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March 14, 2019

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Japan Inc eyes 2020 Games to regain tech lead

Driverless cars, robot volunteers and ultra high-definition TV: Japan Inc hopes to use the 2020 Tokyo Olympics to show the world it has regained its touch for innovation and technology.

The last time Japan hosted the Summer Games — Tokyo 1964 — it wowed visitors with its Shinkansen, the sleek high-speed bullet train that has since become a byword for cool and efficient transport.

The country used the Games as a springboard to dominate the tech world. From Sharp’s LCD screens to the Sony Walkman, Japan enjoyed an unparalleled reputation in the vanguard of technological innovation.

But the 21st century has seen Silicon Valley giants and rivals from China and South Korea catch up and overtake some of the great names in Japanese tech.

“One of the big problems is that we think we’re still innovative. But when you look at the rest of the world, we’re not the most innovative,” said Yoko Ishikura, an expert in competitiveness at Hitotsubashi University.

“It is worrying to see that many Japanese have very little idea what is going on elsewhere.”

Visitors to Japan are often amazed to see how low-grade a lot of tech can be. Archaic devices like flip-phones and fax machines are still in common use.

But authorities and firms are gearing up to change all that.

“Our vision for the 2020 Games includes an aspiration to make them the most innovative in history,” says Masa Takaya, spokesman for Tokyo 2020.

Japan Inc is “galvanized” to use the occasion to “dream up innovative new products,” said Masanori Matsushima, manager at Panasonic’s Olympics department, who oversees an entire exhibition space devoted to Games-time tech.

As soon as visitors arrive at the airport, they will be greeted by multilingual robots primed to assist them and automatic chairs designed to take them to a destination selected by smartphone.

Panasonic is working on an ingenious automatic translation system that could be used for counters. Two people speak on either side of a screen in their own language and the translation appears simultaneously written on the other side.

Tech giant NEC is deploying a facial recognition system for 300,000 athletes, staff and journalists that will identify people within 0.3 seconds — speeding up access to venues and bolstering security at the high profile event.

And NHK is set to wow its massive global TV audience with programming in ultra high-definition 8K.

But perhaps the main sector hoping to use the Games as a spur to innovation is transport.

With the auto industry already going through a major transformation, “2020 is the ideal moment, probably the dividing line between the old and the new world,” said Christopher Richter, an analyst at brokerage firm CLSA.

Toyota will be rolling out its futuristic e-Palette, a driverless car without a steering wheel.

The car will be able to move around “in a pre-defined zone,” said Yasunobu Seki, department general manager at Toyota’s Olympic and Paralympic division.


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