Made in Japan

To mark Aichi's hosting of the World Expo, we celebrate some of Japan's greatest contributions to the world at large

The Nintendo

The introduction of the Nintendo games console in 1983 ushered in the modern computer game era, and with it obesity, teen violence and the poor form of former Liverpool F.C. goalkeeper David James.

The way was paved for the Nintendo after the Video Game Crashes of 1977 and 1983, the first caused by the burn-out of popular Atari game “Pong,” which involved watching a small square moving agonizingly slowly from one side of the TV screen to the other, and the second by poor sales of Pacman.

Designed by Masayuki Uemera, the first Nintendo hit stores on July 15, 1983 in Japan and mid-1985 in the U.S. So dominant was Nintendo in the games market that the years 1985 through 1991 are known in certain circles as the Nintendo era.

Astronomical sales of its machines and games, including Final Fantasy and Mike Tyson’s Punch-Out, allowed Nintendo to overtake Toyota as Japan’s largest corporation in 1990.

The Nintendo Era also saw a sharp rise in the number of short, fat men with mustaches being called “Mario” in a derogatory fashion.

Digital watches

Although the Swiss were the first to make a quartz watch prototype, Seiko, with its 35SQ Astron, was the first company to put digital quartz watches on the market.

Japanese companies excelled at improving watch technology, and Seiko, Citizen and Casio helped Japan to take the lead in worldwide watch production in 1978.

Though now most likely to be found given away free with boxes of cereal, the original quartz watches were sold for a staggering $500, and the sleek black wristwatches became an iconic image of the 1970s and 1980s in much the same way as sweatbands and roller skaters wearing hot pants and leg warmers.

Japanese companies also took the lead in developing the world’s first electronic, pocket calculators.

As well as representing an astounding breakthrough in calculation and computation for business and home use alike, calculators are used by students around the world for typing rude words, usually involving the numbers 0 and 8.


One of Japan’s most popular exports in recent years has been the SDF, who were greeted upon their arrival in war-torn Iraq a year ago by a jubilant population hugely impressed by the mustaches the Japanese troops had grown to “blend in” with the locals.

The mood has soured somewhat in recent months, however, as plans by Japan to build schools and improve water supply in the south of Iraq have been hampered by lengthy stays inside the safety of their camp, from which the the only recent news of note has been reports of a diarrhea outbreak.

The Walkman

No list of Japan’s greatest exports would be complete without the Walkman, the revolutionary portable cassette player released in 1979 by Sony.

As one pundit remarked: “What the Walkman really changed was the culture of music: you could now listen to what was effectively the soundtrack of your own life,” though it also allowed users to discreetly listen to Queen and Scritti Politti.

For this we have Sony cofounder Akio Morita and his design team to thank, although German inventor Andreas Pavel, who claimed to have invented the Walkman in 1977, was paid millions of euros by Sony in an out-of-court settlement.


Deriving from the Japanese “kara” (empty) and “oke” (a shortened form of “orchestra”), “empty orchestra” seems too grand a term to describe a painfully simple idea — songs with the words missing.

Karaoke is widely believed to have started in Kobe, where, legend has it, a musician was forced to cancel a gig but had left his backing tapes at the bar where he was supposed to play. Not wishing to disappoint the punters, the staff played the tapes and customers provided the missing lyrics. This was the humble beginning of a craze that was to sweep across Japan, the rest of Asia, and onto America and Britain, where it reached its nadir in the form of drunken, middle-aged women singing “I will survive” in bars full of strangers.


In the early 80s, few could have predicted the impact Japanese designers Rei Kawakubo and Yoji Yamamoto would have on the fashion world when they unveiled in their first Paris shows a collection of clothes devoid of the colors that characterized the work of their contemporaries.

The “black attack” confused many at the time; some said the style harked back to women’s fashions in Europe in the late 19th century, others claimed the idea expressed the Japanese concepts of “wabi” (simplicity) and “sabi” (solitude). Answers were also sought in post-atomic trauma, the upcoming millennium and ninjas.

Whatever the motivation behind the original idea, it worked. Walk down any street in London, New York or Tokyo today and you’ll see most outfits utilizing black, the absence of black and shades of black.

The Kyoto Protocol

In 1997, representatives from 154 countries met in Japan’s ancient capital and agreed to cut emissions of the greenhouse gases that contribute to global warming. Thirty-five nations were obliged by 2012 to cut gases to below the level emitted in 1990, with binding targets set for each country.

Ironically, Japan is at present the only major signatory nation in which emissions have actually risen since the Protocol was signed, although Chief Cabinet Secretary Hiroyuki Hosoda has said that Japan will meet its targets, and we believe him.


Last year marked the 50th anniversary of Japan’s Overseas Development Aid (ODA) program. Japan became the world’s most generous donor in 1991, overtaking the United States in terms of the total amount given in overseas aid. According to the Foreign Ministry, Japan gave $221 billion to 185 countries in the 50 years up to 2004.

Sixty percent of aid went to Asia. Japanese aid is reportedly responsible for supplying water to 30 percent of Thai villages, as well as 20 percent of the electricity generation capacity of Indonesia.

Instant noodles

In 1958, Ando Momofuku set up a sales booth in a Tokyo department store and offered customers a chance to taste his new “Chikin Ramen” instant noodles. Nearly 50 years later, an estimated 43.7 billion servings of instant noodles are consumed around the globe annually and Momofuku is chairman of Nissin Food Products Co., Ltd.

Instant noodles have become part of Japan’s national fabric — explorers took instant noodles to the South Pole, Prime Minister Koizumi is said to carry them on trips abroad, and Japanese astronaut Soichi Noguchi is planning to take some Nissin Space Ramen to outer space with him next month.

China is the world’s biggest consumer of instant noodles, followed by Indonesia, while the U.K. gobbles up 60 percent of the European instant noodle market.

But negative stories about the health effects of instant noodles could hamper the industry in its bid to jump the “pasta hurdle” in continental Europe. One American student at a Chinese university who ate instant noodles every day — and three times a day on Sundays — lost all her hair within a month.

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