electronic journal of contemporary japanese studies

Book Review 3 in 2009
First Published in ejcjs on 20 September 2009

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How Japan's Research and Development Went Global


Noriko Matsumoto

PhD Candidate
Graduate Center
City University of New York

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About the Author

Gregory P. Corning (2004) Japan and the Politics of Techno-Globalism, Armonk, N.Y.: M.E. Sharpe, ISBN 0-7656-0969-X, hardback, 235 pages plus index.

Japan's science and technology policy has been generally considered by Western scholars and critics to be buttressed by 'techno-nationalism.' Techno-nationalism designates the restriction of foreign participation in domestic research and development. The focus is laid on national gains through accessing foreign technology and the monopolization of technology, rather than on mutual exchange with other nations. One of the major causes of the trade friction in the 1980s between Japan and the West was attributed to the stern governmental protection of the Japanese domestic market. In the realm of technological innovation, it was similarly assumed in the West that Japan was interested only in indigenizing foreign technologies, without opening its research programs internationally. In the postwar period, the Ministry of International Trade and Industry (MITI) played a major role in protecting the Japanese economy from international competition and was considered the de facto promoter of Japan's industry and technology. MITI oversaw almost all government research and development in industrial technology and had a significant influence on science and technology policy. For many Western observers, as Gregory Corning indicates, Japan was the 'paradigmatic case of techno-nationalism' with MITI as the central government directorate responsible for instituting 'technology protectionism.'

The 1990s, however, witnessed major shifts in technology policy in Japan with regard to government-subsidized research programs. After a March 1990 symposium organized by the Technology and Economy Program of the OECD, which had the theme 'techno-globalism,' MITI came to embrace the concept 'techno-globalism' as the philosophical basis for Japan's technology policy. Techno-globalism emphasizes the gains accruing to states that allow unconditional foreign participation in open R&D (research and development) programs. For techno-globalists, global collaboration and technological exchange is not only an unavoidable trend but is also beneficial for all nations concerned. During the 1990s, MITI's research programs covered a wide range of technologies and forms of collaboration. Simultaneously, R&D programs fully subsidized by MITI were opened to non-domicile foreign firms and research institutes. Western scholars and critics, however, have remained skeptical about such liberalization and point to Japan's long history of neo-mercantilist policies to access and assimilate foreign technologies. The main proponents of the techno-nationalist interpretation hold that the programs initiated by MITI continued to reflect a systematic attempt to access foreign technologies and, as such, represented tactical maneuvers with little or no opportunity for balanced technological exchange for foreign participants.

In Japan and the Politics of Techno-Globalism, Gregory P. Corning examines the motivation behind MITI's organization of large-scale international research projects in order to offer an explanation for the shifts in Japanese technology policy during the 1990s. Corning contends that the series of research programs implemented by MITI in this period cannot be explained entirely by techno-nationalism. Rejecting prevailing assumptions of techno-national analysis, Corning argues that the global movement toward more open forms of technology promotion was the major reason for the opening up of MITI's research programs. Moreover, the sense of crisis in Japan's technological capabilities—one example being the failures of MITI consortia in the 1980s—led to concrete initiatives by MITI for more flexible and collaborative programs in the 1990s, as well as administrative reforms by the government which, in turn, provided an opportunity for changes of MITI policy.

According to Corning, four explanatory frameworks are proposed by leading scholars to account for the internationalization of MITI. The first is bureaucratic politics. The opening was a survival strategy by which bureaucrats aimed to sustain their careers and was related to competition for research funds between ministries. The second is techno-national ideology. MITI's changes indicated an ideological drive to access and indigenize foreign technology. The third is foreign pressure. In other words, the opening was to deflect pressure from other countries for even greater internationalization. The fourth is complementary scientific or technological capabilities. That is, there was an emergence of technological and financial motives similar to those that drive firms headquartered in different nations to enter into strategic alliances. The author evaluates these factors in relation to the shift in MITI's technology policy and develops his argument based on these frameworks. In his examination of the substance beneath the rhetoric of MITI's techno-globalism, Corning poses two fundamental questions (page 7). Why did MITI open its research programs to foreign participation? And has this opening provided meaningful opportunities for foreign firms and research institutes?

To answer these questions, the author offers an examination of three research programs as case studies. They are the Human Frontier Science Program (HFSP), the Intelligent Manufacturing Systems Initiatives (IMS), and the Real World Computing Program (RWC). Corning selects these for analysis on the grounds that they were the most controversial programs to be launched between 1989 and 1995, and were consistently cited in MITI reports as 'models' of international collaboration. Corning assesses the utility of these programs for Japanese and foreign participants in terms of research results and potential for meaningful international collaboration. The principal method used is document analysis, which includes government documents, newspapers, trade journals, and reports issued by the various project secretariats. Over 100 interviews with those who were involved in these programs, both foreign and Japanese—e.g. leaders and administrators of the research programs, scholars, corporate personnel, and MITI officials—supplement and corroborate the published data sources. While the book's focus is on the three research programs initiated by MITI, a major portion compares rules on foreign access to publicly funded research programs among the United States-Europe-Japan 'triad' in order to examine the ways in which MITI's research programs have differed from those of America or the European Union.

