Emerging Technologies

5 Japanese innovations that changed the world

Japan Railway's new N700 bullet train stands at a platform of Tokyo Station in Tokyo July 6, 2007.

Image: REUTERS/Toru Hanai

Stéphanie Thomson
Writer, Forum Agenda
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Few places have done more than Japan to define today’s technological landscape. The laptops we all work from? Toshiba was the first to produce them for a mass market. The emoji you used in your last email? Also a Japanese invention. In fact, according to a Forbes analysis, Japan is home to almost 10% of the world’s most innovative companies.

And yet Japan’s creative prowess is all too often overlooked, with most people instead focusing on places like Silicon Valley or Tel Aviv. As these five innovations show, that’s a mistake – Japan has given the world far more than karaoke, Pokémon and instant ramen noodles.

Bullet train (1964)

Before the Hikari No. 1 was launched in October 1964, travelling by train between Tokyo and Osaka – Japan’s two largest cities – would take the best part of a working day. But with a top speed of 210 kph, the world’s first bullet train reduced the journey to 4 hours. Today, thanks to further technological developments, the trip takes just over 2 hours, soon to be reduced to around an hour.

Pocket calculator (1970)

You’re out for dinner with a group of friends and the bill arrives. What’s the first thing you do? Grab your smartphone and head for the calculator app. This handy little tool has its origins in a Japanese invention: the pocket calculator.

The Sharp QT-8B
The Sharp QT-8B

You’d have needed enormous pockets to actually carry one around with you – the first models were instead designed to keep on your desk – but it was probably easier than lugging an abacus to the restaurant.

Walkman (1979)

Think the iPod revolutionized the music industry? Wrong. When Apple’s product hit the market in 2001, the revolution was already well under way, thanks to a Japanese invention that came decades earlier: Sony’s Walkman.

Before the Walkman, the only way to listen to music on the go was by using a portable radio. The idea that you could pick your own tunes and listen to them everywhere would transform the music industry. “Mobility – the concept that you could take music with you – was huge,” Americus Reed of Wharton told AdWeek.

A 1980s Sony Walkman advert
A 1980s Sony Walkman advert
Blue LED light (early 1990s)

In the early 1990s, three Japanese scientists – Isamu Akasaki, Hiroshi Amano and Shuji Nakamura – set off a lighting revolution when they managed to produce blue LED light from their semi-conductors.

The discovery paved the way for energy-efficient TV, mobile and computer screens, and power-saving lightbulbs. It has been described as having the potential to revolutionize the 21st century, and the three scientists were awarded the 2014 Nobel Prize in Physics.

Nobel physics laureates 2014 Professor Shuji Nakamura, Professor Isamu Akasaki and Professor Hiroshi Amano
Nobel physics laureates 2014 Professor Shuji Nakamura, Professor Isamu Akasaki and Professor Hiroshi Amano Image: REUTERS/Janerik Henriksson
Android robots (2003)

Once limited to the realm of science fiction, androids – robots that look, speak and act like humans – are now very much a reality, thanks to Japanese inventors.

In 2003, researchers from The Intelligent Robotics Lab at Osaka University unveiled the DER 01, the first all-talking, blinking and breathing, human-like robot.

These robots are already transforming the country. In the summer of 2015, a hotel with an almost entirely robot personnel opened in Nagasaki. Two years earlier, Kirobo became the world’s first robot astronaut to speak in space.

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