The authors argue that the elevation of Japanese manufacturing management in the West rested on the idea that superior performance resulted from new productive techniques and different systems of management. The object of this article is to shift the balance of placing more weight on structural factors and less on management success or failure. Attention is drawn to the fact that Japanese industry operated in a favourable domestic environment. Output expansion at home and a favourable social settlement (wages, hours worked) operated to ensure that exports, sold in markets where quite different social settlements set higher prices, generated a great deal of cash for Japanese producers. It is argued that the erosion, if not disappearance, of these favourable conditions from the mid-1980s onward has contributed substantially to the recent difficulties of Japanese producers.