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Japan's innovation
Japan: The Once and Future Tech Superpower?

Can Japan regain some of the tech élan that once made its growth so robust many Americans feared it would overtake the United States as the world’s largest economy? Japanese officials and businessmen hope so. The Wall Street Journal:

“Japan has the talent and funds but lacks the necessary ecosystem to create its own Silicon Valley, so that’s what we’re trying to provide,” said Mr. Son, 43, who describes Mistletoe as a program to cofound new businesses.

The nation that created the Walkman and the bullet train before China even had a tech industry now lags behind as Chinese Internet startups like Alibaba Group Holding Ltd. become global powerhouses. With its once-dominant technology industry struggling, Japan is counting on entrepreneurs to rekindle its hobbling economy.

The government is pledging to fund startups, top universities have launched incubators and venture funds to transform their wealth of knowledge into innovation and even Japan’s oldest and largest conglomerates, such as the Mitsubishi and Mitsui groups, are looking to nurture entrepreneurs.

Japan’s success was, in its way, a blue model phenomenon: a Fordist, highly-regulated, government-supported effort which birthed a mass middle class and then, suddenly, stagnated in the 1990s. Doubling down on that system is unlikely to deliver the kinds of results Japan saw in the 1980s, and Japan is right to be thinking it needs new methods.

But this article misses an important dimension of the story: the role of tech in military applications as Japan gears up for rearmament and arms exports. Japan’s best hope for government-driven technological advances may come not from publicly-funded start-ups, but instead from defense spending. Just as the seeds of Silicon Valley were planted by the Pentagon, so too could Prime Minister Abe’s new focus on arms and security lead to a tech resurgence in the Land of the Rising Sun.

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  • Jacksonian_Libertarian

    Those that see the Government Monopoly as a source of bleeding edge technological development have NOT learned the lessons of history. Silicon Valley was NOT built by the Pentagon, in fact it was the exact opposite, as major cuts were made and many research facilities around the bay area were shut in the late 60’s and early 70’s with the end of the Vietnam war. This left large numbers of highly trained people looking for work, and lots of new grads from Stanford, Berkeley, and other schools with no potential jobs. Desperation was the motivation for development of Silicon Valley, it was completely a development of the private sector, where if it didn’t produce unemployment would be the result.

    • Jim__L

      Eh, what?

      The concentration of electronics techies in Silicon Valley was certainly caused by DoD — my grandfather was among them, and he worked on the bleeding-edge, money-is-no-object (or conversely, we’ll-pay-you-what-we-feel-like monopsony) contracts. Steve Wozniak’s father Jerry Wozniak (who also worked for DoD) was one of that same generation. If you want to say, “The seeds of Silicon Valley were planted by the Pentagon”, that’s a completely justifiable comment to make.

      That said, you’ve also got a point, and I’ll do you one better. It’s no accident that the Internet revolution came on the heels of the post-Cold War peace dividend. Releasing those techies “into the wild”, as it were, accelerated that technical revolution… which DARPA started.

      If you want to claim that government monopoly / monopsony couldn’t have maintained or accelerated the pace of technological development (and certainly not the pace of adoption), that’s fair. But to deny that DoD had a role, and to deny that role could be usefully replicated by others? That’s just ludicrous.

  • Daniel Nylen

    What exactly is Silicon Valley now? What has it given us since 2000? Google- pre-2000, twitter- is it making $ yet? All we have is ways to monetize the internet revolution of the 1990s eating itself. All the low hanging fruit is gone, and now we fight over monetizing what is left. Why should Japan try to replicate this?

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