Japanese Rowing Race, Part II

There's a story that floats around the 'net, which I think predates it, probably back to 1970s Detroit, or at least 1980s Australia (which is where I heard it). It turns out that the Japanese have 7 rowers and 1 captain in their rowing team, which beats the (Australian/American/Timbuktu) team of 7 captains and 1 rower. Here are a few links to variations:

I've always wanted to have a reply to that one (which dates back to the 1980s) which has the follow-on events from Japan in the late 1990s.

Finally, after years of losing against the Japanese team, the Timbuktu team replaced the rower with an outboard motor. It was cheaper and since the seven captains couldn't hire any more rowers, they didn't have much choice.

On the day of the race, the Japanese captain was horrified. It was an outrage against the whole sport, an insult, and caused loss of face for all concerned. He decided he would captain his boat with dignity, which he did, and lost by 3 miles. That day, he walked into his boss' office and committed suicide.

The Japanese rowers continued to train for the next year and through their continuous improvement process developed a slightly modified oar that could get them another 2% speed improvement, together with a new technique which got them an extra 1.3%. A new captain was appointed, a bastion of the emperor's rowing club, who was a bit suspicious even of sails, so traditional was he.

The next year's race was a tragedy, as the Timbuktu team had discovered that you could put a second motor on a boat to make it go nearly twice as fast. The Timbuktu team won by 4 miles.

Again the Japanese captain killed himself in shame, and the same Japanese team (who had not changed in all these years, and were getting on a bit in years slogged away trying to become better rowers.

The year after that, the Timbuktu team were rolling around laughing so hard, that they didn't have time to do any training at all. So they asked around at the boat club for anyone who could sit in a motor boat and steer it in a straight line. They found a backpacker who would do it for a can of beer and some small change. Naturally, the speedboating backpacker beat the Japanese tema by 5 miles.

The Japanese managers saw this, and realised that they could save some money by firing their aging rowers (and the captain as well, before any blood was spilt) without benefits and by hiring a team of overseas rowers. They searched the world in typical Japanese efficiency and found the very cheapest rowers. In Vietnam they could hire 50 rowers in a giant dragon boat for less than one Japanese rower. In India they could hire 20 marine engineers to design a better engine. In China they could hire a team of 100 metalworkers to build it.

The following year it was an exact tie.

The year after that, global warming had changed the river so much that all the boats were sunk by a freak wave.


  1. No matter how good or bad you are at your job, someone, somewhere is thinking of outsourcing it to somewhere else.
  2. If you don't keep up with the pace of technological change, you will win nothing, regardless of management structures, procedures, protocols, improvement programs or the quality of your teams.
  3. The teams you have to beat change every year.
  4. Just when you think you've got it all sorted out, you'll discover that you've missed all the most important problems.

Last modified: Thu Sep 30 17:46:11 EST 2004