Innovation nation: 13 technology advancements made in Japan

Japan has fallen off the radar in recent years, but it's still a vital if quiet place of creation


Japan is still the third-largest economy in the world after the U.S. and China, impressive for a nation of just 120 million. You don't hear about it anymore, but that doesn't mean it stopped innovating. Here are 13 areas where it's blazing trails.

Recycle radioactive waste

Recycling radioactive waste into rare metals

The Japanese government set up a fund worth over US$530 million dollars to help make Japan more competitive. Among the 12 research proposals they selected was one of a group of researchers who want to find a way to recycle highly radioactive waste into rare metals.

High-level radioactive waste from nuclear reactors contain rare metals such as palladium and rhodium. Palladium is used in semiconductor electrodes while rhodium is used as an alloying agent in metals, like Palladium. The group is looking to extract these rare metals from radioactive waste.

Radioactive waste also contains substances known as minor actinides, such as neptunium and americium. The government hopes to transmute these deadly actinides into materials like ruthenium, stable nuclides of which do not emit radiation.

Natural gas

Plastics from natural gas

The high price of petroleum hits Japan harder than the U.S. because Japan has no natural reserves. Fed up with the high oil prices, Mitsubishi Rayon plans to build a factory along the Gulf of Mexico in the U.S. to produce plastics made from gas.

Mitsubishi is partnering with Mitsui & Co., one of the largest general trade companies in Japan and will invest $490 million. When the factory goes online in four years it will have an annual output of 250,000 tons.

Another partner is Asahi Kasei Chemicals, which has developed a new technology to turn natural gas into a raw material for car tires. The company plans to build a factory in the city of Kurashiki, Okayama Prefecture, western Japan next year.


Lettuce from a clean room

Supercomputer maker Fujitsu has been working on a digital lettuce patch to create a line of "Kirei Yasai" (clean vegetable) greens.

The facility in Aizu-Wakamatsu, Fukushima, in northern Japan has about 2,000 square meters of a one-time clean room given over to plant production. Fujitsu said it’s the largest center of its kind focused on producing low-potassium veggies.

A compute-based platform determined the best atmospheric conditions, such as temperature and humidity, as well as fertilizer levels to achieve the crop they wanted. For starters, Fujitsu grows lettuce that has 100 micrograms or less of potassium per 100 grams, well below the 500 micrograms of typical lettuce. This is for people with chronic kidney disease, since their kidneys cannot handle all that potassium.

Water drople
REUTERS/Darren Staples

Freezer tech

Some foods can't be frozen, like fruits, without ruining them. This is because in the process of freezing, ice crystals break the walls of cells, which destroys texture.

ABI Co. of Chiba has developed the Cells Alive System, or CAS, that actually changes the physics of freezing. Using an oscillating electrical field, it forces water molecules to spin instead of freezing and bunching up into ice crystals, so cell walls are not broken. Even better, CAS uses 30% less power than conventional freezers, and can freeze foods up to five times faster than regular freezers, depending on the product. Oxidization is reduced by 98%, so fruit, vegetables and rice can be frozen with no loss of taste.

Blue fin tuna
REUTERS/Tony Gentile

Tuna breeding

The Japanese love, love, love Bluefin tuna, a.k.a. maguro. It's estimated 90% of the Bluefin harvest winds up in Japan. The problem is, the Japanese are eating them into extinction.

Bluefin don't breed in captivity, but Japan has had a breakthrough. Researchers at Toyota Tsusho, and Kinki University have found the right mix of water salinity, water temperature and sunlight to get tuna breeding in captivity.

The two partners will set up a new hatchling center in Nagasaki Prefecture to handle the entire farming process, from artificial incubation to breeding. The facility may open as early as next May with the goal of producing 300,000 fry annually in about 3 years, or roughly 10 percent of the quantity consumed in Japan.

Life is Tech camp

Promoting entrepreneurship

Imagine Mark Zuckerberg, Marc Benioff, Elon Musk and other tech entrepreneurs hosting a camp for high school students who want to set up a software or cloud-based services company, including helping them develop a business plan and set up a company to bring the company to market.

Life-Is-Tech is a camp doing just that. It includes about 100 participants, boys and girls, who engage in both classes and games, and at the end of the camp, students break out into teams to produce an app.

Courses include iOS, Android, game design, Ruby on Rails, and HTML5. Life-is-Tech also works with colleges and tech companies to co-run some of its programs. Some of the past projects are available online now.

Mitsubishi Regional Jet

Joining the airline business

Japan is back in the airlines business. Mitsubishi, the same company that gave us the Zero in WW II, is preparing to launch its first commercial aircraft in 50 years.

