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COLUMN ONE : Japan Sets Sights on Creativity : Its industry is gearing up for the 21st Century by seeking to invent, not imitate. Free-thinking scientists and engineers are now prized.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

As a young Toshiba engineer in 1950, Sakae Shimizu was assigned to develop a power transformer. Surveying the field, he concluded that U.S. technology was best and arranged a licensing deal with General Electric Co.

Today, even if he wanted to, Shimizu could no longer purchase, imitate or expropriate from the United States the transformer know-how that Japan requires. Toshiba and others in Japan have surpassed U.S. firms in key areas of transformer technology.

Left to develop a new generation of transformers on its own, Toshiba is pouring money into research. Beyond new products, the aim is to develop a new breed of engineers adept at “not only innovation, but invention as well,” said Shimizu, now Toshiba’s No. 2 man.

Toshiba and its engineers are part of a new Japan--one that aims to invent, not imitate; to ask why, not how; to foster creativity, not conformity.

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As the United States is exhorted to become more like Japan, some Japanese firms see their future in employees who are more like Americans--inventive, individualist, free-thinking.

While major obstacles remain, Japan has begun making genuine gains in producing patents and scientific papers. Scientists and engineers have begun making bona fide breakthroughs in fields ranging from biochemistry to new materials to superconductivity.

The creativity push can give the world a storehouse of science and technology, but it also represents a new and formidable challenge to the United States. Japan has succeeded largely by taking foreign inventions and quickly producing top-quality commercial products with them. All the while, however, the United States has taken comfort in perhaps its greatest strength, a spirit of innovation.

Now, Japan hopes--and expects--to catch up with the United States in that as well.

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“The next revolutionary advance in technology should come by the beginning of the next century, most probably from Japan,” said Michiyuki Uenohara, executive adviser to NEC Corp. “If such revolutionary seeds do not appear, I will completely agree that Japanese are not creative, just copycats.”

To Japan, the issue is competitiveness. The world has changed. As a result, the Japanese “copycat” must evolve into a different creature to survive.

Its traditional food source, Western technology, is drying up. Americans are more reluctant than ever to share what they know. The nation’s predatory hunting techniques--plumbing Western science for commercial gain but giving little research in return--are coming under increasing fire. The “four tigers” of South Korea, Taiwan, Hong Kong and Singapore are roaming on its old turf with quality products at cheaper prices.

And while Japanese teamwork was critical for success at mass production, the Information Age requires individuals who can break new ground on their own. Today’s important technologies--computers, optics, biotechnology--are based on science far more than steel or autos; Japan cannot remain competitive without developing a stronger scientific foundation.

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“Japan in the 21st Century will need very creative young research workers. In order to grow these kinds of people, we must provide them with very good research facilities and very free circumstances, where individual thinking is very important,” said Eiichi Maruyama, director of Hitachi Ltd.'s Advanced Research Laboratory.

The quest for creativity has prompted a surge in corporate research funding and the building of new basic research laboratories. More foreigners are invited into Japan’s once tightly sealed labs, in part to share Western creative methods. Japanese engineers are getting flex-hours and personal research time to aid the crusade for breakthroughs, rather than incremental improvements.

And, ever so slowly, the need for innovation is beginning to crack open Japan’s power elites. A few universities, including prestigious Waseda, have begun to admit some students based on novel talents instead of only standardized test scores.

Blazing a new path in recruitment, CBS/Sony Inc. last year began interviewing job candidates without initially knowing their educational background. The Japanese record company wanted to stress individual talent over university pedigree, a sharp break from the norm.

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Such policies may be pro forma in the West. But they represent startling changes for a nation where values of consensus and harmony have long worked to suppress individual expression.

“The minds of Japanese people are shifting from traditional Japanese to Western thinking,” asserted Hideki Hayashida of the Ministry of Education.

Substantial barriers to freewheeling creativity remain. The education system is ossified, critics say. Traditional society still shuns risks and quashes individual initiative. Government spending on basic research is paltry compared to the United States.

But almost no one argues that the Japanese are incapable of invention. The Japanese are not innately copycats. Japan’s move to catch up with the West by buying foreign technology was the cheapest and fastest route to technological parity, analysts say.

