Interesting inventions by the Japanese
We have the Japanese to thank for some inventions that have made our lives much more convenient, delicious, and enjoyable – such as the bullet train, instant noodles, and the Nintendo Gameboy.
But many of us have no idea that the Japanese have also actually come up with other everyday objects that make life more interesting, and these inventions are everywhere now. Here are the inventions that we often take for granted but also prove just how innovative the Japanese are.
1. Airsoft guns
Image credits: @marceline_liu
Playing first-person shooter video games helps us all de-stress and vent our pent-up tension in a safe way. But nothing beats the thrill of a real-life shootout – that is, until someone gets seriously hurt. As it turns out, the Japanese were the first to play real-life shootout games safely via Airsoft guns.
Airsoft originated from Japan in the early 1970s. There were strict gun laws that prohibited firearm ownership, but there was a growing market of replica guns – these were legal. Some enthusiasts then started modifying these model guns to fire spring and gas-powered projectiles.
While these guns were originally designed for target shooting, plastic pellets were produced so that they can be shot at humans without causing severe injury in comparison to BB guns that shoot painful metal projectiles.
Image credits: @kuzuki_1029
Airsoft weapons soon became popular for casual simulated war games, which the Japanese called survival games (サバイバルゲーム, sabaibaru gēmu).
These games quickly caught on in neighbouring countries such as Hong Kong, Taiwan, and China, where there were similarly strict gun laws. As more companies picked up production of these gas-powered guns, their popularity spread to North America too.
Image credit: @softgun.fr
Today, these simulated war games have a strong following in Japan, with whole stadiums built for the sport. Enthusiasts often dress up elaborately as real-life soldiers, and there are also events where players cosplay as pop culture characters. You can even find shops in Nakano Broadway that specialise in selling tactical gear and Airsoft weapons.
2. Camera phones
Image credits: @prcboston
Gone are the days when we had to carry around a bulky digital camera, spare batteries, and memory cards to take photos on the go – we now just reach for our mobile phones and snap away, with resolutions that could give DSLRs a run for its money. We’ve got Kyocera, the Japanese electronics company, to thank for that.
Kyocera, a Japanese electronics company, developed the first commercial camera phone. It was released in Japan in May 1999.
It was called the Kyocera Visual Phone VP-210, and had a 110,000-pixel front-facing camera – today’s iPhone 11 Pro Max boasts a 12MP camera. That’s about 109 times sharper than the 1999 VP-210 phone!
The VP-210 could store up to 20 JPEG images which could then be sent over email or Japan’s cellular network.
Sharp J-SH04, the first mass-market camera phone
Image credits: Morio
Sharp then developed the first mass-market camera phone, the J-SH04, released in November 2000.
3. QR code
Image credits: Proxy Visitor Management System
To buy something online or access information in the past, we used to have to type in long and confusing URLs – an annoying task especially if you were doing so on a tiny smartphone keypad, or simply had clumsy butterfingers. Now, more and more shops provide us with QR codes that we can quickly scan with our smart devices and poof – get to the site where we can transact with them online.
Today, QR codes are used for a great number of things in our everyday lives. Advertisements? Check. Movie and concert tickets? Check. Cashless payment? Check, check, check.
A Quick Response, or QR code is a two-dimensional matrix barcode invented by the Japanese company Denso Wave in 1994. Its original purpose was to track vehicles and scan components at high speeds during the manufacturing process, so it was designed to decode information quickly.
4. The DSLR camera
Nikon F4 modified with an electronic base for NASA
Image credits: NASA
There was a time when photographers had to carry multiple rolls of film, then drop off the film for development at a lab, before the photos could be printed out. Photojournalists had it worse – they had to shoot, develop, print, and wire their photos back to their news agencies in a matter of hours. Digital photography, especially the DSLR, has now saved us from much of the hassle that came along with photography.
Nikon presented its first working prototype of the first digital single-lens reflex (DSLR) camera in 1986 at the Photokina, a photography trade fair. It had a 0.3-megapixel sensor, and used a magnetic floppy disk to save up to 50 black and white images at a time. While those specs may be laughable today, Nikon paved the way for a digital revolution in photography.
Other digital cameras were created before Nikon’s prototype, such as the Sony Mavica series and the first-ever digital camera by Steven Sasson from Eastman Kodak, but they did not feature the SLR design, which was the standard professional camera then and even today.
5. 3D printing
Image credit: Rob Wingate
3D printing has gotten more popular in the last couple of years, likely due to the printers being more affordable now. Still considered new to most of us today, the technology for 3D printing has actually been around for almost 40 years.
