Japan isn’t just a knockoff nation..

The big challenge for Asian countries like India and China is to innovate the next gen products and services.

Noah Smith has this interesting piece on how Japan achieved this transition. People in the west ofen complaint that Japan is just an imitating country. Reality could not be more different:

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 firstcommercializable 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 ofpatents 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. 

Nice bit on how countries actually grow and become developed. It isn’t about some macro policy or tax policy but companies/research labs innovating new products and services which make the existing ones from some other country obsolete. That is how Made in X country becomes a status symbol..

 

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