The majority of the news regarding the Japanese economy in recent years has been negative. In many respects the country still hasn’t fully recovered from the economic downturn that took hold in the 1990s. However, as is the case with any modern economy, there are both positive and negative things going on in the Japanese economy at the moment.
The Good: Strong Infrastructure and Industry
Japan’s overall infrastructure quality is still among the world’s best. Its transportation infrastructure is particularly excellent, and helps to support the country’s industry as well as its quality of life.
High speed Shinkansen or Bullet trains are a common form of transportation
Japanese power infrastructure is also very stable and relatively efficient. Although not as far along as countries like Germany with respect to renewable energy development, Japan proportionately relies less on petroleum than most others, with about a third of its energy needs provided by nuclear plants.
Of course, the best known area of strength for the Japanese economy is manufacturing. In addition to cars and electronics, Japan is a major producer of semiconductors, data storage media, aerospace parts and equipment, heavy machinery, and chemical products, among many other things.
The Bad: Political Troubles
Japan’s current difficulties stem back to the end of the 1989 real estate and stock price bubble. The government’s response at that time triggered what was a harsher than necessary economic backlash, which it was then also slow to respond to.
Shibuya Crossing, Tokyo
A lack of ideas and a kind of political stagnation have been issues for Japan ever since the end of the bubble era. Whereas the Japanese economy and society in general were energized with the political reforms of the postwar period, its bureaucracy has become overwrought, and the major parties have largely come to be seen as being primarily in it for themselves.
Although Japan has had six prime ministers over the last six years, meaningful change has been slow in coming. Among the reforms that have been suggested by economists are sweeping changes to tax laws, and a better strategy for curbing the issue of inflation.
The Ugly: Manufacturing Competition
Perhaps the most pressing issue on the horizon for Japan is the emergence of other manufacturing powers. More so than any other factor, manufacturing is what’s kept the Japanese economy strong since the end of the war. Even though big Japanese manufacturers, particularly in the auto and electronics industries, have moved significant portions of their factory operations to other countries, manufacturing remains a Japanese strength.
The problem is that manufacturers from other countries are increasingly muscling in on the Japanese giants’ territory. In the auto industry, South Korean companies like Hyundai are in a position eerily similar to that occupied by Japanese makers in previous decades, steadily increasing in sales, quality, and reputation. There’s also the burgeoning Indian auto industry.
South Korean manufacturers might be even further along in electronics. Though it was once unthinkable, Samsung is now regarded as a serious competitor to Sony as the world’s premier maker of televisions.If overseas competition continues to grow stronger, it will only make Japan’s path to recovery that much more difficult.
Minato Mirai, Yokohama City
Robotics in Japan isn’t just fun and games. When people think of the current Japanese robotics industry, what often comes to mind are those weird, wacky, and sometimes creepy humanoid robots that pop up at the end of news broadcasts every now and then. While Japan’s robot mascots certainly do provide plenty of entertainment, there are serious and practical aspects to the ongoing development of robotic technology.
Two major factors have pushed Japan’s robotics industry to the top of the heap. One is the long-standing trend among Japanese companies in all fields, manufacturing in particular, to constantly push the envelope in terms of productivity and efficiency.
Japanese auto manufacturers were among the first to heavily incorporate the use of robots in their production methods. The suppliers for these robots from the start were mainly Japanese companies, and this has allowed the likes of Kawasaki, for one, to lead the world in this area. Kawasaki’s robotics division now produces industrial robots that perform functions such as painting, welding and sealing, and even assembly of products.
The other factor that has accelerated the development of robotics in Japan is the country’s demographic crisis. Japan’s population, with low birth rates and very little immigration, is getting smaller and older. This has created an entire subsection of the robotics industry which focuses on creating robots that work in the home, whether to provide companionship for seniors, or to perform domestic tasks.
Japan isn’t the only country facing these issues, so there’s actually a lot riding on the industry’s ability to come up with practical, affordable designs that can really address these potential problems. Of course, robots can be a little bit fun, too.
Toyota Partnership Robot
Developed by scientists from Waseda University, TWENDY-ONE is one of several models currently in development with a view to addressing some of the problems that come with Japan’s rapidly aging and shrinking population. This is one of the more heavy-duty designs so far, with a powerful grip to match that physique.
