Sun set to rise again on Japanese innovation

Japan has been quietly churning out a string of innovations during its ‘lost decades’

By David McNeill, Irish Times

Hollywood directors sometimes connote the future by putting a talking machine in their movies. Tokyo has gone one better. The latest vending machines on the capital’s streets use facial-recognition technology to tailor soft drinks based on age and gender. Touch-panel screens recommend products from a database on customer groups: canned bitter coffee for middle-aged men; sweetened tea for women in their twenties, and so on.It’s a long, long way from the clunky, coin-operated and frequently vandalised vending machines on offer in Dublin, and another sign that despite two decades of corporate decline and sluggish growth, during which it slipped from second- to third-largest economy in the world, Japan has continued to innovate. Even companies that have long dropped beneath the world’s tech radar have been busy.

Take Sony. Its debt rating was shockingly downgraded last year to junk bond status, and the once world-beating giant is the target this month of a takeover by American hedge-fund king Daniel J Loeb. The company that developed the Walkman and the CD player famously lost out to Apple and Samsung in the global market for new digital and online products. But it still makes FeliCa, a de-facto standard for electronic money used across the world.

Millions of Japanese now use cellphones equipped with Sony’s contactless radio frequency identification technology, to commute, pay for train tickets and shop. A phone can be used to board a plane, buy a concert ticket or check into a hotel. That means millions of transactions every day carried out with the swipe of a handset. Japan is streets ahead of the rest of the world in so-called electronic wallets. Some tech analysts predict Apple will embed an e-wallet chip in the next iPhone.

So why did the country that brought the world’s first mass-produced transistor radio, flat screens, floppy disc, hybrid car, and mobile phone cameras and email become synonymous with technological stagnation?

Declining investment and calcified management played a part, but in many ways the reputation is unfair. Japanese companies are incubating hundreds of quirky, diverting and perhaps, one day, indispensable products. Here’s a sample.


Toyota’s high-concept car the Fun-Vii is described as a four-wheeled smart phone by the company’s president, Akio Toyoda. Designed to resemble something from a futuristic Hollywood set, it navigates electronically, communicates with other vehicles to avoid traffic jams and collisions, and features a Star Wars -style digital pop-up to give directions and guidance.
A swipe of your cellphone changes the colour and design of the touchscreen digital surface. Even if it never leaves the assembly line, the car is a fun look at what driving might one day look like.

The Nissan Leaf (Leading, Environmentally friendly, Affordable Family car) is the world’s best-selling advanced electric car and a fine example of what Japanese manufacturers often do better than anyone: finding the best uses of existing technology, making incremental improvements and reducing cost to make a feasible product.

The car has a range of 45-50 miles and claims a fuel economy equivalent of 115 miles to the gallon. Those stats helped it win European Car of the Year 2011.


Taisei Corporation has recently pioneered a state-of-the-art technique for pulling down skyscrapers in cramped cities using giant hydraulic jacks. The approach, now being used to slowly deconstruct the landmark 140m Grand Prince Hotel Akasaka in Tokyo, is expected to revolutionise demolition technology around the world, where thousands of old high rises face a date with the wrecking ball in the years ahead.

Green energy

Post-Fukushima Japan is still struggling to find the right energy mix and with most of the nation’s nuclear reactors shut down, money is pouring into renewable energy research. US banking powerhouse Goldman Sachs has just announced a $2.9 billion injection into solar power and other renewable projects in Japan. KyoceraSharp andPanasonic will help make the nation the world’s second largest solar market (after China) sometime this year, partly thanks to a feed-in tariff introduced by the government in 2011.


The Japanese company Neurowear launched a pair of headphones this year with a sensor attached to the forehead that detects the listener’s moods and selects music accordingly. One of several novel applications of electroencephalograph, the science of reading brain waves, the product has its limitations: for a start, it can only detect three moods: stressed, focused and drowsy. But it could be the start of a more intuitive and interactive approach to entertainment.


Construction giant Shimizu Corporation claims to have built the world’s most carbon-friendly corporate HQ, using a raft of sophisticated technologies to slash CO2 output by over 60 per cent. Sensors shut off lights and heating in unoccupied rooms; solar panels on the outside produce enough electricity to power the building in the daytime; automatic shading devices adjust to shield the building from heat while allowing in more natural daylight. An innovative cooling ceiling system keeps the building at a steady 68 degrees.

The future

There are many more reasons to keep an eye on Japan in the coming years. With the world’s oldest and fastest aging population, manufacturers and service providers are devising ways to cater to pensioners that the rest of the world will soon have to copy. Large-panel displays for ATMs and cellphones, cars with adjusted responses for older drivers and therapeutic robots are already widely available. Whole areas of Tokyo are now devoted to the over-65s, complete with easier transport access, wider shop entrances and larger displays. Many of the world’s health-care innovations, including stem-cell research, will likely come out of Japan in the coming years.

“Japan is back,” prime minister Shinzo Abe crowed this year in a speech to business people. Mr Abe is taking the credit for pumping up the stock market by 50 per cent, bludgeoning the yen into a nearly 30 per cent fall and giving the world’s third-largest economy its mojo back. But will Abenomics help trigger a rise in investment and renew Japan’s reputation for technological innovation? And can the country still compete with ambitious South Korea and fast-rising China?

Company bosses are cheering him on. “There is a feeling that the government is serious now and the professionals are back and they’ve learned a lesson and will work hard,” says Irishman Matthew Connolly, managing director of Tokyo-based IT support firm EIRE Systems. Only time will tell if Abe is in fact still managing the nation’s long-term decline, or if he has helped kick-start Japan mark II.

Read more: http://www.irishtimes.com/business/sun-set-to-rise-again-on-japanese-innovation-1.1405649?page=1

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