The fall of Japan's tech hegemony

Don’t you people have anything better to do?

I had a few days to think over the malaise I felt on attending CEATEC and wandering the streets of Tokyo last week. I had last been to Japan in 2003 and I left feeling that they had their fingers firmly on the pulse of the future. They had cool phones, cool laptops, and MP3 players smaller than grapes. Their cameras were slim and sexy and their prices were oddly low while their tech stores offered a dizzying array of fascinating items for perusal and purchase. As a tech geek, it was paradise.

Now, returning after a week in Chiba/Tokyo, I am sad to report that Japan has lost its mojo. I don’t want to sound like I’m making a blanket statement here — I’m sure, somewhere in Osaka, a Sony researcher is practicing advanced robodildonics on vat-grown cyborg gerbils — but I sense a definite cooling of street tech that, in a way, mirrors our own failings in that same field. We are approximately on parity with Japan right now, and in looking at the things we don’t have we see many failures in the in Japanese neophilia and the danger it presents to our own Western tech culture. Whew. I’m starting to sound like a sociologist.

I was talking with an American ex-pat in Tokyo who described technology in Japan as all-encompassing. He described his home which included drop down shelves that rise and lower at the press of a button and a bath that fills itself and then informs you that your water is ready and waiting. But then, after talking up high tech, he whips out an older Blackberry. It was kind of like watching Zorbo, Boy of the Future whip out a can of spray cheese and offer it as the “food of 2020!”

Again, perhaps I’ve was looking in the wrong places. Maybe Japan’s obsession with brand names and luxury products masks a secret underground robotic Godzilla farm. Maybe their cellphones aren’t just the same damn thing over and over again but actually fake plastic shells — after all, all of them are implanted with bio-chip-powered in-brain PS4s.

Back in the 1980s, France was at the height of technology. They had voice controlled rooms — I distinctly remember some kid’s program, probably some show like 3-2-1 Contact!, showing French people saying “Open Door!” to get out of an R&D lab — and they had MINITEL, a national precursor to the Internet that I wanted so badly I could have tasted it. Where is France now? They make Archos MP3 players and great cheese.

I’m not writing this lament as a jingoist tirade against Japan and its discontents. The country is losing population monthly and has the oldest population on record. The people are comfortable but not as rich as they were in the 1980s and industry, which was once the lifeblood of the Japanese economy, is gone, off-shored to Brazil and China. All they have left is obsessive attention to ’60s-era robot toys and great noodles. I want to say their rising sun is setting, but that would be unfair, cruel, and absolutely wrong.

That said, if you want to see Japan go down the Best Buy. You’ll find everything they have there and more. The things we don’t have — robotic bidets, robotic shelving, and fast 3G wireless networks — are either coming or are incompatible with our building codes and lifestyles. This is also not to say that we are leading the world in high-tech. On the contrary. I could even argue that we are still behind Japan, which is cold comfort considering Korea and China are kicking Japan’s hiney.

What can they/we do to get back on track? Stop obsessing on the quick sell and try to market the future. Apple does this with some regularity. Although their laptop line is hardly revolutionary, their PCs and and phones are pushing the boundaries of what is possible in these devices. Companies like TiVo and Sony, on the other hand, advanced the state-of-the-art a few years ago and now keep churning out the same crap over and over again. Sure, Sony has OLED screens and round bedroom computers, but all they’re marketing are their TVs to an increasingly uninterested audience. Stop making the next crappy MP3 player and try to make something people have never seen before. I know it’s hard and expensive, but it’s the only way to get ahead of the people who can make the next crappy MP3 player more cheaply than you.

And so, to recap, Japan is technologically boring and the street-tech chic of Neuromancer never came to pass. Japan — and, by extension, the U.S. — needs to get back into the game lest in turn into another France, drunk on wine and dressed in Chanel but about as advanced as a stone-age tribe of hunter/shoppers.