It’s one thing when robots replace human factory workers. The HRP-4C, built by Japan’s National Institute of Advanced Industrial Science and Technology, threatens the livelihood of some of the most skilled workers of all: runway models.
3. Toyota Partner Robot
With credits on the trumpet and drums, the Toyota Partner Robot is one of the more artistically-inclined robots on the scene. In addition to bringing new meaning to “soulless, corporate music” this robot has a series of siblings that have different modes of movement. They’re intended to one day act as live-in companions for seniors.
The undisputed leader among Japanese robotic corporate mascots is Honda’s ASIMO. Now a household name in Japan, ASIMO has had an eventful life since first being revealed to the public in 2000. It’s had some bumps and bruises, sure, but it’s also met royalty, opened stock exchanges, and performed shows at Disneyland along the way. They grow up so fast.
1. Astro Boy
OK, so he might not exactly be “real.” Osamu Tezuka’s creation, known as Tetsuwan Atom in his home country, began life in a 1952 manga and went on to become the world’s most beloved anime character. Japan’s fascination with robots, which could well turn out to be a boon for the world at large, arguably began with Astro Boy, so he deserves the number one spot. Honourable mentions to Getter Robo and Mazinger Z.
Japanese companies are known the world over for manufacturing those big-ticket electronic items: TVs, stereo systems, game consoles, and appliances. Not everything has to have such an obvious purpose, though. This is a peek into the sometimes wonderful, and often weird world of Japanese gadgets.
One of the latest gadgets from Japan is this line of Fridgeezoo “refrigerator companions.” Available in a variety of lovable arctic animal shapes, they sit in your fridge and speak up whenever you open it. They’ll also remind you to close the door if you leave it open too long.
9. Thanko Silent Mouse EX
Inspired by everything that made the ninja great, Thanko has created a mouse, complete with scroll wheel, that makes no sound at all. This is the perfect mouse for when you’re, er… doing whatever it is you do on the computer at night that you don’t want anyone to hear. A wireless version is also available, for those times when even the sound of the cord gives away too much.
These days many of Japan’s lauded high-tech toilets are equipped with a background noise function, which serves to spare the embarrassment of the user. When you’re out roughing it, though, you may have to take along the Eco-Otome, an electronic keychain device that emits a flushing sound at the touch of a button. There’s no word as of yet on a possible “now with perfume” version.
7. PuchiPuchi bubble wrap toy
Toy manufacturing giants Bandai truly outdid themselves with this marvellous creation. PuchiPuchi, named for the Japanese onomatopoeia for the sound of bubbles popping, is a keychain toy that allows you to pop bubbles endlessly. Every 100 pops, the toy will even emit a random, crazy sound effect.
6. Robotic pets
Robotic pets are big in Japan, where living space is often too limited to accommodate old fashioned, live animals. Some simply wander around, or maybe bark or meow every so often. Others provide a service, such as the super-cute Choken Bako doggie bank, which consists of a bowl, a box, and a robotic dog. When you put change in the bowl, the dog eats it up, and the change ends up in the box. Fun and functional!
5. USB gadgets
Japanese manufacturers have come up with all sorts of interesting ways to occupy those empty USB ports on your PC or laptop. If you’re experiencing temperature-related problems of any sort, the good people at Thanko have got you covered, with a range of USB gadgets including a cooling seat cushion, heated gloves, an air-conditioned shirt, and a tie with a fan in it. If a mindless diversion’s all you’re after, there are plenty of USB toys to choose from, including a replica of the titular creature from the 1979 film Alien.
4. Hello Kitty gadgets
What gadget wouldn’t benefit from having Hello Kitty on it? None, apparently, as Sanrio’s flagship character has been incorporated into just about every sort of gadget you can imagine over the years. In addition to several warehouses worth of cellular phones, alarm clocks, cameras and MP3 players, Hello Kitty has brought her special charm to a toaster (which makes toast with Kitty-chan’s face on it), a Fender Stratocaster, and even a fire extinguisher.
3. Game & Watch
The Game & Watch collection was a series of digital watches that could also play video games. Mario and Donkey Kong, among others, made early appearances on the Game & Watch. In addition to being a classic in its own right, this is the most historically significant gadget on the list in that it paved the way for Nintendo’s other portable gaming devices, from the Game Boy, to the forthcoming 3DS.
