The Japanese are the kings of invention.
Think of things quirky and clever, and chances are, a Japanese invention will come to mind. Robots and the Nintendo Wii anybody?
Of course, some innovations are more useful than others, and the internet is a treasure trove of these hilarious offerings. Try googling "Japan" and "wierd inventions". My favorites are the vertigo soothing glasses, cockroach swapping slippers and noodle eater's hair guard. And while you're at it, check out this crazy video about housewife turned ultraman battling monster with amazing vacuum cleaner.
Anyway, what sparked this blog post was the ongoing Tokyo Motor Show where Japanese car maker Nissan unveiled the Pivo 2 concept vehicle that can talk sense into you.
Mr Ken Mitamura, manager of the mobility laboratory at Nissan's research centre, said:
"For example, if the driver is surprised by another car cutting in, the robot agent can tell you, 'Don't worry, you're all right. When you are sleepy, the robotic interface can detect it by monitoring a very slow pace of eye blinking and say, 'It's time to have a rest'."
Amazing. And more so as this function took the automaker's researchers about 10 years to develop.
In the land of the quick and convenient, the Japan Vending Machine Manufacturers Association predicts that vending machines capable of offering advice based on users' preferences and health status will be invented in future. Already, the Fuji Electric Retail System Co. has developed a makeup vending machine that not only talks to customers but also features a camera that helps women choose what type of makeup suits them best.
There is more. Last week, the New York Times wrote about a 29-year-old fashion designer who was making clothes that could camouflage the wearer as a vending machine. I kid you not. The idea was to confound would-be criminals. The Times wrote:
"The nation is home to a prolific subculture of individual inventors, whose ideas range from practical to bizarre. Inventors say a tradition of tinkering and building has made Japan welcoming to experimental ideas, no matter how eccentric."
It interviewed renown inventor Kenji Kawakami of hundreds of intentionally impractical and humorous inventions, who said: “Even useless things can be useful. The weird logic of these inventions helps us see the world in fresh ways.”
However, much as Japan is widely hailed for its inventiveness, its academics pull their hair out over why these do not translate into more robust economic growth. When the country was getting back on its feet after the war, its companies were told to innovate or die. Now however, the critics point out this mad creativity has not kick-started a moribund economy, and has certainly not led to more start-up companies, which create the jobs.
A recent study by The Economist showed that while Japan's population is only 42 percent of the US, its ratio of patents per million population is 3.5 times higher. However, its survey of 485 senior global executives revealed that only 2 per cent saw the country as having the best conditions for innovation - not exactly a rosy prognosis for attracting international talent. This stat compares with 40 percent for the US and 12 percent for second-place India.
My previous blog talked about how China and India were fast catching up on the global game by the sheer pace of their innovations. The conditions are ripe: a hungry population and the willingness to take risk. But the Japan experience also pose a sobering lesson. True, amazing products and breakthrough technologies are great, but it is the ability to market and sell the idea that makes the difference.
That being said, don't stop telling me about the latest Japanese invention. You just know it's going to be crazy, wierd, brilliant, funny.