Japan's craftsmanship spirit and innovation economy

M. Rokonuzzaman   | Published: October 22, 2019 21:06:50

There appears to be a high contrast between craftsmanship and modern industrial economy. Often craftsmanship focuses on tinkering in perfecting and making handmade objects. It's the job of an artisan. Over the last century, the focus has been to innovate industrial production processes by dividing the job of 'making' into a series of discrete steps. The underlying philosophy has been on job division, simplifying each task, establishing a disciplined approach, and delegating increasing roles to the machine. As a result, the role of artisans has been taken over by millions of low skilled workers in performing predefined tasks in a synchronised manner-forming a mass-production system. To take advantage of it, producers have globalised  manufacturing, often turning farmland of developing countries into nodes of the global manufacturing value chain. This transformation has been continuously marginalising the artisans, in developing and developed countries alike. But there seems to be an important underpinning of this craftsmanship. It appears to be the root cause of the success of Japan. The success is not limited to making objects, but also in pursuing basic science.

Japanese firms starting from Canon, Toyota to Sony are remarkable success stories. A camera repairman, Goro Yoshida, started the journey of Canon. Out of curiosity, he dismantled a German-made camera into discrete components and then assembled them back. His interest did not stop there. Instead, it expanded to making each of those parts and replicating Leica's camera. Similarly, a carpenter, Sakichi Toyoda started the journey of Toyota. Like Goro Yoshida or Sakichi Toyoda, there are some technicians all over the world, including developing countries like Bangladesh and India. They also succeeded in replicating industrial complex products with a high degree of success. For example, carpenters in Bangladesh succeeded in making each component of punched card-driven weaving loom--Jacquard machine--and assembling them into functioning machines. Still, to date, these machines are used to weave very complex fabric. Carpenters, often having no formal education, have been making them over more than a century. Moreover, some of the technicians in less developed countries are also replicating complex parts of automobiles. However although they succeeding in replicating industrial products like Goro Yoshida and others in Japan, their craftsmanship did not lead to similar success stories in most of the developing countries.

How did these companies grow from the humble beginning of copying and imitating to innovation success stories is an important question to investigate in order to draw lessons. How did Sony leverage technologies like transistor and CCD, which were invented in the USA, to pursue disruptive innovations -- causing destruction to American firms and industries?

Japan's achievement in basic science is equally intriguing.  In the field of basic science, Japan's success appears to be equally remarkable. Since 1949, there have been 28 Japanese winners of the Nobel Prize. And 25 of them did their research in Japan. More importantly, since 2000, 20 Japanese got this award. Majority of these winners are in the category of Physics and Chemistry, including this year's winner in lithium-ion battery chemistry. More importantly, many of these Nobel Prize winning fundamental research works had their roots in perfecting industrial products. For example, Japanese scientist, Akira Yoshino is among the three winners of this year's Nobel Prize in Chemistry. They have been awarded the prize for their contributions in lithium-ion battery, powering our mobility and cellular connectivity, and opening the possibility of fossil fuel-free society. Since graduation in 1972, Mr. Yoshino has been researching on the battery with the support of Asahi Kasei Corporation. Upon taking his position at Meijo University as a professor in 2017, his status at Asahi Kasei has changed to honorary fellow. In giving birth to the current lithium-ion battery technology, in 1983, Yoshino fabricated a prototype rechargeable battery using lithium cobalt oxide, which was discovered in 1979 by researchers at Stanford University and Oxford University. Most importantly, he did not stop by giving birth to this important technology, primarily by using the work of other researchers. That was the beginning of a long journey in discovering chemistry and turning new findings into further advancement, making lithium-ion battery increasingly better and cheaper-a key factor underpinning innovation success stories.

Among the Japanese Nobel Prize winners, Mr. Yoshino's journey in perfecting a technology having substantial commercial potential is not an exception.  Leo Esaki, a Japanese physicist, shared the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1973. From 1947 to 1960, Mr. Esaki researched for Fujitsu and Sony. Just after the invention of transistor by American physicists John Bardeen, Walter Brattain, and William Shockley, Esaki changed fields from vacuum tube to heavily-doped germanium and silicon research in Sony. Much-hailed Sony's success has been causing disruption to Radios and TVs produced by European and American electric giants like RCA or Zenith. Sony changed the technology core of these remarkable products-making tiny transistors as substitute to the bulky vacuum tubes. To create success, Esaki's research at Sony played a critical role. Despite the underlying high potential, the invention of transistor by American physicists emerged in a very primitive form. With the support of Esaki, Sony undertook a relentless journey in perfecting transistor-making it better as well as cheaper. Similarly, Nobel Prize winning work of Shuji Nakamura played a significant role in improving lighting emitting diode. With the sponsorship of Nichia Corporation, his contribution to removing hydrogen from a key junction has been the key to the invention of efficient blue light-emitting diodes (LED), which has enabled bright and energy-saving white light sources.

There has been more than one theory in describing Japan's success in developing an innovation-driven modern industrial economy. Japan's remarkable success over the last two decades in winning Nobel Prizes has added another twist to the mystery. Often it's being argued that Japan just copied Americans and Europeans in creating success in the modern industrial economy. But Japan's success in winning a high number of Nobel Prize in Physics and Chemistry weakens such arguments. What is the secret? Is it due to the high spending of Japan on R&D reaching as high as 3 per cent of GDP? It appears that there is a far more critical factor in Japanese culture-- craftsmanship spirit. Some Japanese keep spending their whole lives in pursuing the endless perfection of whatever they love to make--from toys to LED light bulbs. In the absence of this spirit, it's often impossible to pursue a long road of scientific research and technology perfection leading to innovation success stories. Developing countries having the inspiration of building an innovation economy should draw lesson from Japan in pursuing the relentless journey of perfection. 

M Rokonuzzaman PhD is an academic and researcher on technology, innovation ands policy.



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