Bowlingual, made by Takara, is a toy which analyzes a dog’s bark and translates it (or, more accurately, the emotional state it represents) into human language. It may not quite be clinically accurate, but Bowlingual is nevertheless plenty of fun. Although it’s been available for a while now, and has even been made available in other countries, Bowlingual makes the list for not only its ingenuity, but also for having inspired the adorable talking dogs in the film Up.
1. Shouting Vase
For the ultimate in stress relief, consider the Shouting Vase. This incredible invention fits over your mouth, allowing you to yell as loud as you like. What’s more, your cries are reproduced and emitted in a softer tone from the other end of the vase. Now this is what modern civilization is all about.
The postwar phase in Japan saw the establishment of a new banking system in order to finance the reconstruction of the economy. In this rebuilding period, most Japanese banks operated in one of three general categories. City banks, were the greatest in number, and the primary source of short-term credit for the country’s major companies. These were complemented by regional banks, dealing mostly with smaller businesses, and specialized long-term credit banks
Bank of Japan
Smart, coordinated investment – and lots of it – ensured that Japan’s banking industry prospered along with the rest of the economy over the next few decades. In turn, banks felt secure in providing credit more liberally, which served to further accelerate the growth of the Japanese economy.
The Japanese stock market reached its all-time high in December 1989, amidst of rampant speculation fuelled largely by easy lending. The government was eventually forced to raise interest rates, an action which worked, perhaps a little too well, to burst the bubble.
The Lost Decade of the 1990s
The financial sector was the hardest hit by the post-bubble collapse. All of a sudden, a large proportion of the loans issued in the preceding years became questionable, risky, or just plain junk. The weak government response didn’t help matters, as short-term bailouts were initially preferred to meaningful regulatory reforms. Some of the banks were coerced into providing emergency loans to ostensibly “too big to fail” zombie companies, even though these had no chance of ever being repaid. For a period of about a decade, the Japanese banking industry was slow to enact change on its own, and it received little in the way of outside guidance. This served to extend the length of the crisis.
Tokyo Stock Exchange
The Japanese banking landscape in the 21st century looks very different from how it did in the heyday of the Japanese economy. At their peak, the “Big Five” Japanese banks – Dai-Ichi Kangyo Bank, Sumitomo Bank, Fuji Bank, Mitsubishi Bank, and Sanwa Bank – were also the five largest in the world, in that order. Although following the collapse and the “Lost Decade” of the 1990s, all of the aforementioned banks were forced into mergers. Now, for consumers, only three Japanese “megabanks” remain, and foreign-based banks have greatly increased their presence in the country.
On the positive side, meaningful reforms were eventually enacted, and the situation in banking and finance in Japan has been relatively stable since about 2005. In fact, the Japanese financial sector has been one of those to come out relatively unscathed from the global financial crisis, while other sectors have certainly suffered.
At the same time, the Japanese economy in general has continued to stagnate. Had it not been for the slow response to the first Japanese banking crisis, it might have been possible to turn things around more quickly.
Though overall, the outlook for banking and finance in Japan is fairly good. In terms of stable structure and governance, the banking system in particular is among the world’s best, and if the rest of the economy is able to recover at some point, there’s still a chance that Japan’s banks can regain their former stature.
Panorama of Shinjuku and Mt Fuji taken from Bunkyo Civic Center
Japanese auto makers have taken over the world thanks to their ability to consistently produce reliable vehicles and great overall values. Here are some of the most iconic cars to have ever come from the Land of the Rising Sun.
10. 2002 Honda Civic Si
The Civic is in some ways the prototypical mass-market Japanese automobile. Beginning with its introduction in 1973, the Civic earned a reputation for reliability and fuel efficiency, even though it has been gradually moved upmarket, gaining more features and options and getting a bit bigger as time has worn on. The Civic remains a massively popular choice, having topped the sales charts in the United States and Canada over the past few years. While the Civic has been consistently good over the years, the 2002 Si is the choice, as it marked the return to the classic hatchback style.
9. 1993 FD Mazda RX-7
For a period of a few years in the mid-1990s, the RX-7 set the standard not only for Japanese sports cars, but for sports cars in general. The FD, as this generation of the RX-7 is known, is loved by enthusiasts for its classically sporty look and feel as well as its engineering, which features an extremely intricate intercooler system, and, of course, the rotary engine.
