car vending machine
The Japanese invented canned coffee, instant noodles, karaoke, blue-light-emitting diodes and the Walkman. Japan was a pioneer of MP3 technology. Sony and Phillips co-developed the compact disc. In recent years, though, the Japanese have had a hard time coming up with the next bid thing. It was Apple after all not Sony that came up with the Ipod and Iphone.

Japanese are obsessed with the newest thing and the latest technology. Air conditioners are controlled by remotes; televisions speak in English and Japanese; cars tell you where to go; and robots are everywhere. In automated Japan, taxi doors open and close automatically, airports are cleaned by vacuum cleaners that operate without human help and parking lots have talking ticket-taking machines. Japanese scientists are currently trying to develop cars that can drive themselves.

“In April 2012, the Yomiuri Shimbun reported the Chikyu, an 56,700-ton deep-sea drilling ship, set a record for the deepest undersea research drill, reaching a depth of 7,740 meters in waters off Miyagi Prefecture, the agency said, breaking the record of 7,049.5 meters set by a U.S. vessel in the Mariana Trench in 1978. The Chikyu was at anchor about 220 kilometers off Oshika Peninsula, Miyagi Prefecture, to research the focal regions on the seabed around the Japan Trench, which is believed to have generated huge tsunami on March 11 last year. [Source: Yomiuri Shimbun, April 29, 2012]

Japan’s talent for “monozukuri” (“thing making”) has been a key to its success. In the old days, Japanese thirst for new gadgets and new things kept the industry going. Consumers had the money and the proclivity to snatch up new gizmos that they quickly tired of, desiring even newer models, and a pool of engineers to keep them satisfied. Ideas that caught on were promoted in overseas markets. These days Japanese hold on to their gadgets long and have lost some of their enthusiasm for owning the newest thing. Consequently, sales have slackening in Japan and Japan has lost some of its edge for coming up with cutting edge products.

Japan’s aging population is widely seen as an obstacle to innovation. As the population gets older and fewer young people are born there are less young people around to come up with fresh new ideas and more cranky old people around to pooh pooh the fresh ideas that appear.

There are more engineers in Japan than the United States, even though the population of the U.S. is twice that of Japan. Japan often leads the world in patents. Japanese scientists have filed more patent applications for superconductors than the rest of the world combined. More than 600 have come from Sumitomo Electric, Japan's leading manufacturer of electric wires and cables.

Japan produces more patents per capita than any other nation, almost twice as many as the United States. Patent applications in 2004: 26,946 per 100,000, compared to 5,231 per 100,000 in Germany (highest in Europe). In 2004, Japan applied for more patent applications than other countries according the World Intellectual Property Organization. It filed for 540,100 of the 1,599,000 applications worldwide. The United States had the second most with 346,300. South Korea was third with 157,600. Japan was no. 1 again in the world in patent applications in 2005. Japanese filed for 427,000 patents, the United States was second with 391,000.

R&D spending: 3.2 percent of GNP, compared to 2.7 percent in South Korea and 1.9 percent in Taiwan.

Websites and Resources

20111107-Wiki commons supercomputer EarthSimulator.jpg
EarthSimulator supercomputer
Good Websites and Sources: Japan Science and Technology Agency ; Japan Technology Information ;Japan Advanced Institute of Science of Technology ; Japan Institute of Invention and Innovation ;Statistical Handbook of Japan Science and Technology Chapter ; 2010 Edition ; News MEXT, Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology ; Nanotechnology Research Institute ; Aerospace Industry in Japan 2009 ; Trends in Japan: Science and Technology ;Japan Technology Information ;

Good Websites and Sources: Japanese Electronics and Information Technology Industries Association (JIETA) ; Google E-Book: The Japanese Electronics Industry ; JETRO Report on Japanese Consumer Electronics ; Nikkei Electronic Asia ; Gadgets and Consumer Electronics Blogs ; Companies Listed by Industry ; Japan Shuffle, a blog with info on electronics ; Trends in Japan: Science and Technology ;


Good Websites and Sources on Science: Japan Science and Technology Agency ; MEXT, Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology ; Science Links Japan ; Stanford University J-Guide to Science and Technology ;Japan Advanced Institute of Science of Technology ; Japan Institute of Invention and Innovation ; Statistical Handbook of Japan Science and Technology Chapter ; 2010 Edition ; News ; Trends in Japan: Science and Technology ; Book: “Japanese Science From the Inside” by Samuel Coleman (Routledge, 2000).

Science Museums National Museum of Nature and Science ; Museum of Natural History Tohuku University ; Osaka Museum of Natural History ; National Science Museum (Ueno Park in Tokyo) National Museum of Nature and Science and Technology Tokyotopia ; Research Centers: Tsukuba Science City Wikipedia Article Wikipedia ; Fujitsu Laboratories ; Hitachi Research Laboratories ; Toshiba Research and Development Center

History of Technology in Japan

Japanese call staplers “hotchkisses,” in honor of the man who invented the stapler, Eli Hubble Hotchkiss, in 1886. Hotchkiss sent the first shipload of them to Japan in 1910.

