This article is sponsored by the Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications of Japan.
A glance back through time reveals how the craftsmanship spirit is part of Japanese history. Here are just some of the inventions of Japanese pioneers which have had a real impact all across the world.
1 The Rice Cooker
We might just see it as a humble kitchen appliance today, but the arrival of the electric rice cooker heralded a genuine culinary revolution. Suddenly, the guesswork and fuss was taken out of the equation, and home cooks could prepare perfect rice at the touch of a button.
The first mass-produced model was released by Mitsubishi in 1945, but it required the cook to keep an eye on the pot and switch it off when the rice was done. Things improved considerably in the 1950s, thanks to water heater manufacturer Yoshitada Minami and his wife Fumiko. The couple experimented tirelessly at home to develop the first automatic electric rice cooker, which utilised an internal, heat-sensitive switch that was activated when all the water had been absorbed by the rice. Sold by Toshiba, it changed the lives of millions of Japanese cooks, and today electric rice cookers are used in homes, restaurants and take-aways everywhere.
Sushi has enjoyed phenomenal global popularity in recent times, but its history goes back thousands of years to the paddy fields of southeast Asia. It originated as something called narezushi, where fish such as carp was tightly packed in rice and salt, and left to ferment for several months. The rice would then be scraped off and discarded before the fish was consumed.
Narezushi’s popularity extended eastwards, and by the 8th Century it was being eaten in Japan. It would be many centuries before sushi was as we know it evolved, however. Most of the credit is traditionally given to Hanaya Yohei, a trailblazing chef in early 19th Century Tokyo, then called Edo. He opened street stalls selling delicious morsels of fresh, raw fish draped by hand over vinegared rice. This was no passing culinary fad. His efforts helped popularise the nigiri style of sushi that remains iconic to this day.
3 Car Navigation
Years before GPS was a thing, cutting-edge Japanese researchers at Honda came up with the world’s first map-based car navigation system. Launched in 1981, the Electro Gyrocator was designed to be attached to the dashboard and resembled a very large and chunky sat nav device. But, rather than using satellite technology to plot where the vehicle was, it utilised a helium gas gyroscope and a servo gear to keep track of the car’s speed, rotation and distance travelled.
This information allowed the device to depict the car’s location as a dot flashing up on the cathode ray display screen. The driver would manually attach transparent road map sheets over the screen to keep track of where they were going. Such was the significance of this device in the development of navigation technology that in 2017 it was officially recognised by the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers as an ‘IEEE Milestone’.
4 The QR Code
QR codes, those black-and-white squares that can be scanned to instantly convey information, have been around for a long time. But they’ve taken on new significance during the Covid-19 pandemic, deployed in track-and-trace systems and providing a contactless way for customers to read menus in bars and restaurants.
Back in 1994, inventor Masahiro Hara could never have guessed at the world-changing impact of his ‘eureka’ moment. Working at an automotive components firm, he’d been trying to work out a way to improve the tracking of component parts. Barcodes had limited storage capacity, meaning multiple barcodes often had to be scanned for each part. It was while playing the ancient board game Go that he had his breakthrough. Inspired by the black and white pattern of the Go board, he developed the Quick Response code, capable of containing much more information than a barcode. What was originally intended to be an industry-specific invention soon blossomed into a whole new way to process and track information in all walks of life.
5 The Bullet Train
A gleaming emblem of Japanese forward-thinking, the first ‘bullet train’ was unveiled back in 1964, just days before the start of the Tokyo Olympics. Properly known as the Shinkansen, this high-speed service marked a monumental leap in transportation technology, with the original line running between Tokyo and Osaka.
The first bullet train to make the journey, Hikari 1, was capable of reaching 130 mph, significantly slashing the time it took to travel between Japan’s two biggest cities. It heralded new possibilities for people travelling for both business and pleasure, and would cater to over 100 million passengers over the next three years alone.
6 The Selfie Stick
Selfie sticks are synonymous with the smartphone revolution, but they’ve been around for a lot longer than you might think. It was back in 1983 that Japanese inventors Hiroshi Ueda and Yujiro Mima patented a ‘telescopic extender for supporting compact camera’. Speaking many years later, Hiroshi Ueda recalled how he came up with the idea to address a specific problem. Namely, taking family snaps on holiday without having to trust his camera with a passer-by.
‘When I was in the Louvre in Paris I asked a child to take a photo of us,’ he told the BBC in 2015, ‘but when I stepped away, the child ran away with my camera.’ The extender stick was the solution, but one that was excessively ahead of its time. Ueda dubbed it a ‘3am invention’ – one that arrived too early.
From the laughing crying face (officially known as ‘Face with Tears of Joy’) through to images of random vegetables and water pistols, emojis are universally recognised by people of all ages. They are, in effect, a new form of language for the 21st Century, though they were actually invented in 1997.
Those initial emojis were created for a Japanese mobile phone called the SkyWalker DP-211SW. However, it was the set created by designer Shigetaka Kurita for an early Internet service called i-mode that really took the country by storm. The success of his images inspired rival companies to get in on the emoji action, and led to Kurita being hailed as the father of the emoji. With the full set of official emojis hitting 3,353 in 2021, this is a Japanese invention whose impact will continue to be felt for a long time to come.