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Japan strives for innovation

Article - November 25, 2016

It might for now trail California’s Silicon Valley as the world’s leading high technology research and development hub, but Japan is starting to catch up. Investments in startups are rising, driven by interest in cutting-edge new technologies


Bolstered by Japanese Prime Minister’s Shinzo Abe’s reforms and enthusiastic support for innovative public and private-sector joint projects, Japanese companies and research institutes are playing a key role in helping the country regain its status as a front-runner and number one new technologies developer forged in the 1970s and 1980s.

Japan has won 23 Nobel Prizes since 1949, mostly in natural sciences, helping nurture industry, and seven of the top 10 corporate patent holders over the past decade were Japanese, according to the World Intellectual Property Organization.

The latest data from the OECD, released in April, shows that Japan is spending much more on research and development than most of its major competitors, including the U.S. and China, with 3.58% of its GDP, against 2.74% and 2.05% respectively; and is ranked third worldwide, after South Korea and Israel.

And yet Mr. Abe isn’t satisfied with those numbers and wants Japan in top spot within the next two years, and to help in that he advised the country’s national research and development institute RIKEN that he’s prepared to let the government-backed institute increase salaries to attract more top scientists.

Japan spends 3.58% of GDP on research and development

“In the U.S. and Europe, researchers have relatively high salaries. Salaries for scientists used to be very high in Japan too. But today, scientists’ salaries are basically equivalent or sometimes lower than the average salary of company employees,” says RIKEN President Hiroshi Matsumoto.

“Fortunately, the Japanese government has finally come to realize that this is a problem, and has agreed that we should be able to pay higher salaries if necessary.”

RIKEN has a network of world-class research centers across Japan, offering state-of-the-art facilities that rank among the world’s best. With offices in Beijing and Singapore and two research centers in the U.K. and U.S., it employs around 500 foreign specialists alongside over 2,500 Japanese scientists and support staff.

Innovative work done by RIKEN and Japanese companies at present–be it pure research with few defined practical applications, to development of new products or adaptions to existing technologies–covers a huge spectrum.

For example, RIKEN’s K computer, which today is one of the world’s fastest supercomputers, has developed a system to predict at very short notice weather conditions that will lead to torrential rain, a development that could be crucial to saving lives as deadly rain clouds can form with little warning. Practical uses for this may be a decade away, though.

RIKEN is also working on technology which can make tissue transparent so that researchers can see inside organs, and even observe structural abnormalities at the cellular level, says Mr. Matsumoto.

“While this technology can’t be applied to living tissue, the knowledge we gain from it can help us understand illnesses and develop treatments for the living.”

Other examples of RIKEN’s ground-breaking projects include research on the production of synthetic rubbers from biomass (which could reduce the use of fossil fuels in rubber production); clinical studies on retinal tissues developed from stem cells to treat eye diseases; and a joint venture with Kyocera Corp. and start-up firm Organ Technologies Inc. to develop a treatment for alopecia, or hair loss.

A RIKEN group led by Kosuke Morita also made history last year with the discovery of Element 113–the first element on the periodic table found in Asia. The RIKEN team were deservedly given the naming rights, and in June officially named the newly-discovered atomic element ‘nihonium’.

RIKEN is not the only organization in Japan developing innovative solutions to health and environment issues. The list of projects and research sectors goes on and on. Many are aimed at tackling climate change and reducing global dependence on fossil fuels.

“Salaries for scientists used to be very high in Japan too. But today, scientists’ salaries are basically equivalent or sometimes lower than the average salary of company employees. Fortunately, the Japanese government has finally come to realize that this is a problem, and has agreed that we should be able to pay higher salaries if necessary”

Hiroshi Matsumoto, President, RIKEN

Car firms Toyota and Honda have been working with a more established element on the periodic table, leading global efforts to develop hydrogen-powered cars. In December 2014, Toyota released its zero-emissions Mirai hydrogen fuel cell car, with output at an initial 2,000 autos annually, while in March Honda released its rival Clarity vehicle.

Fuel cells create electricity to power motors through the chemical reaction of hydrogen or ethanol ions with oxygen.

Toyota hopes for global sales of 30,000 by 2020, a tiny number given that in 2015 the world’s largest carmaker made 10.15 million regular autos. Earlier this year, Kawasaki Heavy Industries and Iwatani Corp. partnered Kobe city to build a 10 billion yen ($99 million) liquefied hydrogen import hub by 2020, using imported hydrogen made from lignite coal in Australia.

The government’s Council for a Strategy for Hydrogen and Fuel Cells has set ambitious targets–40,000 fuel cell vehicles in Japan by 2020 and 200,000 by 2025, and many more hydrogen filling stations. It also wants more spending on research and development to cut fuel cell costs to one-fourth of current levels.

Another Japanese industrial heavyweight, Hitachi has just announced it has developed a new type of offshore wind turbine able to boost electricity output in light-wind regions. Toshiba Mitsubishi-Electric Industrial Systems Corp (TMEIC) is developing award-winning solar energy technology, while manufacturer of environmental preservation equipment, Kanken Techno, is breaking new ground in the treatment of greenhouses gases and other toxic emissions (see page 15).

Even though Japan is falling short of economic growth targets, the country seems to have a new impetus. The country’s relatively low level of investment in start-up companies is now surging, driven by interest in cutting-edge new technologies.

In the first half of 2016, startups by unlisted companies raised a record 92.8 billion yen ($918.4 million), up 21% from January-June 2015, and may reach the highest level since this type of data was collected a decade ago.