Behind the locked doors of a Sharp Corp. (SHCAY ) factory in the central Japanese city of Nara, Rina Masuda spends her days at a task most people would find both mind-numbing and infuriating. With the searing tip of a soldering iron, she guides droplets of molten metal on a circuit board to the edges of a microchip. In less than a minute she has the chip standing on dozens of tiny metal legs separated by a hair's breadth to keep electrons flowing smoothly. Masuda's job seems at odds with the bank of machines just a few yards away that spit out hundreds of circuit boards every hour. Yet Masuda doesn't fear losing her job to automation, at least not until the equipment is as precise as she is. When the machines botch a job, she's called in to fix up the chips. "The soldering I do by hand is far superior to anything the machines can do," says the 33-year-old.
Japan has thousands of workers like Masuda, with talents so extraordinary that no machine can do their jobs. Their skills have amounted to the X factor that has given Japan a manufacturing edge for decades. But for years these industrial stars toiled in obscurity as Japan's emphasis on teamwork made companies reluctant to single them out. Then in 1998 the government decided it was time to recognize their contributions with a title: supaa ginosha, or "super technician." Each of the laureates -- 3,800 so far, with hundreds more added every year -- gets a certificate and a flower-shaped silver lapel pin stamped with a character meaning "technique." What they often don't get is money. For most super workers, the honor is enough.
In sectors ranging from semiconductors to shipbuilding, these shop-floor specialists at hundreds of companies do their jobs with uncanny precision and usually -- but not necessarily -- hyper-productivity. At Toshiba Corp., 56-year-old Hidetoshi Murakami makes molds for semiconductors just one-10,000th of an inch thick. Masanori Suzuki, a 44-year-old mechanic at Central Japan Railway Co., knows every nook and cranny of bullet trains, or shinkansen, and leads a team that can complete a top-to-bottom inspection -- removing wheels, checking circuit boards, brakes, and doors, and test-driving -- in 12 days. And at Matsushita Electrical Industrial Co. (MC ), 30-year-old Toshio Watabe pieces together tiny speakers and amplifiers to make hearing aids the size of a pencil eraser. "We taught him the basics, but he was motivated to perfect his skills on his own," says Watabe's supervisor, Susumu Maeno.
Now the supaa ginosha movement is getting a renewed boost from government and industry, which see these top workers as a vital tool in sustaining Japan's recovery and even preserving its industrial base. Manufacturing in Japan faces two threats: the menacing power of cheap Chinese labor and a profound demographic shift at home. In 2006, Japanese baby boomers will begin to retire, and with declining birth rates, a quarter of all Japanese will be over the age of 65 by 2015. So instead of looking to shed workers as they did during the 1990s, Japanese companies today need to squeeze more productivity and skills out of a shrinking labor force. "These top technicians...can raise our manufacturing ability to a higher level," says Shohgo Fukahori, Sharp's head of personnel. "Once they're gone, we won't be able to make certain products. We need to preserve the knowhow."
Technology won't offer any quick fix. "Robots can assemble products or do the heavy lifting, but the work has to be repetitive, simple, and precise," says Yasushi Tomita, an executive at Yaskawa Electric Corp., a major robot maker. "It will be years before they will be able to do the work of most skilled technicians."
PASSING IT DOWN
Enter the supaa ginosha. While Japan churns out some of the highest-quality goods on the planet, it hasn't had any systematic way for its hyper-skilled workers to pass on their collective expertise to the next generation. Officials seeking a way to recognize these workers looked to the "Living National Treasures" program, the highest honor for temple builders, kimono weavers, Kabuki actors, and other practitioners of ancient arts. That system has kept alive methods and knowledge that may otherwise have been lost, an encouraging sign for the supaa ginosha initiative. "Eventually, super technicians could be contracted out to help other Japanese companies gain crucial manufacturing knowhow," says Shigeru Tsuji, a professor emeritus at Tokyo Institute of Technology and head of the committee that created the program.
Mostly, though, the supaa ginosha pass along their knowledge to colleagues in their own companies. At Sharp, for instance, Masuda and her 34-year-old colleague, Kayoko Yamabe, give classes over the company's intranet and have been sent to help train workers at other factories in Japan and the U.S. And 61-year-old Mitsuo Kihara teaches younger workers at a Canon Inc. (CAJ ) plant near Tokyo how to grind and polish lenses used in semiconductor manufacturing equipment.
Over at ship and aircraft maker Ishikawajima-Harima Heavy Industries Co., Hiroshi Hosoya also works to develop a younger class of super technicians. He prowls a corner of the hangarlike space filled with shafts of jet engines bound for customers that include Boeing Co. (BA ) and Rolls-Royce Motor Cars Ltd. It will take all morning for his crew to coat the shafts with a layer of metal less than a hundredth of an inch thick. The slightest blemish could cause engines costing millions of dollars to malfunction. The 50-year-old Hosoya, who can discern surface variations most people can neither see nor feel, became a supaa ginosha this year, the only one at his plant. In 2003 he was named a Meister, a company designation shared by just 10 of the 900 employees at the facility. Today, his expertise is so great that even the company's top engineers come calling with tricky design questions.
That's a big change from three decades ago when Hosoya joined the company as a high school grad. Back then, he learned the job by watching others. Now there's a formal ranking system that classifies everyone in the company as one of various levels up to sub-Meister and Meister, a nod to German engineering excellence. The company, though, offers no financial perks based solely on a worker's rank. "I got this far because I was passionate about the work I was doing in the factory," says Hosoya. "But I think the company should also offer higher salaries to Meisters as an incentive for others." The company says that given differences among factories, it would be difficult to give Meisters or supaa ginosha bonuses.
Of course, even some supaa ginosha must worry about automation. At a Mazda Motor Corp. plant in Hiroshima, super technician Yoshiaki Oda, now 64, once smoothed the welded joints on cars to a flawless finish. But he has since put down his sander because robots have replaced people in nearly all areas of car assembly, welding, and polishing.
Such cases, though, are the exception. Just ask Masuda and thousands of other supaa ginosha who outperform the machines every day of the week.
By Kenji Hall, with Hiroko Tashiro in Tokyo