September 27, 2012, 1:16 PM — Shige Watanabe remembers the boom days.
"It was solid cars on the roads. The factories ran full steam, constantly," he says, standing in front of the electronics shop he has run for 30 years in the Japanese town of Yaita. A car occasionally cruises by his shop window, packed with Aquos TVs and other Sharp appliances, but the giant Sharp plant across the street is still, its windows dark on a quiet Friday afternoon.
About 1,500 miles to the west, in the outskirts of Zhengzhou, China, the scene is very different, with the sounds of traffic and construction heavy in the air. This is Foxconn Electronics territory, and thousands of assembly workers roam the streets between shifts, walking around piles of bricks and construction equipment. Building crews scramble to finish dormitories next to bustling factory lines, and tractors flatten fields nearby to build more.
The story of these two cities is the story of your living room, which likely contains products from both companies, under a variety of brands. Sharp is teetering on insolvency as its prices are repeatedly undercut by foreign rivals, but it is still one of the world's largest makers of LCD panels and displays for devices like tablets and smartphones. Foxconn, meanwhile, cranks out more electronic goods than any other company does or probably ever has before. In many cases, screens made by Sharp are shipped to Foxconn, where they are assembled into products like iPhones and iPads.
The two are engaged in wide-ranging negotiations over a deal that may see Foxconn, founded in 1974, acquire a roughly 10% ownership in Sharp, which celebrates its 100th anniversary this year. The deal may also see Sharp hand over some of its factories to Foxconn, all in exchange for a much needed injection of cash. A previous agreement fell through when Sharp shares plunged in value, and the company has had to mortgage its buildings and factories to secure emergency loans, as well as reduce its workforce and wages.
It's likely you can't tell where your gadgets were made, or by whom. But the two manufacturing towns provide a stark contrast between the way things used to be made, and the way they are now. The Japanese town of Yaita is a fading, placid community where many factory workers have spent most of their lives, commuting from roomy apartments and cheering the powerhouse high school soccer team on weekends. Zhengzhou is raw, pulsing capitalism, with young recruits pouring in from all over China with suitcases in hand, sleeping four to eight to a dorm room between marathon shifts on the factory floors.