The uprising of Japan as a major industrial economy is a wonder indeed. From the high-resolution display, image sensors to the solid-state disk drive, Japan’s products, and components are at the core of the modern world. Surprisingly, Japan did not invent many or any of these vital products or components. Does it mean that Japan’s success is out of imitation or replication? If so, why has the global community been condoning infringement of intellectual property issues? Contrary to common belief, Japan has been succeeding by reinventing existing products. Reinventions underpin Japan’s Industry.
Inventions alone do not create economic value. Invariably, they appear in primitive form. From Television, hard disk drive, Lithium-ion battery, light bulb to Phonograph, the list goes on. They all appeared in primitive forms. The creation of economic value from inventions demands subsequent improvement through a flow of ideas. In addition to ideas for incremental advancement, ideas for reinvention are powerful sources of stemming economic value from inventions. Furthermore, unlike incremental innovation, reinvention fuels disruptive innovation and migrates inventions across the boundaries of firms, industries, and nations. Japan embarked on the reinvention of significant products by changing the technology.
Yes, creating a success out of reinvention, Japan had to pursue a relentless journey of perfection out of incremental advancement and process innovation. But through the process, Japan succeeded in taking over the lead from Japanese and European firms. They grew as global leaders upon entering as a follower. To create this success, Japan had to dig down deep into scientific discovery to fuel its mission of turning reinvention waves into a creative force of destruction. Here are a few examples to establish a reoccurring pattern that reinventions underpin Japan’s industry.
Light Bulb Reinvention Underpin Japan’s Industry:
The cumulative effect of several inventors culminated in the invention of the light bulb. Soon after the issuance of a patent to Thomas Alva Edison on January 27, 1880, for Carbon Filament incandescent light bulb, a predecessor of Japanese company Toshiba started manufacturing light bulbs for domestic consumption. To extend the life of light bulbs, this company also pursued incremental advancement, mainly by searching for better filament. This Japanese company was also very rapid to adapt incremental improvements made by its American counterpart GE. It even succeeded in developing World’s First Frosted Light Bulbs. Furthermore, to create long-lasting filaments, Edison gathered thousands of different materials from around the world. Interestingly, he found that bamboo from Kyoto was the best in making carbon filament.
However, despite the natural resource advantage, quick adoption of American inventions, and demonstrated capacity of incremental advancement, Japan could not establish itself as the global leader in the ever-growing lighting business.
But the situation changed due to reinvention success. A small Japanese company, Nichia, emerged in the 1950s for producing fine chemicals. One of the products was fluorescent material used for electric light bulbs. In the 1960s, GE invented a light-emitting diode (LED). Hence, by the middle of the 1970s, Nichia speculated its bleak future in the business of fluorescent material used for electric light bulbs, as LED was on its way to take over fluorescent bulbs. Hence, it embarked on getting into LED lighting. However, the problem was with the blue LED. To overcome it. Nichia funded basic R&D, leading to the Nobel Prize-winning scientific discovery and invention of the perfect blue LED. Subsequently, Nichia succeeded in reinventing the light bulb by changing the incandescent and fluorescence technology cores with LED. This reinvention underpins Japan’s industry’s rise as a global leader in the lighting business.
Radio & Television Reinvention:
Just after WWII, the world was skeptical about the rise of war-ravaged Japan. But Sony started showing a path of recovery. It was the path of reinvention to underpin Japan’s industry. Soon after the invention in 1947 by Bell Labs, Sony envisioned its latent potential. Hence, without wasting time, Sony secured a license from Bell Labs in 1952. Despite the high potential, it was primitive. Thus, Sony started refining it to make it a suitable technology core for reinvention. The Journey began with the reinvention of the radio receiver by changing the vacuum tube technology core with Transistor. But the pocked radio, released in 1955, produced a cranky sound. I was far from making Japan a global leader in the radio receiver. Instead, it earned a bad reputation for Japan—a poor imitator.
However, the situation started changing with the continued advancement of the underlying technology core—Transistor. Sony ramped up R&D in Transistor for improving the sound quality of its poor-performing radio. The continued progression led to making Sony a global leader in producing high-quality radio. Sony’s uprising caused destruction to the edge of American and European Radio makers. In contrary to common belief, it was the success of reinvention.
Sony continued its mission of reinvention, leading to the reinvention of Television. Like radio, Sony’s television also emerged in a primitive form. But due to the continued improvement in the technology core, Sony emerged as the global leader. Sony’s emergence caused destruction to America’s Television set-making industry. Sony’s this reinvention journey through refinement of licensed technology led to winning the Nobel Prize by one of its R&D team members in 1974. These examples underscore the observation that reinventions underpin Japan’s industry.
Hard Disk Drive Reinvention Underpins Japan’s Industry Position in Data Storage:
In 1956, IBM invented the hard disk drive. Like many other great inventions, it also emerged in primitive form. In 1957, IBM made the first shipment. It was a 5MB disk drive, weighing one ton. It needed a truck to deliver, and a room to install. After 20 years, in 1977, Toshiba entered the market of the hard disk business. Through higher performance in incremental innovation, Toshiba succeeded in taking over IBM’s lead. But through reinvention by replacing the electromagnet technology core with a solid-state, Toshiba has emerged as the global leader. Toshiba is the preferred supplier of SSD (solid-state disk drive) for Apple’s products, starting from iPhone to MacBook. Due to reinvention success, Japan has emerged as the global leader in the digital age.
In addition to examples explained so far, Japanese firms have snatched away leadership from inventing companies of Europe and America in many other products. For example, Kodak invented the camera. But it got bankrupt, after consistent success over 100 years, due to the disruptive effect caused by Sony’s reinvention of the Camera by changing the technology core. Similarly, Japan’s leadership role in the display is due to the change of CRT technology core with liquid crystal display. Japan has also taken a leadership role in the lithium-ion battery by reinventing it. The march of reinvention to underpin Japan’s industry continues.
Deep Lessons from Japan’s Reinvention Success:
Japan’s success in developing a robust industrial economy is underpinned in its reinvention success. This reinvention has made Japan a leader upon being a follower in many industries. However, there is a need for a flow of ideas for leveraging reinvention. To create the needed knowledge for supporting the flow of ideas, Japan has been getting into basic science, leading to winning a disproportionate number of Nobel prizes in Physics and Chemistry in recent times. Reinventions underpinning Japan’s industry offer a valuable lesson, indeed. By the way, China has already been applying this lesson to grow as an idea exporter through automobile reinvention.