The Hino Challenge (David Boling Commentary)

Momentum. Athletes and coaches crave it. Once you get it, you don't want to lose it.

When it comes to attracting Japa-nese automobile companies and parts suppliers, Arkansas has got momentum. A few days ago, Hino Chairman Tadaaki Jagawa told a Wall Street Journal reporter that Hino plans to build intercity trucks in Marion by 2007. And last week Denso — one of the world's largest suppliers of auto parts — dedicated its auto parts facility in Osceola.

Now that Arkansas has momentum, what must it do to maintain it? Arkansas must produce workers who meet the needs of these companies. If it fails to do so, then suppliers to these companies may chose a neighboring state, and the momentum will be lost. Arkansas government, business and education leaders need to focus on this issue like a laser beam.

Regarding workers, here are three expectations Japanese companies often have.

• Teachability beats technical ability. Japanese companies usually are not very concerned about a worker's specific technical expertise. For example, in 1988 I was hired to teach English in a Japanese junior high school for one year. At that time, I had absolutely no training in how to teach English or how to speak Japanese. The only job qualification was a college degree. This struck many of my American friends as odd.

But the Japanese view was different. First, they wanted someone who did not have any formal training in how to teach English, because they expected that such a person would have a particular teaching approach in mind that might not fit in the Japanese system. Second, they preferred non-Japanese speakers because the job was to teach English — not Japanese — to the students. They believed that an English teacher who knew Japanese would be tempted to practice Japanese rather than speak English when teaching students.

My guess is that the Japanese companies in northeast Arkansas are not very concerned that Arkansas workers probably don't have superior technical expertise in auto manufacturing. If they did, they would have sited their facilities in Michigan. These companies want to find the rough diamonds and cut them to fit their particular approach rather than use the cut diamonds that can no longer be shaped.

• Sound basic education. Having said that, Japanese have very high expectations when it comes to the basic education of workers. This is probably because Japanese primary and secondary education may be the best in world. For instance, the literacy rate in Japan is 99 percent, even though Japanese is one of the hardest languages in the world to learn. To read and write it, Japanese have to learn 2,000 kanji characters. But the Japanese education system is not without flaws. The colleges are notoriously weak, and students routinely cut classes without fear of failure.

America is the opposite. Our universities are world-renowned, but our primary and secondary education remains weak. The message for Arkansas leaders: no backsliding on basic education. The arrival of Japanese companies to Arkansas shows that we indeed live in a global economy. Our education system does not simply compete with neighboring states — it competes globally. Japanese kids go to school more than 200 days a year. In Arkansas, students go to school only 178 days a year. The Japanese excel in basic education in part because they hit the books longer than Americans. Arkansas leaders should learn that lesson and start the (very overdue) push toward longer school years.

• Sweating the small stuff. In America, sometimes we say "Don't sweat the small stuff." A successful book series with this phrase in the title has even been written. You are unlikely to hear Japanese say this, especially when it comes to manufacturing autos and electronics. Sweating details is the name of the game and leads to improved and superior products. Japanese companies highly value workers who have keen attention to detail.

Teachable. Strong basic education. Attention to detail. If Arkansas can produce these types of workers, the momentum is bound to continue.

David Boling is a lawyer with Mitchell Williams Selig Gates & Woodyard PLLC. He is a former lawyer with the U.S. Department of Justice and speaks and reads Japanese. E-mail him at dboling@ mwsgw.com.