One of the landmarks hereabouts is Lee's Grocery and Produce on Route 84 west of town, a tumble-down shack where Lee sells the vegetables he raises in the red earth behind his stand. Lee lives in a small green house trailer next to the stand and keeps his dozen or so pigs in a pen behind the trailer.
Lee's place is indigenous, southeast Alabama reality. But just across the highway, behind a stand of pines, thrives a hulking monument to the new reality, an emblem of America's changed status in the world economy and of emerging patterns of industrial development in the United States.
Into this Deep South town has come the Sony Corp. and a $75 million plant that turns out Betamax video cassettes, some for export to Japan, Sony's homeland.
The local gentry is tickled to have Sony in Dothan, a community of about 50,000 tucked into a corner of the state's "wiregrass" country, close to Georgia and the Florida panhandle. The town is starting to prosper now, though many of its black residents still live in ramshackle cabins on dirt roads less than a mile from the spiffy new civic center.
"It's damn fantastic to have Sony here," says Drew Page, executive vice president of the chamber of commerce. It also seems fantastic that one of the giants of Japanese industry finds it profitable to make products here for export to Japan.
Out of this comes a revelation about the state of the nation on the eve of a new decade. The politicans already struggling to win control of the nation are not speaking to these facts, which may be more telling of America's future than many of the emerging "issues" of 1980.
What forces conspired to bring Sony to Dothan are simple to identify, if difficult for many Americans to acknowledge. The Japanese company decided that it wanted to produce video cassettes closer to the American market and felt that American labor was cheap enough to justify the investment.
The sense that the world has been stood on its head comes early and often in an inquiry into Sony's operations here. In a preliminary phone conversation, an American-born Sony executive in New York said it was too bad a reporter couldn't have visited Dothan while most of the Japanese engineers who helped open the plant were still on the job. (Only half a dozen are left here; the others have returned to Japan.)
The engineers went home after a matter of months, the Sony executive said, because the Americans Sony hired here proved to be quick learners.
No one is more conscious of the role-reversal at play here than the Alabamans working in the Sony plant. Sue Focht, for example, a supervisor in the quality control division, recalls that "there used to be a joke about everything in Japan being made out of beer cans." Or Nick Holley, a foreman: "I can remember when I was young, if you bought anything that said "Made in Japan' it was a joke."
"The Japanese," said Eugene Adams, another foreman. "I've never seen a country that's changed their image as drastically as they have."
But these Alabamans are not prepared to yield any exalted status to Japan nor the Japanese who taught them their processes for making magnetic tape. In fact relations between Japanese teachers and American pupils were not always easy.
The pupils often battled with their instructors. According to one source, the Americans gave names to the most famous fights during the pre-production period when they were trying to get the new machinery and production lines working properly. The names were "Okinawa" and "Midway" and other reminders of earlier Japanese-American conflicts.
In the end the Americans felt they had contributed at least as much as the Japanese to solutions of the plant's breaking-in problems. Now they talk proudly of Sony's new plant in Japan, which the company modeled on the facility here, taking into account many of the suggestions made in Dothan by the Americans. Nick Holley has been to Japan to see how Sony operates at home, and he says he is not nervous about the future of America. "In my opinion American technology is as good as it's ever been," he said.
But the fact remains that this is a Japanese-owned plant, exploiting essentially Japanese technology to manufacture a product designed and introduced in Japan. It is a small part of a Japanese technological wedge cutting deep into the American consumer market, but not at the expense of its domestic market. Despite the popularity of videotape recorders in this country for example, there are more of them in private hands in Japan.
Meanwhile, the American consumer electronics industry is shrinking. Sony recently opened a color television plant in the United States, while some of the biggest American makers have been closing down their domestic factories. Few radios of any kind are still made in this country. Videotape recorders sold in the United States under the Zenith trademark are made in Japan by the Sony Corp.
There are countless similar stories from other fronts in American industry from shoes to textiles to automobiles, involving competition from countries all over the world. The United States is not even self-sufficient in hamburger -- large quantities of lower-grade beef are imported from Australia and Argentina.
Americans have reacted to the loss of self-sufficiency with remarkable equanimity. American managers and labor leaders, somewhat unnerved by foreign competition, have agitated for protection, but the country as a whole has been passive in the face of a radical change in the manufacturing position of the United States.
The basic American reaction has been to adapt. Consider Clint Michaelis, the easy-going general manager of the Sony plant here. Michaelis used to be a plant manager for General Electric. When Sony offered him a job with responsibility for the plant's site selection, its construction, the hiring of a staff and the start-up of production, the challenge was too tempting to resist.
