20 May Check out these 5 Japanese innovations that changed everything
From the damage inflicted by the end of World War 2, Japan rose from the ashes of conflict to become one of the biggest capitalist success stories. And few countries have done more to totally define the way the world accepts and uses technological innovations.
So many of the pieces of everyday tech we take for granted today started life in Japan. From the laptop you’re typing on to the emojis sent in text messages, so many of today’s tech started as Japanese innovations.
How Japanese innovations have always been game-changers
For example, Japanese tech giant Toshiba was the first company to manufacture laptops for mass market consumers back in 1985. Emojis on the other hand, started life in Japan in 1998. Defined as a ‘small digital icon used to express an emotion or idea within electronic communication’, emojis now constitute a new language that is widely accepted around the world.
Emojis were invented by Shigetaka Kurita when he was working at a big Japanese mobile comms company called DoCoMo. They took off in Japan first before rapidly spreading throughout the world.
And, according to an analysis of the most innovative companies and countries by Forbes, Japan boasts around 10% of the most innovative companies in the world. Despite this, over recent years, Japan has been rather overlooked in terms of its contribution to technological innovation. Attention usually goes to places like Silicon Valley, but if we look back at some of the biggest tech breakthroughs the world has ever seen, they all come from Japan.
5 major Japanese innovations of the past 60 years
- The bullet train
Launched in October 1964, the first bullet train slashed the journey between Osaka and Tokyo (the two biggest Japanese cities) from an entire working day to just four hours. The first bullet train was called Hikari No 1 and it changed the game for travel everywhere.
The first bullet train (shinkansen) in the world, the Hikari No 1 could reach speeds of up to 210 km/hr (125 miles/hr). In 2021, the same journey now takes just a bit longer than two hours thanks to even more technological innovation.
In 2015, the Japanese Railways Group (JR) pushed the tech envelope once again by breaking the world record for railway speed with the L0 Series maglev train. In development for a number of years, it reached a speed of 603 km/hr (375miles/hr).
By 2027, a levitating bullet train will cut the journey time once again to about an hour. This is JR’s next plan for integrating super-fast trains into everyday transport. They are currently carving a route between Nagoya and Tokyo, which will eventually stretch to Osaka. The Linear bullet train will travel at a speed of 500 km/hr (311 miles/hr), which will mean people can travel between Osaka and Tokyo in just 67 minutes.
- The pocket calculator
It’s hard to imagine a world without a calculator at hand. Today’s children will never know the ways of pre-calculator calculations, and when Japan introduced the pocket calculator in 1970, the world changed.
Today, we use calculators on our wrists and smartphones without giving them a thought. In 1970, it was a major innovation. While most major economies were working on some form of calculating computer, it was the Japanese company Busicom that got the first mobile calculator using a chip to market.
More of a desktop calculator by today’s standards the Mostek MK6010 quickly gave way to a much smaller, more compact version called the LE-120 Handy. This used an innovative Light Emitting Diode (LED) display and needed four AA batteries to run. And the pocket calculator was here.
- The Sony Walkman
A game changer for music-lovers everywhere, we shouldn’t underestimate the era defining Walkman. Before the Walkman was launched in 1979, there was no way to listen to music of your choice on the go. While you could have carried a transistor radio with you, it’s no substitute for your very own music selection.
The Walkman revolutionised the way the world buys, consumes and shares music in a way that is probably more important than even the iPod. Made by Japanese company Sony, the Walkman became an instant classic for people everywhere in the world. Tapes ruled the sales charts for years, kicking LPs into the long grass until their revival in the 2000s.
And while today, everyone streams their music or uses fancy hardware if they want to go old-school, for children who grew up in the 1980s, the Walkman will always reign supreme.
- Blue LED
By the early 1990s, the world needed a more energy efficient way to consume visual media and light the world. And three Japanese scientists came up with the answer. Shuji Nakamura, Hiroshi Amano and Isamu Akasaki began the new age of lighting when they used semi-conductors to produce blue LED light.
Soon blue LED was incorporated into everything from TVs and computers to smartphones and lightbulbs that save loads of energy. So important was this leap of technology that the three scientists were awarded the Nobel Prize for Physics in 2014.
Not so long ago the idea of androids (defined as robots that look, talk and make the same actions and choices as humans) was still firmly in the realms of futuristic sci fi. But in 2003, a team of researchers based at Osaka University’s Intelligent Robotics Lab launched the very first android.
Called DER-01, this was the first truly human-like robot in the world, complete with blinking, breathing and talking functions. And while androids aren’t yet ubiquitous, they are creeping into daily life more and more. In 2015, a Nagasaki hotel entirely staffed by androids opened.
I have no doubt that in 20 years we will look back to see that Japan was responsible for a raft of new major technological innovations that changed our world yet again.