8. 1986 Toyota Supra Mark III
The Supra was the successor to Toyota’s 2000GT, which is considered the original Japanese sports car. The Supra had an eventful run, marked by occasional engine problems and design controversies, but its place in Japanese sports car history is undeniable. The ’86 represented a change in direction, with a super-sleek, angular look that still calls out to the eye. The Supra has been on hiatus since 2002, but rumours of a return persist.
7. 1998 Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution V
The aptly-named Evolution has its roots in rally car racing, and its distinctive look is unlike anything else on the street. Although some prefer the Lancer Evolution’s archrival, the Subaru Impreza WRX, the Evo (as it’s also known) gets the nod here for greater cultural infiltration. The Evolution V in particular is widely considered the Holy Grail for the import drag racing crowd.
6. 2002 Toyota Corolla E120 LE
The Corolla has long been the most popular line of Japanese cars, and as of 1997 it is the highest selling nameplate of all time. Like the Honda Civic, the Corolla has come to represent everything that the Japanese auto industry has aspired to. The 2002 edition likewise represents everything that’s right about the clean, reliable, long-lasting, value-retaining Corolla.
5. 1970 Datsun 240Z
The Datsun 240Z (sold as the much cooler-sounding Nissan Fairlady Z in Japan) was a watershed model for the Japanese auto industry. It arrived in North America in 1970 as a competent, stylish sports car that was substantially more affordable than its European-made competition, and as such it became a big seller. Few 240Zs lasted beyond the 1980s due to rust issues, but they were good while they lasted.
4. 1990 Acura NSX
Considered the first and only true Japanese exotic, the NSX was the result of Honda’s years of involvement in Formula One racing, including design input from legendary driver Ayrton Senna. The NSX was originally intended as a competitor to the Ferrari 328, but the NSX actually surpassed its Italian inspiration in some respects, as it went on to be dubbed the world’s first “everyday supercar” that looked and felt like an exotic, but was (relatively) affordable and easy to care for. The NSX never changed much over its 15-year lifespan, so the 1990 model is a good representative.
3. 1998 Lexus LS 400
The Lexus LS 400 was another milestone for the Japanese auto industry. For the first time a Japanese manufacturer had produced a luxury sedan that could truly compete with the likes of Mercedes-Benz and BMW, and at a markedly lower price point, at least at first. Following its 1990 introduction to the North American market, the LS 400 was an early and frequent award winner, and by the late 1990s it had largely caught up to the German models in the public consciousness.
2. 1997 Toyota Prius NHW10
Alright, so the Prius is well behind most of the cars on this list in terms of performance. In its favour, the Prius introduced the most significant development in the history of automotive technology since the assembly line when it went on sale in Japan in 1997: the hybrid engine. Isn’t that a little more important than horsepower? Well…
1. 1989 R32 Nissan Skyline GT-R
There is one Japanese-made car so cool its fuel consumption can be excused. Originating in 1969, the Skyline is arguably the most storied Japanese sports car, and the R32 is the pinnacle of the line. The R32′s racing performance has reached near-mythical status, as it completely dominated Japanese motor sport in its era. What really makes the R32 the best Japanese car ever, though, is its style. The distinctive round taillights, the front bumper ducts, the spoilers, the lines, and oh, those unforgettable side-view mirrors. Everything about the R32 screams “totally awesome.” Sadly, the Skyline name has been retired, at least for the time being, but the memory of this classic will surely live on.
As popular as manga and anime have become in the West, video games are arguably Japan’s best known and most loved cultural export. This is a look at how they reached that status, and what things look like now.
The Mighty Donky Kong
Video games had been around in the U.S. for almost a decade before Japanese companies began to make an impact. Nintendo, which began in 1889 as a playing cards manufacturer, got into the video games business initially as the Japanese distributor for American game consoles in the 1970s. In 1981 they released the arcade game Donkey Kong, designed by Shigeru Miyamoto, the success of which spurred the company to make video games its main focus. Nintendo released its first home game console in 1983, and Sega followed suit shortly after.
