at once, which, though all related, quickly become distracting and hard to follow (see for example the discussion of thin-film transistors and solar-powered calculators, 162-171), finally producing a log-jam of thinly related events, ultimately straying too far from the most pressing topic (see 183-189). As a result, more than rarely does a chapter becomes far too unfocused, drawn out, and complex (see 198). Again, I will reiterate that, while Johnstone's research and knowledge on the topic are near impeccable, the feel for his readers and the depth of what they need at certain points are inconsistent.

This noted, Bob Johnstone's We Were Burning: Japanese Entrepreneurs and the Forging of the Electronic Age is a success, one defined by his fine research. Rather than pushing his own agenda, his is simply a narrative history short on analysis, long on detail, and with so few allusions to his own thoughts on the matters he discusses that the unburdened reader needs to carefully consider the work as a whole to feel any attachment to the author and his views whatsoever. In this way, more than benefiting from Johnstone's opinions and viewpoint, the reader's greatest reward comes from his pure research work and detailed compilations. All this helps Johnstone keep his thesis central, make his subjects the only stars, and leaves the reader with a rare and thought-provoking look at one of the most topical and dynamic fields in the modern age, free of political spin and personal promotion.

Shane Butterfield:
Shane Butterfield, a native of northern Wisconsin, earned a BA in history from the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire in 2002, with most of his research being in the fields of Wisconsin Christmas and sports history. A national McNair scholar at UWEC, he is currently a graduate student in the history program at the University of Rochester and is awaiting his first publications later this fall.  <brfd@mail.rochester.edu>

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