In the 1950s and 60s many Japan companies pirated their designs almost directly from foreign products. Canon and Nikon cameras were modeled after German Leicas and the first Hondas were patterned on the British MG and Austin Healey.

The Japanese have hundreds of popular products based on American inventions. In the 1950s U.S. companies failed to fully utilize transistors because they wanted to protect their investments in vacuum tubes. This paved the way for companies like Sony to make transistor radios.

The Japanese have made advances in lasers, diodes, CD players, screen technology, video recorders, and music synthesizers based in many cases on physics and chemistry discoveries made at U.S. laboratories like Bell Labs and RCA.

Research in Japan

The private sector accounts for 80 percent of all research and development spending in Japan. Japanese companies often spend 80 percent of their research and development money on developing new technology. Japan is almost totally dependent on the United States for basic technological research.

In 2007, Japan was named the world’s most innovative nation by the business arm of the Economist magazine with innovation being defined as “the application of knowledge on a novel way, primarily for the economic benefit.” Switzerland, the United States and Sweden were ranked second through forth.

The modern high-tech research city of Tsukuba has been dubbed "brain city." In the "zootron" climate room of the Tsukuba Institute of Animal Husbandry cows are outfitted with gas masks that measure the chemical content of the air they exhale.

The National Research Center for Disaster Prevention (NRCDP) has a corrugated-steel Rainfall Simulator, mounted on railroad tracks, that can produce anything from drizzle to a typhoon. This devise is rolled on artificial hills to get a sense of when dangerous mudslide begin. The NRCDP Earthquake Simulator is a giant hydraulically-powered "shaking" machine that is used to test horizontal and vertical movements on bridges, buildings and other structures. [Source: Smithsonian].

Things aren’t so good in Japan’s universities. Many Japanese universities have crowded labs, out-of-date facilities and a lack of funding. Even Tokyo University has been accused of having rundown equipment and out of date curriculums. In the many universities it is not uncommon for students to skip all their classes and get a friend to take the final exam for them.

In an effort to revitalize Japan's scientific research community, the government is allocated more funds to improve labs, do basic research and create more advanced degree programs. Top universities are trying to reduce class size, boost special skills and attract more young and dynamic lecturers and researchers.

Five Nobel laureates have studied at Kyoto University and five have studied at Tokyo University. Tokyo University’s engineering department is currently running a “Nobel Prize” program in which promising researchers are given ¥10 million a year in research money and access to expensive equipment such laser generators in hopes that they will come up with some Nobel-prize winning discoveries.

Industrial Policy and Japanese Innovation

Steve Lohr wrote in the New York Times, “In the 1980s, the Japanese government was widely viewed as the master practitioner of industrial policy, and Japan Inc. seemed poised to overrun one American industry after another, including computers. As we know, it didn’t turn out that way, partly because of steps taken by the American government and industry. A semiconductor trade agreement was intended to pry open the Japanese market, and I.B.M. invested in a crucial but then-struggling supplier, Intel.” [Source: Steve Lohr, New York Times, January 1, 2011]

“More important, however, Japan never became a force in a particularly unruly, imaginative side of computing: writing software. Generalizations are risky, but it seems that Japan, as a society, has not produced enough of that kind of innovative skill, despite being a formidable patent generator. (In that area, Japan is still slightly ahead of the United States by some measures, though Japan’s patent filing pace is slowing.)

“To call Japan’s industrial policy an outright failure would be simplistic. In some industries — autos, machine tools and consumer electronics, for example — it has done quite well. They are still in the game in those industries and going gangbusters — and we are not,” said Clyde V. Prestowitz Jr., president of the Economic Strategy Institute and a former United States trade negotiator. Still, just how strong a hand government policy had in those successes is open to debate.”

Japanese Patents and Papers

Japan was No.2 in patent applications behind the United States in patent applications in 2009 and 2010. By company Panasonic was No.1 in the world. International patent filings in 2010: 1) United States (44,855 patents, down 1.7 percent from the previous year); 2) Japan (32,156 patents); 3) China (12,337 patents, up 56 percent percent from the previous year); 4) South Korea (9,686 patents, up 20.5 percent from the previous year). [Source: World Intellectual property Organization]

According to the technology information company Thomson Reuters the number of scientific papers from Japan in 2009 was 78,500, which was 6.75 percent of the world’s total. Japan has traditionally been strong in physics and pharmacology, accounting for a relatively large share of of the world total. In space science studies, immunology and physics, more than 10 percent of the most-cited papers came from Japan. The frequency in which Japanese scientific papers were cited in the last five years (.98) was second in Asia behind Singapore (1.0).

The number of published papers by Japanese scientists has increased only modestly between 2000, when 72,000 papers published, and 2009, when 78,500 papers were published according to Thompson Reuters. By contrast China had 125,000 papers published in 2009. “A contributing factor to Japan’s underperformance could be the low rate of international collaboration. Research is driven by domestic activity instead of innovative opportunities with quickly developing neighbors,” wrote Jonathan Adams, director research evaluation at Thomson Reuters.