Corning cautions that techno-nationalism and techno-globalism are 'ideal types,' and notes that the policy debate on access to national R&D programs has moved toward the middle ground between these ideals. Accordingly, analysts today are more ready to acknowledge that both types may be seen to be reflected in the policies of the West as well as Japan (pages 21-22). Japan's techno-globalism, nevertheless, has been viewed as different from that of the US or Europe. One of the questions Corning pursues concerns why this has been so.

Corning provides an introduction by outlining competing perspectives of MITI's shifts in technology policy in the 1990s, and the profiles and backgrounds of the representative research programs in the US, Europe, and Japan. Chapter 2 examines the core arguments of the techno-globalist and techno-nationalist camps while also reviewing the evolution of representative research programs of each of the triad (e.g. USCAR, ATP in the US, and EUREKA in Europe). Chapter 3 assesses the relative role of the four prevailing explanations for MITI's decision to internationalize its research programs. It also reviews positive and negative evaluations of MITI programs.

Chapters 4 through 6 offer in-depth analysis of the three research programs and assess their relative strengths and weaknesses. Chapter 4 analyzes the HFSP, which was established in 1989. Structured as an international grant program, the HFSP was Japan's first experience in initiating international collaboration centered on interdisciplinary basic research on molecular-level biological functions in living organisms. This multinational program did not require specific criteria concerning the nationality of the researchers and was funded largely by Japan. Chapter 5 offers an in-depth analysis of IMS, which was proposed in 1989 and implemented in 1995. IMS is an industry-led, international initiative, focusing on the management of extended, global enterprises and manufacturing technology. Participants include firms and research institutes from Asia, Europe, and North America. IMS is the first attempt to coordinate industry-led R&D consortia on a global scale. The focus of chapter 6 is RWC—MITI's largest electronics project undertaken during the 1990s. Its main objective is to develop flexible and advanced information technologies. RWC is a national consortium in which MITI and Japanese firms decide basic objectives and organization, but which offers full membership to foreign firms and research institutes. In Chapter 7 Corning offers examples of techno-global efforts organized by MITI in other industrial technologies (e.g. aerospace, micro-machines, and semiconductors) with the aim of situating HFSP, IMS, and RWC within the wider context of Japan's techno-globalism. The analysis makes it clear that the HFSP and IMS were unique in terms of international funding and management structures. The final chapter summarizes the main points of the preceding chapters regarding MITI's opening to foreign participation and the implications of government reorganization for international research and development.

Based on his analysis of the case studies, Corning concludes that leveraging complementary resources and capabilities, though often overlooked by political scientists, has been an important factor in the opening up of MITI programs. The case studies demonstrate that foreign pressure and complementary capabilities have always played a more important role in the internationalization of MITI programs than bureaucratic politics and techno-nationalist ideology and that the relative importance of each factor was dependent upon the program and technologies. In addition, he reports that many of the MITI programs offered foreign participants non-discriminatory terms, indicating that Japan's programs were the most liberal for foreign participation among the triad. Corning points out that major shifts in Japanese technology policy began 'long before the severity of the nation's financial crisis became apparent' (page 5), suggesting that the three programs under examination were established before the grip of the economic recession of the 1990s.

The background to this techno-globalist tendency was MITI's experience of failures in high-profile international projects during the 1980s. Having later assessed its programs, MITI found few successes in any technologies and no major roles in deciding international standards (page 194). This led to MITI's resolution to revitalize the science and technology system and promote closer linkages among government, industry and academia, where barriers had previously prevented collaboration. The systematic attempt to increase such collaboration was seen in the implementation of two, five-year, Basic Science and Technology Plans in the 1990s, following the passage of the Science and Technology Basic Law in 1995. Moreover, a government-wide administrative reform program to achieve greater efficiency was implemented in 2001. Part of this streamlining involved the government's replacement of MITI with the Ministry of Economy, Trade, and Industry (METI). While not all the reforms seemed sufficiently radical, they have had important implications for both METI and the way the ministry conducts research and development. Corning argues that, ultimately, administrative reform has provided 'a genuine opportunity for change' (page 195).

