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Resolving a Culture Shock

First of two parts.

When Mazda Motor Corp. came here five years ago, the Japanese automaker imported morning exercises, sushi and company caps to its plant in the heart of America's declining auto industry.

It wasn't baseball, hot dogs and apple pie.

Not surprisingly, a cultural clash followed. Here in Michigan, the climax of a recent American Pride Day was a Toyota bashing. The urging "Buy American" means about the same thing as "Don't Buy Asian."

The Japanese have long been villains for people here, accused of pricing cars below cost to steal market share in this country while raising barriers in Japan to make U.S. products too expensive to be competitive there.

Of course, it's not that simple. For example, General Motors Corp. was a bigger importer of vehicles into the United States last year than Toyota Motor Corp., according to the Association of International Automobile Manufacturers.

The Arlington, Va.-based trade group also points out that 46,000 American autoworkers built nearly 1.4-million vehicles in 1991 in foreign-owned plants from coast to coast, including 3,600 workers at Flat Rock, located about 25 miles south of Detroit.

The facility is the only so-called "transplant" in Michigan. With resentments running so deep, Mazda officials had to be swift gaining their political bearings in this lion's den. The jumping jacks, hats and raw fish delicacies remain, mostly just for Japanese managers.

"We have created a third culture," said Mamoru Takebayashi, president of AutoAlliance International Inc., the venture that owns the Flat Rock plant. Ford Motor Co. bought a 50 percent stake in the plant this summer.

This blended culture is visible around the plant. A display case has a basketball trophy next to a Japanese urn. American workers have jokingly dubbed an especially wide corridor "The Great Hall."

The two nationalities have blended in opposite ways. The hard-driving Japanese partake of American-style leisure in their spare hours. Americans adopt Japanese management techniques and work methods.

In a region plagued by layoffs, Japanese officials have vowed to follow a tradition of slashing their own pay before letting any workers go. So far, the plant has prospered and it remains at full employment.

And unlike Japanese counterparts that opened assembly plants in rural, non-union corners of this country, Mazda brought in the United Auto Workers to represent its employees.

The plant has also committed to building relationships with U.S. suppliers, and is steadily increasing their number, said James L. Solberg, a Ford veteran who is executive vice president at AutoAlliance.

The result: The Mazda 626 sedan, which is made here along with the MX-6 coupe and the sporty Ford Probe, is the first Japanese-nameplate car classified as domestic based on the proportion of U.S.-supplied parts and labor.

Also important to the balance of trade, AutoAlliance is exporting cars. The 626 sedan and MX-6 coupe are sent to Taiwan and Canada. The Probe is exported to Japan, Canada, Germany and the United Kingdom.

"Among the imports or the transplants, Mazda is perhaps the most fair and the most decent," said U.S. Rep. John D. Dingell, D-Mich., in a television interview last spring. Dingell is a frequent critic of Japan's auto industry. His district includes Flat Rock.

In an interview at the plant, Takebayashi's formal style more easily befits Tokyo than Michigan. Everyone defers to him. He speaks through a translator in Japanese. The conference room is decorated with a large print of Mount Fuji.

"We have taken the Mazda production system, but combined it with what's here," Takebayashi said.

For example, he said, as in a Japanese plant, workers are expected to do a variety of jobs and to work in teams. That's unlike the traditional U.S. assembly line, where thousands of workers perform single, often mundane tasks.

But the Flat Rock plant has also adopted from the U.S. system the concept of seniority among workers, particularly when they are moved to different responsibilities around the facility.

Takebayashi said Mazda selected Flat Rock for its plant not as a symbol, but because it was the site of a shutdown Ford casting plant and because of its proximity to suppliers.

Also, Mazda was granted generous tax breaks from the small industrial town of 8,000 people, said Flat Rock Mayor Richard Jones, because the city was so depressed and eager for a new employer.

Jones said many residents now resent the huge tax abatements granted the plant. And there have been few spillover benefits. Only about 100 plant employees live in Flat Rock, he said.

When the plant opened in September 1987, only around 20 percent of the workers had experience in the auto industry, generally with Big Three plants in the Detroit area, Takebayashi said.

Takebayashi, who dresses like any plant worker in a simple blue jacket with a name tag, said Mazda had been most interested in finding a work force enthusiastic about coming to the plant. The company was highly selective.

"We wanted people interested in the new production systems adopted here, in teamwork and in communications," Takebayashi said.

Mazda got them. Also, the company won over people enthusiastic about money. Many workers came to the Flat Rock plant from fast-food restaurants, which can pay about a fifth of what autoworkers earn.

Takebayashi said the company was also careful in relocating Japanese employees to Michigan. The plant now employs more than 150 of them.

"When the Japanese first arrived here, we didn't want to isolate them in one area with a Japanese village," Takebayashi said. "There was a concerted effort to spread them out in many neighboring communities."

There were struggles defining the new and unusual relationship, according to management and union officials.

"The training had a lot of people's expectations up there," said James F. Barr Jr., financial secretary for the UAW's Local 3000 in Flat Rock. "People had never worked in the auto industry before."

Paul Watson, who works in quality control and has been in the plant since the beginning, said "the people who worked at J.C. Penney and Burger King had a rosy conception of what this would be like. It's a job."

Takebayashi said an initial "honeymoon" period was followed by a time of "expressing differences." Absenteeism, which is chronic in many Big Three plants, became a problem at Flat Rock.

But two years ago, the UAW members approved a plan that allowed the company to fire workers with excessive unexcused absences, while rewarding those with perfect attendance with a cash bonus.

It's an American-style solution. Japanese officials would prefer instilling in workers' minds and hearts the importance of being at work and building a quality product.

Nevertheless, "now we are more calmly looking at each other," Takebayashi said.

Some culture clashes remain, such as a minor dispute over plant history.

City and union officials recall that a Japanese flag once waved next to the Michigan and U.S. flags, offending locals. Nancy Hennigar, an AutoAlliance spokeswoman, said the Rising Sun never flew in Flat Rock.

And even if few Americans actually do the exercises, the classical Japanese music still blares through the plant, to the annoyance of some. "It's not Led Zeppelin," Watson said.

Mark Czyzewski, who works in the axle department, said, "exercise is a good idea, but from our days in school, we got this attitude of skipping gym class. I'm not coming here to do it."

He added: "The Japanese are more devoted to the company than we are. For us, life doesn't revolve around the company as much as family."

Co-worker Sandra Washington said the Japanese seem to "work better together than we do." But she lamented that a previous Japanese boss couldn't understand why so many of the Americans wanted to take vacation in the summer.

Many strong friendships have developed between Americans and Japanese. They play together on local golf courses and go to baseball and hockey games. Japanese workers bring candy from their homeland for Americans to try.

At least one goal, open communication, appears healthy. The rate of employee suggestions per year has more than doubled since 1988 to 7,322 last year. About 44 percent of the ideas were adopted, according to AutoAlliance.

Still, many at the plant complain it has been difficult getting the word out that they build American cars from American parts _ even if many of the cars have Mazda nameplates.

"It's a hard message to get across," said Barr, the UAW official. "They think everything that has a Japanese label on it is an import."

Washington said she once had an argument at a garage with someone who didn't believe Fords were being made at Flat Rock alongside cars with a Japanese nameplate.

"When I got an application to work here, a lot of people I knew were against it," she said. "Now, they're all laid off. And they're asking me if we're hiring."