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Intelligent Machines

Burn, Baby!

We Were Burning: Japanese Entrepreneurs and the Forging of the Electronic Age

A belief still prevalent in america has it that Japanese manufacturers’ stunning successes in the 1970s and 1980s can be traced to the industrial policies of MITI, the Ministry of International Trade & Industry. By bringing big firms together into research and development consortia focused on problems like large-scale integrated (LSI) circuits, the story goes, MITI enabled Japanese companies to gain market share in new industries faster than American firms with their go-it-alone approach. The Clinton administration admired this model so much that by 1996 it had given $1.3 billion to the U.S. Display Consortium, a Silicon Valley group formed to take back the lead in the domestic market for flat-panel displays.

The reality, however, is almost the opposite, at least in the consumer electronics industry, freelance technology journalist Bob Johnstone argues in his important new book We Were Burning (a Japanese expression meaning, “We couldn’t wait; we had a can-do spirit”). Japanese inventor-entrepreneurs were simply the first to see the commercial possibilities in American-born technologies such as metal oxide semiconductor (MOS) chips and liquid crystal displays (LCDs), enabling Japanese electronics firms to beat American companies at their own game.

The most visionary of the dozen or so Japanese Edisons profiled by Johnstone is Sharp’s Sasaki Tadashi, who decided in 1964 that his company (then Hayakawa Electric), which was forbidden by MITI to make computers, should develop portable calculators equipped with LSI circuits. Texas Instruments shelved its prototype microchip-powered pocket calculator in 1967, seeing no demand for it in a market dominated by electromechanical adding machines. But Sasaki remained convinced that Sharp could replace the abacus used by every shopkeeper and housewife in Japan. He persuaded Rockwell International to supply MOS chips for the 1.4-kg Microcompet desktop calculator, which Sharp unveiled in 1969.

This story is part of our March/April 1999 Issue
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By the time of Sasaki’s retirement in 1985, Sharp had reduced the price of a calculator by a factor of 100, Johnstone relates. “More importantly for the future, [the company] had turned itself into a technological powerhouse, with all the skills needed to produce a continuous stream of innovative new products, such as the Wizard personal organizer and the ViewCam video camcorder.” He suggests that the American image of the Japanese as conformists incapable of originality amounts to little more than egotism and racial prejudice. “It is hard to imagine such faceless clones as brave risk takers, betting their companies on some new and unproven technology,” Johnstone writes. “And yet, beyond question that is what they have repeatedly done.”

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