About 11 percent of the scientific paper published in Japan are in physics

High-Tech Factories in Japan

See Factories, Industry

High-Tech Agriculture in Japan

See Agriculture

HDTV Television and Japan

Japan is a leader in high-tech liquid-crystal display screens used on computers and cell phones. In 1996, Fujitsu and other Japanese electronic companies introduced the first flat screen televisions using plasma-technology panels. Early models sold for $10,000.

After being heralded as the next big and sucking up $8.3 billion in research and start up costs, analog high definition television (HDTV) was obsolete before it even fully reached the market. It lost out to digital HDTV, which, with the help of an inexpensive "smart box," could combine the function of a television and a computer. Analog uses radio waves to transmit information while digital uses a computer style code that is cheaper to broadcast.

Blue LEDs and Inventor Rights in Japan

In 1990, Shuji Nakamura, an engineer at Nichia Corporation, invented the blue light emitting diode (LED), an important invention used in wide range of display panels in electronics devises that includes everything from cell phone displays to large outdoor screens. Nakamura succeeded in commercializing the LED it in 1993. Even though the technology earned Nichia hundreds of million of dollars in profits Nichia only gave Nakamura ¥20,000 for the invention.

The blue LED combined with existing red and yellow LEDs made it possible to produce all the colors in display panels with LEDS. LEDS are semiconductors that emit light when electricity is run through them. As of 2004, Nicha had earned ¥121 billion in royalties from the patent for the blue LED.

Nakamura was angry that he didn’t receive more compensation and sued Nichia. In January 2004, Nichia was ordered to pay ¥20 billion to Nakamura. The court decided that Nakamura contributed 50 percent to the patent earnings and deserved ro appropriately rewarded. In January 2005, Nakamura accepted ¥840 billion, $8 million, as a settlement with Nichia.

In a decision like the one involving blue LEDs, Hitachi was ordered to pay a former researcher ¥163 million for patent rights related to optical discs. A Canon researcher was awarded ¥33.52 million in compensation for patented laser printer technology he invented. He has wanted ¥1 billion.

Magnetically Levitated Trains in Japan

Japan and Germany are currently experimenting with MAGLEV trains (magnetically levitated trains that float above the track on a cushion generated by superconducting magnet). A Maglev train has been built in Shanghai.

The Japanese program began in 1962, with testing starting in 1997 on the 18.4-kilometer test line between Tsuru and Otsuki, 30 miles north of Miyazaki, in Yamanashi Prefecture on Kyushu. In 1999, the Japanese maglev train has reached speeds of 552 kph (325mph). French high speed trains have reached 515kph.

In April 2003, 480 people were taken on 500kph ride on a maglev test line Yamanishi Prefecture. Describing the ride Hiroyuki Nakamura wrote in the Yomiuri Shimbun, “The train began its run on wheels just like an ordinary electric train. But when it reached a speed of about 169 kph, it shifted into maglev mode...I felt the train rise into the air for a moment. the noise of the wheels stopped, and I heard a sound similar ro that of an airplane housing its wheels after take off...The speedometer installed in the passenger cabin clocked off every 10kph as the speed increased. In about a minute it topped 500kph.

How Maglev Trains Work

Japanese maglev linear engines are powered by the interaction between superconducting magnets (made with a niobium-titanium alloy and cooled to near absolute zero with expensive liquid helium refrigeration systems) on the trains and track. Each train magnet is simultaneously pushed and pulled by a magnet of the same polarity on the side of the track. The polarity of the side magnets is constantly reversing and the speed in which they reverse determines the speed of the train.

The train floats as result of repulsion of magnets of the same polarity on the train and the bottom of the track, which lifts the train above the track. There is virtually no friction, which allows the train to travel so fast. The ride in a maglev train feels like the ride in an airplane.

Problems with maglev trains include: 1) the incredible weight of the magnets and refrigeration systems, causing trains cars to weigh up as much as 100 tons; 2) magnetic repulsion is inherently unstable because of the way the magnets repel one another so the guideway has to be perfectly smooth so the maglev train can float at a constant six inches above the track; 3) heavy shields are needed to protect passengers from the powerful magnets which can stop watches and pacemakers; and 4) trains tend to move back and forth and up and down, an effect which can be dampened with shock absorbers.

Building a maglev line is very expensive. The main expense is the elevated concrete guideway with embedded aluminum loops and magnets. The cost of liquid helium used as a coolant to create superconductivity us also very high. If superconductors are improved to achieve temperatures high enough for liquid nitrogen then the costs will be cut by a factor of 100. For the train to reach ultra-high speeds the track must be straight, and curves must be banked like those on a bobsled course. Limiting factors that prevent the train from reaching higher speeds are air resistance and tunnels.

Japan and Germany have yet to find commercial applications for maglev technology. In February 2000, Germany announced that it was dropping its plan to build a maglev train because of worries about cost and doubts about whether passengers will pay higher fares for the train.

Fuel Cell and Hybrid Cars in Japan

See Automobiles

Image Sources: xorsyst blog

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Daily Yomiuri, Times of London, Japan National Tourist Organization (JNTO), National Geographic, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Last updated October 2012

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