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Japan Cannot Move Past Its Previous Successful Experiences in Technology DevelopmentYotaro Hatamura

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Yotaro Hatamura is a master of Failure Studies. His motto is “3 Originals”: Visit the original site. Touch the original objects. Meet and discuss with the original people involved. His work involves thorough investigation of the root causes of all sorts of failures that occur in manufacturing, and developing action plans to transform the knowledge gained from those mistakes into an effective tool. We talked with Hatamura about his recent book “Traveling the Tech Highway” (published by Iwanami Shoten) which is aimed towards engineers in Japan, and discussed the current state and direction of technological innovation in Japan, and how engineers should approach building a new path into the future. All 4 parts of this interview are covered here.

Part 1: The current state of technological innovation in Japan.
There’s a broad stereotype that “the world looks up to Japan’s technology.” According to Failure Studies, and the sites you’ve seen in Japan and around the world, what does the current state of industry in “Japan, the manufacturing giant” look like currently?

Japan’s Technical Power & World Ranking

From the 1960’s to the 1990’s, Japan excelled at transforming society’s expectations into business by turning ideas into real products. However, in the modern business system, some companies find that once they find success, they become stuck in a dilemma, unable to separate themselves from that first experience, and unable to break through and overcome their current circumstances. The current trend in Japanese society among engineers, management and adults in general is “I don’t need to do that, someone else will do it instead.” We are dependent on unseen forces, and it’s becoming increasingly difficult to get away from this mindset. Japan is going to be left behind as the rest of the world progresses unless we can change this behavior.

In the post-war reconstruction period, Japan went through years of rapid economic growth followed by a long period of stability. We used our technological strength as a weapon to catch up to North America and Europe, and Japan was transformed into an economic superpower. As technological development progressed, the focus of technology gradually shifted towards sales, and it appears that we might have misread the market. What exactly do you think is happening?

Technology & The Market

Up to now, the evolution of “Made in Japan” has been defined by utilizing superior technical power to create new functions and capabilities. For example, if you watch a TV shopping program, the hosts will run through a list of the product’s functions to explain how great that product is. But let’s be honest, the majority of consumers are never actually going to use even half of those special functions. This is obvious when it comes to short trends in mobile phones and smartphones. Every new model release brings another handful of new functions that most people aren’t really desiring to use. Every gratuitous function adds a small increase to the price, and the consumers aren’t happy about it.
These excess functions weren’t really a problem until recently. Every mobile phone provider and manufacturer in Japan was doing something similar. But the rest of the world does things differently, international consumers have a more severe perspective and don’t put up with that way of doing business.

The truth is that consumers aren’t craving new functions as much as the companies and engineers are expecting. Basically, if someone can offer an inexpensive product that does just enough to satisfy the consumer, sales for expensive and overloaded products will drop off. Japanese engineers need to get in touch with the consumer’s actual needs and approach manufacturing with a realistic understanding of the market.

The next task in manufacturing is to identify the real needs of consumers.
Large companies will already have reports from the marketing department and data analysis to influence project planning and new development. However, small and medium businesses may lack that kind of support, requiring the engineers to personally seek and identify the unmet needs of society.

The Next Steps For SME

I do a lot of talks and seminars at companies, and I have visited businesses all over Japan, and everywhere I go, it’s very clear that many companies are working very hard to utilize and project their unique strengths. On the other hand, I think there are still a lot of companies that have no idea what their unique strength or sales appeal should be.
I like to call these unique capabilities of a company the “secret sauce.” Other companies can’t copy the secret sauce easily, only one company knows how to make it right. And of course, there has to be real demand for the product.

I feel that small businesses have more secret sauce skills than large corporations do. This is because they need to react to satisfy every new demand brought by customers, and they can constantly evolve and refine their technology through trial and error under strict conditions. If SME can transform these tough experiences into strength, they will have more opportunities to take great leaps. But first, it’s important for each company to identify the recipe of their own secret sauce.



Japan Cannot Move Past Its Previous Successful Experiences in Technology Development

Engineers need to accept that failure is part of the development process

Identify new values: Transform latent value into concrete value to create profits

Engineers must be capable of independent thinking and connecting with the outside world

Yotaro Hatamura

Born in 1941 in Tokyo. BS and Master’s degrees from the Department of Mechanical Engineering at the University of Tokyo. After working for Hitachi, he returned to the University of Tokyo as a professor. Retired in 2001, but retains status as an honorary professor. Specialties include failure studies, danger studies, creative design theory, intelligent processing and nano/micro processing. Runs the Hatamura Institute for the Advancement of Technology since 2001. Founded the NPO Association for the Study of Failure in 2002, and the Danger Studies Project in 2007. Participated as investigator and committee chair of the Investigation Committee on the Accident at the Fukushima Nuclear Power Stations of Tokyo Electric Power Company since June 2011. Hatamura has written many books, but his 2000 release “Recommendations in Failure Studies” has sold over 400,000 copies. “Traveling the Tech Highway” is his latest.

■Best-Known Books
Recommendations in Failure Studies (Kodansha) 2000/11
Creating & Planning Technology (Iwanami) 2006/11
Unprecedented & Unexpected: Lessons From the Great East Japan Disaster (Kodansha) 2011/7
Getting Real in Japan: The Tech Superpower Fantasy is Over (Kodansha) 2015/6
Traveling the Tech Highway (Iwanami) 2018/1

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