Innovation in Japan
Samurai go soft
Japan’s preference for hardware over software is fading
Jul 14th 2011 | TOKYO | from the print edition
“A SAMURAI would never write software!” barked a senior executive at one of Japan’s biggest electronics firms, as drinks flowed at a dinner party. His view is widely held in Japan. Monozukuri (making things) is macho. From sword-forging in feudal times to machines and microchips today, real men toil tirelessly to make things you can see. Services are for sissies.
But like the traditional samurai hairstyle (shaved pate and topknot), such attitudes are looking increasingly out of date. Writing business software is now a growing business in Japan. The country’s large electronics companies are buying into the sector. Even foreign companies are coming to Japan in search of programming talent.
Software firms typically make fatter profit margins than hardware firms. The best ones easily hit 30%; electronics firms struggle to reach 5%. The software business needs fewer people and less capital; handy for a country with a shrinking population and tight-fisted banks. Jobs at big electronics firms are scarce, and the work is sometimes boring. Small wonder that Japan’s young, creative engineers are getting in touch with their inner sissy.
Japan has long made popular video-game software—just ask the Mario Brothers. Yet its computer makers have done little to foster independent software businesses. On the contrary, by bundling programs free with machines, they taught customers that software was of little value, says Kazuyuki Motohashi of the University of Tokyo. They also locked customers in, making it costly and cumbersome to switch to rivals.