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Gene Gregory, a business professor at Sophia University in Tokyo, estimates that Japan bought most of the technology it needed to catch up with the West for about $9 billion, a fraction of the $50 billion spent annually on research and development in the United States at the end of the 1970s. “Our notion of the Japanese being imitators has been utter damn nonsense and only designed to feed our own egos,” he said.

Japan’s technological evolution has in fact been no different than that of the United States, which poached Europe’s inventions before World War II.

Pushed by its relentlessly competitive private sector, Japan has begun making noticeable advances. In 1989, the top four corporations receiving U.S. patents, which by nature reflect original work, were Japanese: Hitachi, Toshiba, Canon and Fuji Photo Film. Just six years earlier, the top four were American: General Electric, IBM, AT&T; and RCA. The Japanese share of U.S. patents more than doubled to 21% in 1989 from 9% in 1975, while the American share dropped to 47.5% from 65% during the same period, according to the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office.

Overall, the Japanese share of U.S. patents is rising by 1% per year. And those obtained by Japanese are most frequently cited in the work of other researchers, reflecting their value, according to a 1989 study published by the American Assn. for the Advancement of Science. The study also found that the Japanese were obtaining patents in the most commercially viable areas--auto engines, computers, drugs, consumer electronics and office automation.

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“Data on patent counts demonstrate a burgeoning Japanese inventive vitality, and the patent citation data suggests that the impact of the inventions is high,” said the study by Francis Narin and J. Davidson Frame.

The Japanese are even making gains in one of their notoriously weak areas--scientific papers. For the first time, Japanese groups took two of the top three positions in the lists of most-cited papers in biology and physics during the last half of 1989, the newsletter ScienceWatch reported.

The most cited paper of the 1980s was written by a Japanese biochemist, Yasutomi Nishizuka of the Kobe Medical School. His pioneering work on what biochemical action occurs in cell growth and regulation--advancing the search to understand cancer--ignited what The Scientist newspaper called an “explosion of research” worldwide. He is widely expected to win a Nobel Prize and help bury a national source of shame: Only five Japanese natural scientists have won the treasured prize, compared to 147 Americans.

Japan’s creative push may provide the world with some liberating technologies. Already on the drawing board is software that can mimic the human decision process, a technology that could release workers from hazardous jobs. Automatic translation telephones would bridge cultural barriers.

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But the creative research boom also shatters the main solace Americans typically have taken in losing market after market to the Japanese: Well, they may make the products, but we invented the technologies. Their Walkman relied on our transistors; their compact computers and pocket calculators need our integrated circuits.

As Japan forges ahead with its own technologies, that U.S. advantage is disappearing.

“The West has been the center of scientific discoveries and technological breakthroughs for so long that most Westerners routinely dismiss signs of Japanese creativity,” said Sheridan Tatsuno, who heads NeoConcepts, a technology consulting firm in Fremont, Calif.

“Unless we wake up soon to the implications of Japan’s latest creative endeavors, the West will be left in the dust,” added Tatsuno, author of a new book, “Created in Japan: From Imitators to World-Class Innovators.”

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Despite the ferment, the Japanese are the first to admit they face some formidable creative blocks. The very factors that propelled Japan to industrial might in the era of mass production--a uniform education system, cultural homogeneity, respect for authority--are leg chains in the fast-moving information age. That’s because heavy industrial products, such as autos, require teamwork and discipline not only in production but also planning and design. But information technology, particularly the critical software component, “is much more driven by a one-person zealot,” said Joe Garber, head of A. T. Kearney Technology in Redwood City, Calif.

“One person can’t build a car, but one person can build a new information system,” Garber said.

But the major stumbling block repeatedly cited is the Japanese educational system. Characterized by rote memorization, strict adherence to textbooks and little, if any, Socratic-style exchange, the system prepares students for standardized entrance exams and thus excels in teaching basic skills.

But its premium on homogeneity--Japanese students are not allowed to skip grades, for example--stifles genius and originality, critics say.