Japanese companies were able to conquer the worldwide home gaming market in short order for a couple of basic reasons. The Nintendo Entertainment System and the Sega Master System were, like many other Japanese electronic products, higher in quality, more advanced technologically, and produced more efficiently than the competition from American makers like Atari.
Nintendo Entertainment System
However, the real innovation that Japan brought to video gaming was more creative than technical. Nintendo’s games in particular from this period were successful in combining fast-paced, fun, arcade-style action with memorable characters and narratives in a way that hadn’t been done before.
Into the mid-1990s, the gaming market branched off into four sectors. The console market was divided almost entirely between Nintendo and Sega, with Sony to arrive soon after; the handheld market, despite Sega’s best efforts, was dominated by Nintendo; the arcade market saw competition between Japanese and American makers; and the PC gaming market was the domain of U.S. and European publishers, with Japanese companies playing a decidedly minimal role.
Sony Playstation 2
The console landscape has shifted dramatically since the turn of the century. Missteps by Sega in the face of fierce competition from Nintendo and Sony forced it to get out of the hardware business. Sega’s place as the third major console maker was taken by Microsoft toward the end of the 6th generation of consoles.
Microsoft’s Xbox was introduced as a direct competitor to the dominant PlayStation 2, and although Sony remained the sales leader. The Xbox, and its more successful successor the Xbox 360, introduced trends to the industry, most notably a move towards a PC-influenced style of system architecture, that have served to end the one-sided domination of Japanese-designed consoles.
On the software side, Japanese publishers have gradually lost market share outside of Japan. Sports games such as the ever-popular Madden franchise have long been dominated by North American and European developers. The arrival of the Xbox brought with it a tendency for games in genres that would previously have been exclusive to PC gaming, such as first-person shooters and Western-style role playing games, to also appear on consoles. Some of these, perhaps most notably the Halo series, have proven to be enormously successful.
The Japanese game industry is now faced with a minor crisis. Japanese publishers have clearly lost ground overseas, and even domestic sales of some flagship titles, such as Final Fantasy XIII, have been disappointing. No less an authority than Keiji Inafune, designer of Mega Man, recently proclaimed the Japanese game industry “dead.”
On the other hand, the massive success of the Nintendo Wii has proven that things aren’t all bad. The Wii is still the leader in sales among this generation’s consoles by a wide margin. Whereas the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 are mainly aimed at self-described “gamers”, Nintendo has opened up an entirely new segment of the market by appealing to a broader audience and supporting lifestyle software like Wii Fit.
Microsoft is now set to respond with a motion control peripheral of its own, so in a sense, Japanese companies are still setting the agenda in console gaming.
Manufacturing and exports have long been the lifeblood of the Japanese economy. Here’s a look at the ten biggest Japanese exporters.
10. Mitsui & Co.
Mitsui & Co. is one of Japan’s sogo shosha, or general trading companies. These companies tend to be involved in all sorts of business activities, from sales and services, to heavy manufacturing. Mitsui & Co. isn’t the biggest of the sogo shosha overall, but it is one of those more heavily involved in manufacturing and exports. They’re best known overseas for their involvement in the export of steel products and materials.
Mitsubishi has perhaps the greatest overseas name recognition of the sogo shosha, largely thanks to its efforts in the auto and electronics industries. If you’ve ever been to Japan you’ve probably got some idea as to just how many things Mitsubishi has its hands in, from cars and trucks, to gas stations and stationery. Although it’s gradually wound down its auto sales business overseas, Mitsubishi remains a big exporter, most notably in the areas chemicals and heavy machinery.
Though now focused largely on IT services and consulting, Fujitsu is still a major manufacturer of products in a few different areas. Fujitsu’s PC sales business has declined over the years, but their notebook sales remain strong, and they continue to produce things like servers, storage systems, monitors, and computer parts and accessories.
Toshiba is one of Japan’s largest and most historic companies, with roots in the late 19th century. Today the company is a major player in several different sectors. Best known among consumers for its TVs and laptops, Toshiba is also an exporter of semiconductors, printer parts, and power generation technology.
One of the world’s largest entertainment conglomerates, Sony remains one of Japan’s biggest exporters of products and parts, primarily of electronics. Sony still does about half of its production in Japan, most of which is then exported overseas. Among the Sony products entirely or partially made in Japan today are TVs, cameras, and PCs and computer parts such as semiconductors and batteries.
