One more Japanese invention.

Photographer: Srdjan Stevanovic/Getty Images)

Japan Isn't Just a Knockoff Nation

Noah Smith is a Bloomberg View columnist. He was an assistant professor of finance at Stony Brook University, and he blogs at Noahpinion.
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Every once in a while, you hear the old claim that Japan doesn’t create new things, but simply copies the West and makes small, iterative improvements. Most Americans no longer believe this canard and a recent Pew survey found that 75 percent of Americans think of Japanese people as “inventive.” But people still repeat the old saw from time to time, and it needs to die. 

First of all, if anyone ever asks you “What did the Japanese ever invent?” you can quote them a long and impressive list. In the area of electronics, for example, Japanese inventors came up with the digital single-lens reflex camera, the floppy disk, flash memory, the VCR, the portable calculator, the Walkman, the laptop computer, the DVD and more. 

Now, defenders of the old stereotype will be quick to point out that many of these inventions used technologies that were invented in other countries -- for example, the charge-coupled devices that make digital photography possible were pioneered in the U.S. But if you look at the history of innovation, you see that almost all innovation stands on the shoulders of giants. James Watt, for example, is credited with inventing the steam engine, but in fact his was simply the first commercializable steam engine. Many other people had made steam engines that simply failed to pass the cost-benefit test for buyers. This is why scholars of business draw a distinction between invention and innovation -- the former is the creation of a technology, the latter is the creation of a useful product based on that technology. The Soviet Union was great at coming up with scientific advances, but bad in applying them in ways that were useful to broad swathes of humanity. Japan is good at the latter. 

Of course, in terms of invention, Japan also excels. The Japanese team that came up with blue LEDs, which enable energy-efficient lighting, was awarded the 2014 Nobel Prize in physics. Pluripotent stem cells, which allow the creation of stem cells without the destruction of human embryos, were invented by Japanese scientist Shinya Yamanaka, who received the 2012 Nobel in chemistry. Japanese physicist Sumio Ijima is generally cited as the inventor of carbon nanotubes, a material with an extraordinary range of potentially useful properties. Of course, Japanese scientists have been making important advances in basic science for at least a century, as any physics student knows. Japan’s 19 science Nobel laureates exceed Russia’s in number. And Japan is in the top few countries in terms of patents per person. 

Nor is Japanese invention limited to electronics and physics. Monosodium glutamate, or MSG, the chemical that makes snacks taste great but can give you a headache, was invented in 1908 in Japan, followed by vitamin B1 in 1910. High fructose corn syrup was invented there in the 1950s. So you also have Japan to thank for a lot of your delicious snacks and drinks (and maybe also for your expanding waistline). And in 1804, before the end of feudal times, a Japanese surgeon was the first to use general anesthesia. 

In the fields of entertainment and culture, Japan is also a pioneer. Many of our modern video-game genres come from Japanese games. Karaoke, a Japanese invention, is now a popular pastime in the U.S. A visit to a few Tokyo restaurants will reveal a level of novelty and creativity lacking in most U.S. kitchens. Japanese cartoons and comics have won the hearts of America’s youth. 

So Japan is a creative, inventive powerhouse. Perhaps only the U.S., with its large population, diversity, lavish research funding, and recruitment of immigrant inventors, exceeds Japan in the creativity department. 

That should take care of debunking the stereotype. But it’s also true that there are at least two important ways in which Japan could bolster its inventive and innovative prowess. 

The first is to improve its universities. Japan’s top-ranked university, the University of Tokyo, is only No. 23 on the worldwide list, while U.S. universities dominate. Part of this is because Japanese isn't an international language, and it is thus hard to recruit top global scholars to work in the country. But it's also partly due to anemic research funding, which suffered through long years of budgetary austerity. Fortunately, the administration of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is working to remedy both problems by boosting research funding dramatically, and launching a program to push universities to be more international (including classes in English). Abe’s support for science stands in stark contrast to the U.S.'s dramatic cuts to basic research funding. 

The second thing Japan could do -- but which many of its citizens will be reluctant to countenance -- is to create a well-funded equivalent of the U.S.'s Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA). DARPA has been responsible for a long list of transformative inventions and innovations, the Internet itself not least among them. Japan, which no longer sees itself as a global military power, naturally has less reason to fund a DARPA equivalent, but there are signs that this may soon change. 

So Japan, which has always been a very creative, innovative country, is doing what it needs to do in order to maintain its inventive edge. Is the U.S. doing the same? It should be.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

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