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“Japanese students are trained to give one correct answer for one question. They are trained to solve problems given by teachers, not themselves. This is not creative,” Hitachi’s Maruyama said. “From now, we must find the problems and questions ourselves.”

Japan’s racial and cultural homogeneity also limits diversity of thinking. About 4% of Japanese citizens are members of racial minority groups, but few are openly admitted to mainstream society.

“One American advantage for creativity is that your country absorbs many smart people from abroad: Vietnamese, Koreans, Indians, Chinese. For creative work, this mix of scientists is very nice to stimulate each other,” said Yoshiyuki Takeishi, director of Toshiba’s Ultra Large Scale Integration Research Center. “But in Japan, society is still closed.”

The nation’s Confucian heritage inhibits audacious challenges to the status quo. That’s because it promotes respect for authority and for elders, values not particularly useful in science. Japan’s university research system, for instance, is based on a hierarchical system called koza, where one senior professor controls and directs his research team’s efforts. In the West, scientists have far more independence to pursue their own ideas.

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“In science, it’s very important to challenge elders, to criticize what already has been done. That’s how science progresses,” said David Swinbanks, Nature magazine’s Tokyo correspondent, who was the first Western post-doctoral scientist to study at Japan’s Ocean Research Institute 10 years ago. “But the fundamental attitude in Japan is that you don’t criticize your elders.”

A more intangible barrier may be the Japanese creative process.

Sony’s Makoto Kikuchi describes it as cooperative action toward set targets versus the Western style of personal ideas to establish new targets. NEC’s Uenohara calls it a “spiral process” stressing practical products for society’s needs versus the Western “sequential process” of glorifying science and finding the market later. Hitachi’s Sumihisa Kotani is more plain: The Japanese prefer singles; Americans aim for home runs.

The critical question is whether the Japanese process is suitable for the leaps of intuition and the framing of expansive concepts that breakthrough creativity requires. For instance, it is American theorists who are leading the search into the fundamental reason for superconductivity: Why do materials lose their resistance to electricity at higher temperatures than previously demonstrated? Japanese researchers are more concerned with new superconducting materials and experiments into basic mechanisms: How high can the temperature be raised?

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That research bent reflects Japanese practicality, but Hitachi’s Maruyama said the differences are fundamentally rooted in the respective religious heritages of both nations. The general American belief in one all-encompassing God promotes a search for universal theories, while the Japanese belief in many gods encourages a greater number of smaller research questions, he said.

“In Japan, God is 8 million,” Maruyama said. “So Japanese people generally don’t want to tie or gather everything into one framework.”

Then there’s the problem of cold cash.

Despite its fabled wealth and devotion to long-term thinking, Japan has long lagged in public spending on research and development. Over the last 20 years, the ratio of Japan’s public expenditures for research to its gross national product has stayed at 0.5%, compared to America’s 1.2%. In 1987, government funds accounted for only 20% of the nation’s total R&D; effort, compared to 49% for the United States. (Excluding military spending, the U.S. proportion drops to 29%, but defense research has been a key source of creative advances, including early software-programming languages.) With the Japanese private sector powering most of the nation’s R&D; efforts, it is little wonder that Japan has produced wonderful commercial technology but few scientific breakthroughs.

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In the universities, for instance, which are traditionally a nation’s bastion of basic research, Japan spent $27.90 per capita on research, compared to America’s $53.30 in 1987, according to a study for the National Science Foundation.

Such constraints have exacerbated the poor quality of Japan’s public research facilities, cut into other research programs and squeezed staff. University koza funds per research group, for instance, have declined by more than 60% between 1965 and 1989.

And there is a lopsided balance of engineers over scientists. While America produces 183 engineers and 117 scientists per 10,000 workers, Japan produces 189 engineers and only 65 scientists, according to the National Science Foundation.

But the Japanese are nothing if not determined. Creativity is not regarded as some faddish kick, but as essential to their economic survival. So dominant is this concern that Japanese interests placed an advertising supplement on it in the December issue of Scientific American magazine.

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“Japanese industry is moving toward the creation of its own unique technology,” wrote Seishi Katayose, chief editor of Saiensu (Science) magazine. The reasons cited: trade frictions with other nations, greater protection of intellectual property rights and the development of more advanced products by other Asian nations.

