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Technological Japan Up Close

By Lloyd G. Adu Amoah
Director of the Centre for Asian Studies(CAS)
November 10, 2023


As a student and scholar of Asian Studies, Japan is one country that one comes to muse and ponder over endlessly. This tendency is heightened and made more acute if the issue of national transformation looms large in one’s intellectual architecture as it does for me. The idea that Japan wrestled with its status in the modern world and found answers has a poignant resonance for me as a Ghanaian. The more I study Asia generally and Japan in particular, the greater my conviction that one of Japan’s answers to the question of modernity was technology. In a fascinating book (published by Cornell University Press in 2021), A Medicated Empire, on Japan’s pharmaceutical industry, the point is made about how this East Asian nation considered this industry as being key to its industrialization under the banner of “rich nation, strong army”(fokoku kyohei). To be sure the industrialization question has always been a technological one and Japan’s modern history and experience bears witness to this reality. Japan could not have become to Asia the archetypal example of the flying geese idea (invented by Kaname Akamatsu) without its technological breakthrough. In my recent visit to Japan, I observed at close quarters its world acclaimed technological prowess.


As I went through customs and immigration procedures at the Narita Airport it was clear to me how high technology of the current era was central to life in Japan. Indeed, before I embarked on the trip, I had to go online to fill some form that will make my disembarkation processes easy through my phone’s QR and Barcode scanner. But what struck me most was seeing a welcome mural (the first you see out of a collection) of the Mario Bros (see Picture 1).

welcome mural (the first you see out of a collection) of the Mario Bros
My early childhood had been filled with electronic and technological marvels. My Dad, Mr. Albert Adjei Amoah, had a Polaroid camera that generated instant pictures. As a three- or four-year-old I played with the used camera film cartridges endlessly. And then there was the film projector through which movies will be shown on the walls in the house. The Mario Bros. filled our lives as boys through Nintendo Games. The Handheld Video Games that Nintendo Inc. invented was one of the most prized toys in Morning Star School, the private primary school I attended in the 1980s. My favourite was Octopus. I think Nintendo was one of the first Japanese companies I filed in my mind as a boy. It was surreal to see the Mario Bros. gazing at me in a full life size mural. But the fact they greeted visitors from abroad in such an elaborate fashion was a moving and forceful evidence of what Japan had been able to accomplish in the field of electronics and technology. Through Nintendo Japan has rivalled the US in the global video games industry. Curent data shows that Shigeru Miyamoto’s creative magic has endured as consoles dominate 90% of Nintendo’s sales even as it switches to more Intellectual Property business through the recent movie The Super Mario Bros. Movie,"(a computer-animated flick that raked in $1.35 billion at the box office globally since its April 5 release and made it the biggest movie so far this year), merchandise, theme parks and the like. I visited Shibuya to see the Nintendo store (see picture 2) in that frenetically busy part of Tokyo and bought my own nostalgic souvenirs of Mario Bros. which now adorn my bookshelves and peer at me as I write this piece in my study. To be sure behind the enthrallment of Nintendo Games lies a dense Japanese history of building transistors (by firms such as Toshiba, Sanyo, Hitachi) and precision electronic gadgetry and contraptions such as cameras, binoculars, watches etc. that made Mario Bros. possible.

the Nintendo store


One more Japanese technological product I experienced was the Shinkasen(translates from Japanese to English as New Mainline) aka the Bullet Train. I had been exposed to it when I studied the Japanese Language during my graduate studies at the University of Ghana’s Legon Centre for International Affairs and Diplomacy (LECIAD). The language textbook had this train as part of some of the passages. My visit to Japan saw me visiting Kyoto and Osaka using the Shinkasen back and forth from Tokyo. To behold this train at close quarters was exhilarating. It stood there in almost arrogant, cocksure, shiny, curvy beauty as I peered at it (see Pictures 3 and 4) wondering what it felt if it felt at all. The Shinkansen was a bundle of pacy, comfortable noiselessness as it raced us to our destination unforgettably. And to be sure my sake was truly a great companion on those trips.


If the Shinkansen is the embodiment of half a century Japanese technology still going strong moving people and ideas across this Asian country, then my visit to TeamLab Planets (TP) in Tokyo encapsulates futuristic Japanese technology in the emerging quantum age. TP attempted to simulate in visitors an out of the body yet very bodily experience harnessing artificial intelligence, physical reality, augmented reality and virtual reality. TP summons the visitor to “immerse your body, and with others. Become one with the world.’’ TP has different spaces generating their unique experiences using lights, flowers, water and the human body itself (See Pictures 5 and 6). One has to visit the TP to get a feel of this use of technology to literally bend the human mind. I left wondering what the future of technology and Japan’s contribution to it will mean for being human, the Other, space, objects, reality etc; things and concepts we have all taken for granted.


When Commodore Perry made his way into Japanese waters in the 19th century, Japan was nowhere near the technologically well-endowed nation that it has become. On July 8, 1853, Perry reached the Uraga bay. By the late 1970s Japan had responded quite formidably to its technological inferiority using its ties with America, drawing on its own ideas and culture and driven by a determination to succeed. Reflecting on all my experiences in Japan, I think African countries can learn from this compelling example.
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