By Linda Sieg
TOKYO (Reuters) - A Japanese electronics firm near bankruptcy, a ruthless Chinese rival and a laid-off engineer feature in a popular TV drama that is hitting a public nerve in a nation fretting over the decline of a once-admired manufacturing model.
A weaker yen due to Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's expansionary economic policies has lightened some of the gloom for exporters, but NHK public TV's "Made in Japan" serial reflects a deep angst about an ailing manufacturing sector that was once key to Japan's success and a source of national pride.
The 3-part drama, which ends on Saturday, covers a secret "restructuring" team's race against a 3-month deadline to come up with a survival plan for "Takumi Electric" - the name means "artisan" in Japanese - before the bank pulls the plug.
Standing in their way are a Japanese engineer who goes to work in China after being laid off when his lithium-ion battery project was frozen - possibly taking proprietary technology with him - a clueless corporate president given his job by his founder father and a reporter desperate for a scoop.
All of which resonates for many Japanese as they watch once iconic electronics firms - Sony, Panasonic and Sharp come to mind - lose global share to South Korean and Chinese rivals, and wonder what will replace lost manufacturing jobs and drive future economic growth.
"During the period of rapid economic growth after World War Two and even after the bursting of the (1980s) asset bubble, manufacturing ... was a source of economic strength," said Hisao Inoue, a freelance journalist who advised NHK on its script.
"'Monozukuri' ('the making of things') was a source of pride for Japan," he told Reuters. "But that has changed and Japan has lost self-confidence."
The show has won more than respectable Saturday evening ratings of over 10 percent, and created a buzz among business executives and bankers, with some wondering if it cuts too close to the bone with its portrayal of a firm - however fictional - on the edge.
"The performance is a bit melodramatic, but in a sense, it reflects reality," said one Japanese banker.
The program's chief producer Ren Takahashi said the story turned out more realistic than imagined when NHK began work on it two years ago. "The economy was bad then, but we didn't think the electronics industry would be in such trouble," he told Reuters, adding "Takumi" was a composite of companies symbolizing Japan rather than being based on one firm.
"There's no easy solution to the problems of 'Made in Japan' ... but we want to end it in a way that gives hope."
The day before last week's second episode, government data showed employment in Japan's manufacturing sector dropped below 10 million for the first time in half a century.
"Japanese have great anxiety about the huge shift in power in East Asia to China on both the security and economic level," said Jeffrey Kingston, director of Asian Studies at Temple University's Japan campus. "The (TV) drama is a window into Japan's collective anxiety about its apparent economic decline."
Behind the melodrama, the story raises a deeper question: just what is Japan's famed "monozukuri" ethos and can it survive global competition and world-wide supply chains?
"Monozukuri" is a complex concept that implies craftsmanship and superb quality but with an undertone of rote learning of skills through repetition - a talent key during the era of mass manufacturing but one critics say is not conducive to the innovation Japan needs now.
"It's been drilled into people for years and years that this is what got Japan back after World War Two," said Philip Brasor, a media critic who often writes about Japanese society through the prism of TV.
"Inevitably, it all changed. But they still think they can recapture that."
(Additional reporting by Emi Emoto; Editing by Ian Geoghegan)
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