Acing the Race for Technological Ascendancy

Playing the long game, Japan continues to innovate, initiate, and illustrate why it’s still Asia’s hub of hi-tech

When it comes to flexing technological muscle, Japan is certainly among the strongest and fittest, consistently ranking in the top spots of the world’s most technologically advanced countries. Its prowess in the field of technology is continuously bolstered by the nation’s strong funding for research and development; latest available data shows that Japan’s overall R&D expenditure for fiscal year (FY) 2021 was 19.74 trillion yen, up 2.6 percent from the previous fiscal year. Thus, Japan continues to hew out a progressive path with cutting-edge advancements across various sectors.

Japan’s latest technological innovations sustain and shape the tech landscape, especially in these key areas.

Robotics revolutionaries

Japan remains a bustling base for breakthroughs in robotics, and recent advancements underscore the nation’s commitment to pushing the boundaries. For instance, SoftBank Robotics Corporation’s Pepper, the world’s first social humanoid robot, made a big entrance in 2014, catching the global eye for its ability to socialize and to recognize and interact with human emotions. As a robot built for the people, Pepper was designed for human connection, able to communicate with others through speech and a touch screen function. Pepper (and similar robots, since) was meant to be deployed in diverse settings — from retail and hospitality to healthcare — with the goal of enhancing customer service, facilitating companionship, and even assisting with caregiving. From androids, animal robots, and social robots to guard robots, entertainment robots, and humanoid robots, Japan has been a passionate pioneer in robotics and automation, for decades.

Robotics has, in fact, propelled the nation’s “monozukuri” culture. The word “monozukuri” came to use in the late twentieth century to characterize Japan’s manufacturing industry, encompassing everything from the manufacturing industry’s production techniques, frameworks, and philosophies to the items produced via these processes and systems, as well as the personnel (craftspeople and engineers) that develop these things. Per the University of Tokyo, monozukuri has long been the foundation of Japan’s global competitiveness in the manufacturing sector, as a whole.

Advocates of automation and AI

Automation and robots have significantly impacted Japan’s economy. In many areas, the rise in usage of automation and AI-driven technologies has resulted in enhanced productivity, cost savings, and improvements in product quality. This, in turn, has further strengthened the ability of Japanese firms to compete in global markets and has contributed to the country’s economic prosperity. Japanese companies are likewise spearheading the development of augmented reality (AR) and virtual reality (VR) applications, utilized across an array of areas, from entertainment and gaming to education and healthcare. Innovative applications include virtual tourism experiences that offer a more sustainable and affordable way to see the sights of Japan; immersive educational content, also known as metaverse education; and virtual reality therapy for mental health to supplement Cognitive Behavioral Therapy in treating conditions like depression and PTSD.

Also in the healthcare sector, Japan is integrating robotics and automation technology to enhance personalized medical care and therapies, as well as patient care and diagnostics. To illustrate, robotic exoskeletons now assist in rehabilitation, while artificial intelligence enables more accurate and timely medical diagnoses. These technological interventions not only improve healthcare outcomes but also address challenges associated with Japan’s aging population.

Supercomputing savants

Japan likewise maintains its reputation as a frontrunner in supercomputing.  In 2020, the Fugaku petascale supercomputer, developed by RIKEN and Fujitsu, was classified as the fastest in the world. Based at the Riken Center for Computational Science in Kobe, Japan, Fugaku is utilized for an array of applications, including climate modeling, drug discovery, and simulations that demand vast computational power. While Fugaku was edged out of the top spot in 2022 by Hewlett Packard Enterprise’s Frontier supercomputer, it is certainly not a farfetched notion for Japan to regain the position in the imminent future.

Apart from ranking number one for speed in 2020, Fugaku likewise secured the top spots in three other rankings that test computers on different workloads, making it the first supercomputer to ever hold all four top rankings at once. Furthermore, its supercomputing capacities proved to be of great value during the COVID-19 pandemic, during which Fugaku was utilized to provide vital research about the virus, as well as to conduct therapeutic drug research.

Japan is also actively involved in the furtherance of quantum computing. Research and development initiatives focus on harnessing the power of quantum mechanics to perform complex calculations beyond the reach of more traditional computers. This could revolutionize fields such as cryptography, optimization, and even drug discovery and development.

Champions of connectivity

As for digital connectivity, Japan is at the forefront of 5G technology, ushering in faster and more reliable connectivity by facilitating seamless communication between devices. Being the foundation for smart cities and the Internet of Things (IoT), 5G technology not only enhances daily life but also supports the continued development of old and new tech, alike, across varied sectors. Autonomous vehicles, smart infrastructure, energy management systems, healthcare processes and equipment, educational tools, and avenues of entertainment are just a few of many real-life areas that benefit from advancements in 5G technology. 

Of course, as the nation pushes the bounds and takes technology to higher heights, Japan also acknowledges the increased cyber risks. As such, the country pours a good deal into the evolution of advanced cybersecurity technologies to protect sensitive data and critical infrastructure, creating a more secure digital environment for businesses and individuals.

Game on for greener energy

Initiatives towards renewable sources of energy have been in place in Japan for some decades. Although it wasn’t until 2011, post-Fukushima disaster, that Japan started investing heavily in renewable energy. The country now focuses on leveraging its advanced technology to pioneer clean energy solutions and address environmental concerns, embracing innovations like floating solar farms, high-efficiency solar panels, offshore wind farms, and smart grids to enhance energy production and distribution. Additionally, Japan is investing in research and development of next-generation technologies such as hydrogen fuel cells and advanced nuclear reactors, aiming to reduce carbon emissions and promote sustainability. The government actively supports initiatives for electric vehicle adoption and energy-efficient infrastructure.

With a commitment to sustainability and technological advancements, Japan is positioning itself at the forefront of the global clean energy transition, fostering a greener and more sustainable future. The nation’s innovative approach to developing and tapping clean energy sources showcases Japan’s commitment to sustainability in the energy sector, from here on out. Additionally, the nation is exploring advancements in energy storage and management to create a more resilient and eco-friendly power infrastructure.

Titans of hi-tech transport

Japan showcases its tech strength, as well, in the development of new transportation technology. The country is currently working on the Chuo Shinkansen, the world’s first superconducting magnetic levitation (SCMaglev) passenger train line, between Tokyo and Nagoya, which it plans to inaugurate in 2027. SCMaglev — which involves small but powerful superconducting magnets that enable trains to levitate 10 cm above the tracks and reach top speeds of 500 km/h — is a novel transportation technology developed in Japan. When operational, this will not only reduce travel time between major cities but also set a new standard in high-speed rail technology as well as provide an eco-friendlier mode of transport.

From robotics and renewable energy to digitalization and transportation, Japan innovates and initiates, ever at the forefront of pushing the boundaries of what technology can achieve.

The SCMaglev technology is unique to Japan and has been in development since the 1960s, a massive undertaking by and project of the Central Japan Railway Company (JR Central) and the Railway Technical Research Institute. Currently, JR Central’s L0 Series Maglev Train, a prototype vehicle based on SCMaglev technology, holds the record for the fastest human rail vehicle, with speeds up 603 km/h.

These are just some of many facets of Japan’s technological ever-evolving and expanding technological landscape. From robotics and renewable energy to digitalization and transportation, Japan innovates and initiates, ever at the forefront of pushing the boundaries of what technology can achieve.

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