Going East

A visitor worries that conservatism is stifling innovation in Japan, once home of the crazy gadget

During the 1980s, I spent a lot of time in Japan. The highlight for me was the technology. I was always pottering around the Akihabara “Electric City” area of Tokyo and bringing home wondrous examples of Japanese creative thinking, many of which were only available in Japan because they were a little too wacky for the outside world. 

Some of these crazy gadgets did make it to the West. The original Sony Walkman was such an example of the Japanese talent for what would now be called “thinking outside the box”. So outside the box was the late Sony chairman Akio Morita judged to be when he instructed his engineers to make a cassette player without loudspeakers that he could carry on planes and the golf course, that some thought he was starting to lose his mind. Here, it wasn’t just the Walkman concept that made us laugh at first. Even the silly Japglish name seemed to have no future. It subsequently sold several hundred million.

What passed for innovation in Britain at the time was a talking car, British Leyland’s Austin Allegro, which sported a square steering wheel. That and the idiotic Sinclair C5, a plastic bathtub thing that travelled under electric power but at exactly the height of other vehicles’ exhaust pipes. The C5 was the brainchild of Sir Clive Sinclair, regarded then (and even now by lazy journalists with short memories) as a genius. The Japanese, long regarded as originality-free copyists, were simply streets ahead of even such innovative nations as the Americans and Germans. I recently found myself in Tokyo again and went back to Akihabara to find out what Japanese product designers were getting up to now. The answer after a full day’s traipsing: nothing. Japan seems to have lost the innovation gene; the culture’s innate conservatism has reasserted itself. They make superb stuff — cameras that are even better than last year’s and so on — but nothing new that I could see since the already ageing hybrid Toyota Prius. The biggest buzz in the vast Yodobashi technology store was around the designed-in-California Apple section, where Tokyoites were purring over iPods and MacBooks just as they do everywhere else. And they’re mad about our nominally British Jaguars and Land Rovers. 

In the 21st century, the ill-educated British and even the still-just-about communist Chinese show signs of more pioneering pzazz than the Japanese. The tide of Chinese-designed stuff may be gathering momentum only slowly, but look out for such products as electric Vespa-like scooters, big in China for a few years already and starting to become fashionable eco transports of delight in European capitals. 

Poor old Japan, its car- and TV-based export-driven economy falling about its ears, is suffering, I suspect, from premature middle age. 

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