In the early 1990s, three Japanese scientists - Isamu Akasaki, Hiroshi Amano and Shuji Nakamura - started a kind of revolution when they managed to produce blue LED light from semiconductors. Blue light has a very short wavelength and therefore produces more energy, and a blue LED is an efficient way of generating blue light. Today, we have become accustomed to the use of blue LEDs as indicator lights on consumer electronics, from industrial forklifts, to alarms and cameras, to the lights on our PC or TV. It may not seem a significant invention to us, yet Isamu Akasaki, Hiroshi Amano and Shuji Nakamura were awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics in 2014, and their work was described as revolutionary. Technological innovation, the type that has changed our lives, from mobile phones to smart washing machines, often passes for seemingly small things, but they give work to large industries and a huge number of people. We are used to the Japanese being among the main players of these recent revolutions, and they have certainly not been discouraged by COVID-19.
Despite its significant creative capacity, Japan suffered a setback after the Asian financial crisis at the end of the last century, which for a long time overwhelmed it, losing much of its dominance in the race with South Korea and China in Asia, but also Singapore and Malaysia. Moreover, Japan has a declining, ageing population, which worries its leadership. However, rather than giving up its vocation for innovation and its capacity to produce in large numbers, Tokyo has decided to invest increasingly both in technological innovation and in demonstrating that innovation is not just about “small things”. After all, the PC we have in front of us is a development of the first company to produce it as a mass commodity, the Japanese company Toshiba. Moreover, do you remember the Hikari, the first bullet train launched in 1964 to connect Tokyo and Osaka in just 4 hours? Now it takes only 2 hours and Tokyo promises that it will soon be cut to just one…
Finally, according to the Japanese Government, Japan will be able to show that it is possible to grow through innovation even as the population declines. The government portal japan.go.jp/technology/innovation/ claims that the Land of the Rising Sun is rapidly moving towards “Society 5.0”... “a new ultra-smart society, where all things will be connected through IoT technology and all technologies will be integrated, dramatically improving the quality of life”. The government “is doing everything it can to encourage various players, including start-ups and “hidden gems” among small- and medium-sized enterprises, to come up with brand-new and innovative ideas, to provide the world with solutions”. There are many examples of this new vision: one Japanese company has developed a personal mobility vehicle that will allow people to move freely within a one-mile radius, a new tool which, instead of looking at reducing large distances, as is usual, considers the need to travel just one or two kilometres. Equipped with advanced and intuitive technology, the vehicle is also surprisingly affordable.
Japan Innovation Network (JIN) is an accelerator for large- and medium-sized companies to spur innovation in companies and overcome the widely held belief that “large companies cannot be innovative”: the second cliché that Tokyo wants us to forget (https://ji-network.org/en/?lang=en). JIN was established in 2013 by the national Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry (METI) “Frontier HR Research Committee” to implement the key finding of the need for “two-layered management”, the systematic approach to manage creativity and productivity in parallel. The aim is ambitious: to create 100 innovative companies in Japan and turn Japan into an “Innovation Nation”. How? Through three approaches. 1 Innovation Management: the Innovation 100 Committee made up exclusively of CEOs. The idea is that innovation does not only come from special individuals but is a management issue, and that any large organisation can create innovation with the right systematic approach. 2 Innovation Projects: to accelerate innovation projects with continuously updated cutting-edge management. 3 Innovation Platform: multiple open innovation platforms in collaboration with global partners on innovation opportunities and business solutions.