The first recorded experiments of 3D printing were from 1981 by Japanese inventor Dr Hideo Kodama. He used ultraviolet light to harden polymer resins and made 3D plastic models layer by layer. Unfortunately, his patent application for his 3D printing technology was unsuccessful, as he was unable to apply before the one-year deadline.
Image credit: @openmeals
Today, 3D printing is used in the manufacturing of cars, construction, firearms, and even in the food and medical industries. Japanese companies such as Sushi Singularity even 3D-print edible sushi based on each customer’s nutritional needs, based on health test kits sent back to the restaurant two weeks before the visit.
6. The rickshaw
Image credits: Svetlana Gumerova
A common tourist attraction in almost every Asian city, rickshaws or jinrikisha (人力車) are believed to be invented in Japan in the 1860s, and were an inexpensive way to get around even into the 1940s.
Its invention is often credited to three Japanese men who were inspired by horse carriages. A human-powered carriage would cost less than it took to rear a horse, and is much more agile than the animal.
Image credit: Porao/Wikimedia Commons
By the turn of the century, rickshaws had become the main mode of transport for both goods and passenger transport. Many Southeast Asian cities also adopted the rickshaw, with many migrant workers picking up rickshaw-pulling as an occupation.
These days, they usually take the form of a cycle rickshaw and are popular for leisurely sightseeing tours.
7. Gel-ink pen
Image credit: Antoine Dautry
Remember when we first learned to use pens? While we smudged our homework and left weird markings all over our hands, the smooth and bold lines from water-based gel-ink pens made it much easier to write well.
Sakura, an Osaka-based stationery company, started research in 1980 on a new, gel-based ink for its new line of ballpoint pens similar to what we use today. The problem with commonly used oil-based ink was that it was always liquid, and this could lead to the ink creating uneven lines if it had not been stored properly.
Ballsign pen commercial
Image credits: Gelly Roll
After much research, Sakura released the Ballsign pen in 1984. It was a ballpoint pen that used gel-based ink that turned into a liquid when used to write on paper, and solidified when the pen was in storage.
Gelly Roll commercial by Pink
Image credits: Gelly Roll
In 1989, the Ballsign pen was repackaged as the Gelly Roll gel-ink pen series for release in North America – to the delight of many ’90s kids who loved to doodle.
8. The bladeless fan
Image credits: Bin im Garten
When James Dyson launched the new Dyson bladeless fan in October 2009, it raised many questions about who had first invented the bladeless fan. It turned out that Tokyo-based Shibaura Electric had first lodged a patent in 1981 for an almost identically-designed bladeless fan. Shibaura Electric is better known to us as Toshiba.
According to the Daily Telegraph, documents at the Intellectual Property Office (IPO) indicate that Dyson was forced to re-submit its application for a worldwide patent on its bladeless fan in 2008, because it was too similar to the Japanese invention.
9. The electric rice cooker
Image credit: Jun OHWADA/Wikimedia Commons
Rice cookers are a common sight in every Asian household – it’s as if every house has to have one.
The first practical electric rice cooker was invented by the Toshiba Electric Corporation in 1955. Toshiba had spent five years developing the electric rice cooker.
In December 1956, the Toshiba Corporation released the first commercially successful automated rice cookers.
It used an innovative double-chamber cooking method: rice was placed into the rice pot, and water into a surrounding container. After heating the pot, the rice cooker would automatically switch off when all of the water had evaporated – thus reducing the chances of the rice burning, which was a problem that plagued previous models.
Soon, Toshiba was producing 200,000 rice cookers per month for the Japanese market, and rice cookers have become ubiquitous in most Asian households.
10. Canned coffee
Image credit: @poke_mochico
Sometimes, when there aren’t any cafes nearby and you don’t want to settle for instant coffee, an ice-cold can of coffee fresh from the vending machine really does the trick. As it turns out, the Japanese were the ones who first made coffee to-go.
Ueshima Tadao, the founder of Ueshima Coffee Co. (UCC), was inspired to do so after having to leave his cup of coffee at the train station, even though he only had a sip, because his train was departing earlier than scheduled. It struck him that a coffee drink that could be had anywhere would be a great idea.
He invested in technology for producing coffee drinks that could be put in a can and stored at room temperature while retaining its flavour.
The first canned milk coffee by UCC was released in 1969, but it was not an immediate success. It only started becoming popular after it was introduced in the World Exposition in Osaka in 1970.
Canned coffee from Pokka was then introduced into its hot and cold drink vending machines in 1973, which made it a daily staple for many in Japan.
The evolution of the UCC coffee can design over the years
Image credits: Guinness World Records
Interesting Japanese inventions
We have the Japanese to thank for inventing many of the prototypes and coming up with the technology to make modern living easier. These inventions have changed how we live for the better.
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