Motorola and Intel, for instance, have reportedly refused to license their latest microprocessors to Japanese firms, and Japanese executives say that U.S. firms are driving harder bargains for the technology they will share.

“Western companies, especially companies in the U.S., are strengthening their patent strategies. They are requiring us to raise our licensing fees and it is not so happy for us,” said Masaka Ogi, president of Fujitsu Laboratories Ltd. “But at the same time, we are getting stronger patents to use potentially as weapons to respond to them.”

Toshiba’s Takeishi said Texas Instruments, for instance, has increased its cross-licensing fees as part of a trend that began in the mid-1980s, when U.S. semiconductor firms began dropping to Japanese competition.

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As creativity becomes the national buzzword the way quality motivated an earlier generation, every weakness in achieving breakthroughs has seemingly been recognized, studied, debated and, in many cases, addressed.

So there’s a paucity of public research funding? No problem. Let the private sector pitch in.

Since 1980, corporations have doubled research spending as a percentage of sales to an industry average of 3%. Fujitsu, Hitachi, NEC, Toshiba and other electronics giants spend twice that average.

And more of that money is going toward basic research. From 1978 to 1987, the private sector quadrupled its spending on basic research to $2.9 billion. In a 1988 survey, more than 70% of corporations reported a shift in resources toward basic research.

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Now even the frugal government may join the spending binge. For the first time ever, the Science and Technology Agency has proposed that the government double its research spending to 1% of gross national product.

“If they actually do it, it will be a tremendous boost to basic research in Japan,” Nature correspondent Swinbanks said.

To tackle the problem of homogeneity, Japan is inviting foreigners to come and is setting up research labs in the West.

And so Stephen Peters of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory is studying intelligent robots with the Ministry of International Trade and Industry. At Hitachi, Stanford University graduate student John Snyder is studying quantum devices; fellow student Deborah Utley is studying artificial intelligence. The two are part of an American contingent of six. At Sony Corp., a Belgian materials scientist is currently filling the firm’s new “sabbatical chair” program. That program, established in December, invites foreign scientists over to help stimulate new thinking among Sony’s Japanese researchers.

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The Science and Technology Agency has hired its first U.S. researcher, 23-year-old Orlando Camargo of the Rochester Institute of Technology in New York, to develop a science database. And, in the government’s most ambitious program, it has begun post-doctoral fellowships for as many as 130 foreign researchers a year.

“Let our culture be mixed with foreign cultures,” said Kikuchi, who recently retired as director of the Sony Research Center but remains as executive technical adviser. “This is more effective than sending staff overseas. This way, more staff can communicate with the invited person.”

Japanese officials are also gradually airing out the stifling education system.

In 1987, an educational reform group convened by the prime minister’s office issued its final report calling for more creativity in the schools. The conservative Education Ministry hasn’t moved on many of the recommendations. But it has prodded local boards to liberalize entrance exams and convened a council to reform high school education, Hayashida said.

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How the powerful forces of creativity will reshape society is anyone’s guess. But, for many Japanese, it is an irrelevant question. Even if the Japanese should begin to lose their collective will in a new age of self, even if greater inequality results from more individual incentives, even if social harmony is strained by newly diverse voices, many Japanese say there can be no turning back.

“We may lose some competitive strength, but we’ll gain more,” said Katsuhide Kusahara, an official with the Ministry of Education. “Collectivism and harmony work very well in the period of mass production. But if we cannot make our society more tolerant to different values, we simply cannot cope with today’s trend of industrialization.”

Japanese firms are trying various ways to inspire creative thinking among researchers. One entrepreneur symbolizes the new creative spirit. Stories in Business.

THE QUEST FOR CREATIVITY

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Japan is strongly committed to innovation and invention, and it is already making great strides.

Spending for research and development is up. . . and the ranks of researchers are growing.

Source: Japan Management and Coordination Agency

Results show up in more scientific papers. . . and soaring patent applications in the U.S.

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Source: Francis Narin and J. Davidson Frame Science Citation Index.

Source: U.S. Patent and Trademark Office.


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