Michaelis says he is not upset by foreign penetration of traditional American industries. "It's really a healthy thing," he said. Michaelis believes that Americans can learn from the foreigners. Of course, he adds, if Americans can't learn to compete effectively with high-quality production techniques like Sony's, "we'll flat lose out."
Sony has found that southeast Alabama workers can compete with the storied productivity of Sony's Japanese factory workers. Michaelis said, "we're getting very competitive with the Japanese side as far as productivity is concerned," adding that "it will be a challenge to match them."
According to Nobuaki Tamagawa, the highest-ranking Japanese here, unit costs in the Dothan plant are "comparable" to those in Sony's Japanese plants.Michaelis noted that transportation costs, raw materials, utilities and taxes are cheaper in Alabama than in Japan. As a result of lower costs and good worker productivity, Sony finds it economically attractive to pool its worldwide production of video cassettes, selling the tapes produced in Dothan in Japan, West Germany and other international markets as well as in the United States.
Michaelis and Tamagawa said wages for Sony's American employes are higher than wages for their Japanese counterparts, though in recent years the difference has shrunk dramatically as the dollar's value has fallen. Tamagawa says that whenever Sony polls its plants in Japan for volunteers to accept temporary assignment in Dothan, personnel chiefs are flooded with applications. "It is very hard to select people because everybody wants to come here," Tamagawa said.
He claims to love America and Dothan, and has told his American colleagues that he doesn't want to return to Japan soon. "The living standard here is much higher," he said.
Tamagawa worked as a research physicist in the Washington area before joining Sony Corp. of America, and says his wife sometimes complains that there is no equivalent of the Kennedy Center in Dothan. "Here all we can hear is country music," Tamagawa said with a grin.
Sony has kept its American labor costs down by settling in the rural South, following the example of dozens of corporations, American and foreign alike.
Michaelis acknowledged that Alabama's relative hostility to labor unions was a strong incentive for locating in Dothan, where organized labor is weak. Local businessmen have worked to keep the area nonunion. Several years ago, the Miller beer company proposed to build a big brewery near here, but the Milwaukee-based firm was told it would be unwelcome because it would bring a union contract with its brewery.
Despite its failure to organize any of the major industries here, however, the American labor movement influences the basic wage scale in this area.
Michelin, the French tire manufacturing giant, has just opened a factory here, and one of its principal tactics for staying nonunion is to offer its workers the same or slightly better wages than members of the United Rubber Workers union earn under the current contract with American tiremakers. Michelin pays the best wages in this part of the state, and other local firms peg their pay scales to Michelin's or take the consequences.
Sony production workers earn from $4 to about $6.50 an hour. By comparison, the new contract between the United Auto Workers -- one of the best paid American unions -- and General Motors guarantees auto workers $10 an hour. Sony's wage scale is substantially higher than those of longstanding industries in the Dothan area, including textile firms, clothing manufacturers and a large factory that makes condoms.
Like other Japanese firms, Sony tries to foster a one-big-happy-family atmosphere among its employes, and Sony executives here go on and on about "the Sony family." Underlying such talk is a basic theory of personnel relations: workers are more productive when they feel management has an interest in them as people. Barry Singletary, the friendly 32-year-old personnel director here, knows most of the 1,100 employes by their first names, and as he tours the plant he asks workers about their new babies, their spouses and anything else that might help him to strike a personal note.
Sony is pleased with the turnover rate of its workforce here, which at 13 percent annually is low by American industry standards. Company executives boast that the workers are not only loyal, but hard-working as well. The supervisor of production, Gary Gresham, says southeastern Alabamans know more about putting in a day's work than workers he previously supervised in the Midwest.
Gresham reads a heavy message for America in the new Japanese presence. "I think we're still the best there is" Gresham said, "but I think we're being eroded away very rapidly. . . . I feel we have become softer, we have forgotten how we started, the price that we paid, our forefathers paid, the amount of hard work that they put into it and the excellence that they strived for."
Americans Gresham said, have always "tried to make it a little easier for [their] children," and because they have generally succeeded, Americans values have been weakened.
What does this say of his political views? Gresham believes American government "borders on utter incompetence," and that much ought to be done to restore American competiveness.
Does he think Japan is destined to pull ahead of the United States? No, said Gresham.
"The Japanese will fall victim to the same thing that we've fallen victim to, there's little doubt about it. They can't maintain their eastern mystique and compete in the western world. Their very culture will change."