Innovation Blog


Can Japan Bring Innovation Back?

  • Jul 29, 2015
  • By Joseph Yount, Business Consultants, Inc.
  • 1 タグ

Can Japan Bring Innovation Back

Ever since 1964, when they introduced the bullet train during the Olympics, Japan has been synonymous with technological innovation.  Innovations such as the Sony Walkman, Toto electronic toilets, and the Nintendo Entertainment System (among other inventions) solidified Japan’s reputation in innovation.

However, with the advent of the smartphone we have seen Japan’s position shift as other big companies such as Apple and Samsung have muscled into the market with new devices that Japanese companies currently have no answer for.

What Happened?

According to one start-up founder, the reason lies in the size of Japanese companies.   Sony and Toto created their biggest inventions when they were still relatively small.  When their products became successful, they began a trend of “serial innovation” or constant improvement on those same products that continues today.  A former employer from a big Japanese electronics manufacturer adds that this is the root of the problem stating that Japanese firms are good at improving products but not at creating things that never existed before.

Others believe that the problem is not in the firms’ creative abilities but in the reluctance of management to introduce hit domestic products in the global marketplace.  A prime example of this can be seen in the reluctance to market Japan’s innovative cell phones internationally in the late 90’s and early 00’s.

These cell phones had many of the same smartphone features that we take advantage of today, including internet access, GPS, and e-mail.  Unfortunately, due to the unwillingness of companies to localize their products abroad, those outside of Japan were largely unaware of these features until the advent of the iPhone and the Blackberry.

Let’s Localization!

In Japanese there is a common tendency to appropriate foreign words and attach a new meaning to them that makes sense and can be used in Japanese culture.  One could say that the Japanese are focusing inward and localizing foreign language for domestic consumption.

The title of this section “Let’s Localization” is a good example of how the native English usage of the contraction “let’s” has been put aside and the word has been retooled so that it can be put before any other verb or noun.  This usage may not make sense to native English users but it makes sense and works in Japanese context!   If this skill, popular in Japan, could be reverse engineered to introduce Japanese domestic products abroad in a context that makes sense to foreign consumers then the world could see how innovative Japan really is.

And who not better to do this than those Japanese who have lived much of their lives abroad?  In this author’s opinion, they are one of Japan’s great untapped and underutilized multicultural resources and the key to spreading Japanese innovation abroad.


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