The aircraft, dubbed the Mitsubishi Regional Jet, has been in development since 2008 when Mitsubishi Heavy Industries formed the Mitsubishi Aircraft Corporation to developer a regional passenger jet. It's the first airliner designed and produced in Japan since the NAMC YS-11 turboprop developed in the early 1960s as a replacement for DC-3s that were flying many domestic routes at the time.

Mitsubishi claims it will have the quietest and greenest aircraft when the plane launches in 2017. American launch customers include SkyWest and Eastern Airlines (yes, that Eastern Airlines).

REUTERS/Mehr News Agency/Ali Kaveh

Changing the airline business

Japan didn't invent carbon fiber, Thomas Edison did. But it sure perfected it. Three firms – Toray, Teijin and Mitsubishi Rayon -- control 70 percent of the global carbon fiber market. Toray owns 40 percent now, thanks in part to Boeing.

When Boeing decided to build its 787 Dreamliner out of carbon fiber, it simply went to Toray and said let's make a deal, according to a J-Tech documentary on NHK World.

787 hulls are built in Everett, Washington, in a giant kiln where the carbon fiber is baked into the shape of the airliner. As a result, the Dreamliner is 15% lighter than an aluminum plane of the same size.

To meet increasing demand, Toray is building a $1 billion plant in South Carolina.

UNI-CUB personal mobility device

UNI-CUB: A better Segway

The Segway hasn't really caught on like Dean Kamen would have liked. Perhaps it's because you still have to stand in the thing. Honda has a solution: The Honda Uni-Cub. The Uni-Cub is a self-balancing rolling seat with a zero turning radius and is battery powered. This will make it more sidewalk- and crowd-friendly because the device isn't much bigger than you are.

The Segway relied on the rider to control it by using the handlebars. The Uni-Cub is controlled by shifting your body weight. If you want to go left, lean left. That means your hands are free to do whatever you need to do. Unfortunately, they haven't solved the problem of a flight of stairs yet.

Humanoid robots Otonaroid and Kodomoroid

Androids: Kodomoroid and Otonaroid

Tokyo's National Museum of Emerging Science and Innovation has two new staffers. They are Kodomoroid and Otonaroid, two androids that are disturbingly realistic.

The androids can be remote controlled but they cannot walk around on their own. They are mostly used sitting at tables and interacting with people. They can move their upper bodies, arms, fingers and heads and manage a few different facial expressions. Their speech is all pre-recorded, so there is no interactivity. They get an Internet news feed and will recite the news for people.

The androids are the creation of Hiroshi Ishiguro, an Osaka University and Advanced Telecommunications Research Institute International (ATR) roboticist who created an android clone of himself called Geminoid.


Robotics: Pepper

Like so many Japanese firms, Softbank plays in many industries, and it has added robotics to the mix. The company recently introduced Pepper, built on technology Softbank acquired from the French robotics company Aldebaran.

Pepper can communicate through emotion, speech or body language. It has microphones and proximity sensors that not only understand what you are saying but can sense the tone of your voice to get a read on your mood. Overall, its vocabulary is 4,500 words, all of them Japanese at this point.

Pepper's facial-recognition technology, cameras, and sensors allow the robot to learn how to behave over time, rather than having to be programmed for specific tasks. It's also said to have some kind of cloud-based AI engine that helps it learn.


FabCafe: Starbucks with a 3D printer

Don't have access to a 3D printer but got some cool ideas? If you are in Tokyo you can visit the FabCafe. It looks like any other coffee shop until you notice the unusual equipment that can let you custom create or customize everything from iPhone covers to greeting cards, accessories, chairs, lighting.

It does both 3D printing and uses controlled lasers to etch/burn patterns into wood or even a cardboard notebook cover. The concept was born from a 2002 book by MIT professor Neil Gershenfeld called "Fab: The Coming Revolution on Your Desktop – from Personal Computers to Personal Fabrication."

The FabCafe opened in 2011 to introduce the art of fabbing to anyone. Now you can print gummie bear versions of yourself.

K computer

Taking a RISC on HPC

Much of the world is abandoning RISC, save for some IBM customers. Oracle spent a whole lot of money to buy Sun Microsystems, only to watch hardware sales tank. What it has for hardware sales are mostly x86 Xeon based machines.

But Fujitsu, Sun's partner in Sparc processor development, kept the faith. Using a massive supercomputer running Sparc64 VIIIfx processors, the RIKEN Advanced Institute for Computational Science campus in Kobe was able to break the 10 petaflops mark in 2011 with a monster computer simply known as K. As of today, K has 864 cabinets and 88,000 processors. It's since been supplanted by China's Tianhe 2 supercomputer, running x86 processors and Nvidia GPUs.