Although second to Sony in terms of worldwide brand name recognition, Panasonic is actually Japan’s largest electronics company thanks to its success as a manufacturer and exporter of electric components (which is where Panasonic, then using the National brand name, got its start) and semiconductors. In addition to its eponymous television, power tool, camera, telephone and appliance manufacturing operations, Panasonic also owns the Sanyo and Technics brands.
The third largest Japanese car manufacturer, Nissan has possibly the most tumultuous history. The company looked to be on its way to extinction by the 1990s and was forced to enter into a partnership with Renault in 1999. Its subsequent turnaround under CEO Carlos Ghosn is the stuff of legends. These days Nissan is doing pretty well, although sales of its Infiniti luxury line continues to lag behind those of Lexus and Acura. Nissan also produces marine equipment in partnership with Tohatsu.
Hitachi is perhaps best known to consumers as a relatively minor player in home electronics, so it’s probably a surprise to see it so high on the list. Consumer electronics are only a small part of Hitachi’s overall operations, though. In addition to components for electronics, Hitachi also exports medical equipment, power systems, heavy machinery, auto parts, rail products and vehicles, elevators and escalators, ATMs, data storage devices, batteries, appliances, power tools, and more.
Honda is the world’s sixth largest auto manufacturer, and number two out of Japan. Like the other Japanese car makers, Honda now produces many of its products either partially or entirely in other countries, but its largest individual facilities are still located in Japan. In addition to some of its cars, the bulk of Honda’s motorcycle and ATV manufacturing business has remained in Japan.
The world’s #1 automaker is also Japan’s leading exporter in terms of sales. Although Toyota has gradually shifted some of its auto manufacturing operations overseas, many of its parts and finished vehicles continue to be produced in Japan for export, including the entire Lexus line. With a massive lead over everybody else, Toyota looks set to remain Japan’s number one exporter for the foreseeable future.
The initial phase of Japan’s postwar revival was powered mainly by coal, as this was the most abundant fuel source domestically. But it wasn’t long before the growth of economic activity in the country outstripped the availability of locally-sourced energy. By the mid-1950s widespread power outages were a fairly regular occurrence. Imported oil was deemed a necessity in order to help maintain Japan’s rate of growth.
Oil imports grew substantially until the 1973 embargo, which caused a spike in prices worldwide. Since that time, Japan has been one of the few countries to actually decrease its total oil consumption.
Compared to the other major economic powers, Japan today is a relatively minor player in the global petroleum industry. Japan’s largest oil company is Nippon Oil, best known overseas for its ENEOS brand of lubricants.
Japan was making significant investments in nuclear technology as early as 1954, in response to the demand for domestic energy production. U.S. and U.K. companies directed the construction of the first nuclear power plants in Japan in the 1970s. At first, Japanese companies were involved only peripherally in building nuclear plants at home, but their involvement was gradually accelerated. Now, Japanese conglomerates like Hitachi and Mitsubishi are among the world leaders in providing nuclear power generation equipment and services.
Monju Reactor in Japan
The growth of the nuclear industry in Japan, unlike that of other countries, was largely unaffected by the Chernobyl or Three Mile Island incidents. Japan increased its reliance on nuclear power steadily until the mid-1990s, when a series of minor accidents, as well as the cover-up and eventual revelation of the Monju reactor accident, caused a dip in public perception and slowed the development of the industry. Several new plants then in the planning stages were cancelled, but by 2005 the expansion of nuclear power in Japan looked to have mostly resumed.
Several new nuclear plants are currently being built in Japan, and nuclear power accounts for about a third of the country’s energy production.
The conservation of resources has a long history in Japan. The people of Japan have long been acutely aware of their country’s resource-poor status. The motivation behind the quality of Japanese craftsmanship always seems to have been the notion that, because materials are scarce, it’s important to put them to the best possible use, as was noted by the first Europeans to visit Japan in the 17th century.
Efforts towards conservation were redoubled in the face of the 1973 oil crisis. The Japanese government was one of the most aggressive in setting energy efficiency targets, and taxing the use of fossil fuels. Crucially, these measures were supported by businesses and the public alike. Japanese manufacturers continue to proactively seek out ways to improve production efficiency. Today, Japan’s overall energy consumption relative to the size of its economy is roughly half that of the US or the EU.