While Japan may have become more techno-globalist over time, the statistics on non-defense R&D expenditures (1992–98) indicate that, as a source of R&D funds and as a performer of R&D, the Japanese government played a smaller role in the economy than America or the major nations in Europe (cf. page 27). Non-defense R&D expenditures were, however, higher in Japan than in any other industrialized nation. Of the 66 publicly funded projects in Japan, 22 included foreign participants. With the reforms, METI would play a smaller role in science and technology policy than MITI. Though METI continues to establish open, national programs such as RWC, it has not made any more innovative proposals along the lines of the HFSP or IMS (page 200). The future possibilities for international collaboration that might be implemented by METI remain to be seen. METI has not adopted formal guidelines on foreign access to research programs and its research budget is smaller than that for comparable funding agencies in the US or EU. While greater openness in research programs and further collaboration will be necessary and desirable, the expanded budgets required would seem unlikely given the current economic climate in Japan. Corning considers that 'initiatives capitalizing on the mission-oriented reorganization of the Japanese science and technology system' would be a modest and yet more practical way to take advantage of a strategic restructuring in Japan (page 201).

Corning's argument for a more nuanced analysis of the historical shift in Japan's technology policy during the 1990s is compelling. His assessment of the strengths and weaknesses of existing explanatory frameworks offers a multifaceted, more complex and refined analysis which suggests that Japan's technology policy has not been as monolithic as generally conceived. The strength of the book lies in its suggestion of the importance of social, political, and economic factors behind policy change—whether globalization, changing dynamics of international relationships, or the economic situation. Another important observation is that the trend of techno-globalism—the greater opening of research programs to foreign participation—was commonly observed throughout all the triad, and not just Japan. All developed their techno-global policy in response to the same forces driving the internationalization of corporate R&D and the opening of publicly-subsidized programs. All saw advantages in complementary foreign capabilities. MITI's achievement, the author argues, should be understood within the context of change that occurred throughout the triad over the course of the 1990s—a move toward 'muted techno-globalism or conditional opening of programs' (page 44). Corning's volume includes tables that summarize the detailed profiles of the research programs and statistical information. These are helpful in gaining an overview of publicly-funded research programs in America, Europe, and Japan.

Yet there remain several points that seem ripe for further analysis. First, Corning points out in passing the potential problem with the translation of the widely-used term, 'gijutsu rikkoku'—frequently translated as both 'nation-building through technological development' and 'techno-nationalism.' He suggests that the translation misleadingly characterizes Japan's stance toward technology policy as closed and techno-nationalist. While the problems of translation are surely an important aspect to consider for Western academics researching Japan, Corning does not offer suggestions in response to this problem. Second, the ideal types of 'techno-nationalism' and 'techno-globalism,' which 'defined academic and policy discussion of international technology collaboration' (page 21) in the 1990s, seem to require further consideration. Corning refers to the concepts of 'techno-hybrid' (Keller and Samuels 2003) and 'neo-techno-nationalism' (Yamada 2001) as theoretical variations, but does not critically consider these concepts for their aptness as explanatory models. Clearly, both 'techno-nationalism' and 'techno-globalism' are ideological constructs: as epistemological terms, they are not only descriptive but normative and are thus candidates for close examination. Reconsideration of the taxonomy would seem valuable in theorizing variations within the ideal types, as well as for the (re)conceptualization of future global technological innovation. Also, although discussion of the three programs reveals aspects that are characteristic of the techno-global tendency, it remains open as to whether or not these selections were truly representative. In other words, is it viable to assume that all the research programs by MITI were equally techno-global and open to foreign participation?

Corning's is an impressively researched book, with a wealth of information, carefully documented, and with valuable contributions to the much debated areas of scientific innovation, globalization, and the international political economy. The book offers a stimulating text for scholars engaged in the study of Japan's technology policy in the postwar period and its internationalization. As the political and economic importance of East Asia develops in our century, such an in-depth analysis also offers an example for further investigation into the development of related policies in other states.


Keller, William W. and Richard J. Samuels (eds) (2003) Crisis and Innovation in Asian Technology, Cambridge, New York, Cambridge University Press.

Yamada, Atsushi (2001) Neo Tekuno Nashonarizumu, Gurōkaru Jidai no Gijutsu to Kokusai Kankei, Tokyo, Yūhikaku.

About the Author

Noriko Matsumoto is a PhD candidate in Sociology at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York. She gained an MA (Sociology) from Rutgers, State University in New Jersey in 2002, and an MPhil (Sociology) from the City University of New York in 2006. She is currently conducting research on an ethnic suburb of New York City and its implications for immigrant assimilation and ethnic relations. Since 2005, she has participated in two research projects in Japan, coordinated by Princeton and Harvard Universities, which examine attitudes and trends in post-industrial Japan within the context of international comparative studies.

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Copyright: Noriko Matsumoto
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