Innovations that changed Japan: It’s all in the details

by Jordan Sievers

Special To The Japan Times

“Made in Japan,” can be found stamped on products sold all over the world, and as labels always do, it leads to certain consumer assumptions. It’s no longer just about location of production, it implies a rich history of innovative manufacturing techniques, many of which are tied to Japanese tradition and philosophy.

Although the current economic climate is not ideal, there are a few Japanese industries, such as digital cameras, certain medical instruments and various electronic components, that still have almost 100 percent of their market share. If food and entertainment industries are included, Japan is a leading nation of diverse production that continues to garner interest from all across the globe. And as a nation that considers being not only “number one” but also “only one” (unique) as important facets to success, it’s no surprise to see that Japanese culture has fed into the nation’s products both in design and production techniques.

“The Sekai-Ichi: Unique Inspirations ‘Made in Japan’ ” at Tokyo’s National Museum of Emerging Science and Innovation (Miraikan) takes visitors on a journey through more than 1,000 years of Japanese industry, from ancient traditional crafts to the engineering of Tokyo Sky Tree. By showcasing some of the nation’s finest products and pioneering innovative production techniques, it helps explain something particularly unique to Japanese manufacturing: the principle of monozukuri, which is so often too simplistically translated to “making things.”

Just as the culture of Japan is detailed, elaborate and based on tradition, monozukuri is steeped in similar ideals. It involves extreme attention to the perfection of every possible detail — no matter the purpose of the product or how small or easily unnoticed it would be to the consumer. One company, for example, could focus on perfecting and producing a single item, making it of a quality so high, it would be indispensable to its clients. Bearing this in mind, products appear more than just practical items, they become more like artistic creations.

The exhibition begins with the roots of Japanese design, looking at tools, utensils and clothing of the Edo-Period (1603-1868). It focuses on how that was a time of continued recycling, and how the old Buddhist notion of mottainai (waste not) continues in modern Japan. Traditional kimonos constructed using a technique called saki-ori, show how strips from old clothing were woven together to form a new garment, while clay tea kettles and bowls repaired using urushi, a distinctly Japanese form of lacquer, reveal how vessels were repaired and reused time and time again.

By the end of World War I, Japan was emerging as a manufacturing nation. The demand for new products, such as electric light bulbs and two-way sockets helped stimulate domestic production when foreign equivalents became far too expensive. The metallic-shaft mechanical pencil was, perhaps surprisingly, invented as early as 1920 by Tokuji Hayakawa, a metalworker who went on to establish Hayakawa Kinzoku Kougyou, now known as Sharp Corp. The pencil’s success led to it being later introduced to the United States and Europe.

Post-World War II products, such electric rice cookers, Sony Walkman, Cup Noodle and Chikin Ramen Instant Noodle, hailed the beginning of Japan’s “culture of convenience,” and were also some of the first uniquely Japanese items to become popular overseas.

Once the initial exhibits fill you in on how Japanese manufacturing developed, the majority of the show floor is dedicated to contemporary Japanese products that the curators consider are either “the only one” or “number one” in Japan. This is a fun show that aims to be educational, so it includes amusing, well-known (as well as perhaps not so-well-known to foreign visitors) Japanese items accompanied by panels offering interesting and enlightening information.

A rotating serving conveyor belt, unique to Japan and commonly used in sushi restaurants to deliver dishes to customers, is loaded with famous Japanese culinary products, such as Kikkoman soy sauce and Suntory Whisky, to become an entertaining double exhibit. Perhaps one of the most familiar outgrowths of Japanese lifestyle is the drinks-vending machine, one of which put on display with transparent paneling, so visitors can actually observe the complex design and construction that lies inside.

Heavily emphasized throughout the exhibition are the generally overlooked details of actual production. Products and their uses in everyday life are, of course, of major significance in the history of Japan’s manufacturing industry, but it’s the production processes and tiny components needed — the minutiae — that usually show important innovations and quality of design. Microscopic screws, springs, surgical needles and micro-pumps, may not sound like fascinating subjects, but viewed through magnifying glasses, visitors can examine and marvel at the details of each component.

You can glean much on the current state of Japanese innovation at “The Sekai-Ichi: Unique Inspirations ‘Made in Japan,’ ” but there are also hints at where the country is headed in the future. The curators say they hope that celebrating former inspirations and inventions will draw attention to, and offer insight into, Japan’s new and upcoming innovations. They describe this as “a fusing of the heart and mind with technology innovation,” and something that being “uniquely Japanese,” has allowed the nation to create some of the greatest products in the world.

“The Sekai-Ichi: Unique Inspirations ‘Made in Japan’ ” at the National Museum of Emerging Science and Innovation (Miraikan) runs till May 6; open 10 a.m.-5 p.m. ¥1,000, age 6-18 ¥300, free for kids under age6 (admission includes entry to permanent exhibition). Closed Tue. (and from Dec. 30-Jan.1). For more details, visit www.miraikan.jst.go.jp/en/spexhibition/sekai1