If other countries can adopt Japan’s attitude towards conservation, then Japan will have made a significant contribution to the global energy situation, despite having few natural resources of its own.
Sony Watchman FD-210
Japanese tech companies are better known for improving upon foreign inventions, but there have been plenty of significant technologies to come out of Japan in the last 50 years. Here are ten of the best.
10. The Flat-Panel Display
The first commercially available flat-panel display of any kind could be found on the Sony Watchman FD-210, a pocket television released in 1982. The FD-210′s display was a paltry five centimeters, but the technology involved was impressive and paved the way for the home flatscreens we see today. The first LCD and Plasma televisions were also created by Japanese companies, Sharp and Pioneer respectively.
9. The Floppy Disk
The floppy disk is counted among the many inventions of the colorful Yoshiro Nakamatsu, AKA Dr. NakaMats. The details behind the invention, and how the technology wound up in IBM’s hands, are shrouded in mystery, but Nakamatsu was awarded a patent for the base technology behind the floppy disk in 1952, long before they went public. While floppy disks are now considered a relic, they were the primary portable storage medium for computer users everywhere for a good three decades.
Early Sony Mavica Model
8. The Digital SLR Camera
The first known digital camera with single-lens reflex elements was the Sony Mavica, revealed to the public in 1981. However it wasn’t until 1999 and the release of the Nikon D1, that Japanese-developed, full-fledged digital SLRs started to supplant 35 mm film as the popular choice among professional photographers, thanks to their superior combination of speed, ease of use, and image quality.
7. The Video Cassette
The video cassette and VCR, both Sony creations made available in 1971, represented the start of a new era in home entertainment. Thanks to the video cassette, consumers were finally able to watch films at home, and at a time of their choosing. Studios benefited enormously too, as they were granted a new revenue stream in the form of the home video market, which eventually overtook the box office in value.
6. The Camcorder
As hard as it is to believe now, the process of on-location video recording used to require at least two people. Prior to the 1980s TV news crews used video cameras – that is, the devices that were actually used to shoot video – with separate recording units. The earliest portable video recorders still had to be connected to the camera via a cable, which limited their utility. With the Sony Betacam, released in 1982, a video camera and video recorder were combined into a single device for the first time. The camcorder, as it came to be known, revolutionized journalism and
filmmaking, and eventually brought video recording home.
5. The Pocket Calculator
Although the first so-called ‘compact’ calculator was also made in Japan, it wasn’t until 1971, birth year of the Busicom LE-120A, that truly portable calculators became widely available. 1978′s Sharp EL-8086 was the first solar-powered calculator, and this further extended the reach of the device, helping to conserve battery and brain power around the world.
4. The Portable Music Player
Before the iPod, the Sony Walkman was synonymous with music on the go. While technically not the world’s first portable cassette player, the Walkman was by far the most successful, bringing the concept of portable music to the masses. Sony introduced a number of new features along the line, including a recording function (still sorely missing from modern music players!), and playback of other media, like CDs (1984′s Discman), and even TV and video cassettes (with the Video Walkman, released in 1989). Just try to imagine what the world would be like without portable music players.
3. The Quartz Wristwatch
Released in 1969, the Seiko Astron was the world’s first quartz wristwatch. Quartz technology represented a substantial upgrade over old-fashioned mechanical watches, as it eliminated the need for easily damaged moving parts, while keeping time more accurately than previous watches. Quartz remains the standard for wristwatches to this day.
2. The High-Speed Passenger Train
The 12-car 0-Series Shinkansen bullet train, which ran from 1964 to 2008, was the world’s first high-volume, high-speed passenger train. Superior rail transport was one of the major factors that helped to power Japan’ economy to number two in the world, and the design of the early Shinkansen influenced overseas engineers as well.
1. The Compact Disc
Created jointly by Sony and Philips in the late 1970s, the compact disc, and the Sony-developed CD player, are perhaps the most important technologies to come out of Japan. Originally intended strictly as a replacement for vinyl records, the CD proved useful as a general data storage medium in the form of the CD-ROM and then the CD-R. Its successor technologies, the DVD and Blu-ray disc, are also both joint Sony/Philips creations. The optical disc remains one of the modern world’s most ubiquitous inventions.