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Coverstory(7): Japan Tech
Page first written 11 October 1999
Last updated 3 October 2002

Japanese technology sector in danger of losing its superiority

Zammai Coverstory No. 7


For those who believe in the superiority of Japanese-made automobiles, it might be surprising to hear that Japan is not especially good at manufacturing large Diesel engines such as those for ships. The same applies for Diesel engines for railcars; before the "privatisation" of JNR, the performance of the Diesel engine for railcars manufactured and used in Japan were apparently inferior. It was when JR Central started using the engine from Cummins in UK that the performance of the Diesel railcars in Japan leaped from impossible to possible.

However, we can safely ignore the engine case because it was the field Japan has not been doing well; the problem is that, where Japan was dominating the world before, we can now see players from other countries doing as well as, or even better than, Japanese players. One example is power electronics. Japan was quite successful in manufacturing GTO-based power electronically controlled railcars; however, the first railcar with voltage-sourced converter/inverter system on the narrow gauge ac electrified line was equipped with Siemens's system. The older generation power electronics devices called GTO were exclusively supplied by Japanese manufacturers, but this position is also threatened when IGBTs became dominant.

This is about power engineering sector; the question is whether or not this is limited to the particular sector or not. And, considering various aspects, I can never be optimistic about it. Improper "restructuring" done by the managers of the large companies; basic research institutes owned by these companies stopped functioning while universities do not have enough capability of replacing them; the Japanese high quality "blue collar" workers beginning to be the things of the past; and the collapse in education system leading to the lack of basic knowledge and skills of the general public. I believe we should not put our heads in the sands, clinging to the most optimistic views.

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