Ben Hills

Japan a nation of copycats? Nonsense, says Mr Yoshihisa Ariga, they are the most inventive people in the world – if patent applications are anything to go by.

Mr Ariga is a spokesman for Japan’s Patents Office, a grey public service beehive in Tokyo.Every working day about 2,000 citizens come through the door, clutching plans for the invention they hope will make them rich and famous.

That’s around 500,000 applications a year – more even than in the United States, and around 40 per cent of all the patents sought in the world. Mr Ariga has no idea how many he has on file altogether – the applications fill 100,000 volumes, and stacks of CD-ROMs.

Everyone knows how the cunning Japanese pinched the transistor from the Americans and used it to dominate the world’s consumer electronics market. But what about the millions of ideas they come up with themselves? Some are obvious money-spinners. This steamy summer’s smash hit among Japanese salarimen – the technology is now being licensed worldwide – is the shirt with a built-in molecular memory that doesn’t need ironing.

Kanebo, a Japanese textile manufacturer, has invented a better way of processing kombu (edible Japanese seaweed) – a crucial ingredient in a new”bio-lasting” lipstick it claims will not lick, or kiss, off. Nor, hopefully, taste fishy.

Also hot on the shopping lists for the midsummer gift-giving season are pornographic CD-ROMs, zoom binoculars, white swimsuits made of a new non-see-through fabric, caffeine-laced chewing-gum, golf-clubs for four-year-olds, and Kitty Litter that lasts a month without smelling.

Japan is so obsessed by shin seihin – anything new – that the English language edition of country’s leading business broadsheet, the Nikkei Weekly, features a full page of new products and processes every week.

In the past month it has celebrated Seiko’s latest “weather watch”featuring a built-in altimeter, thermometer and barometer; a medicated bandage to wrap around the toes to protect against Japan’s locker-room epidemic of athlete’s foot; and the Sanwa Bank’s introduction of an autoteller that washes and irons bank-notes, before dispensing them, clean and crisp, to its fussy customers.

There is a new silent piano on the market for those who want to avoid annoying their neighbours; for those who don’t give a damn, the Hotta Time Corp has just released a $20,000 CD speaker set-up that stands nearly two metres tall and features a real brass band.

Some of the products appear to be frivolous – a telephone modelled on a Harley-Davidson motorbike, for example, or a silver scraper to clean the fur off the tongue. Others may find a niche in the market – a one-handed toilet-paper dispenser, Teflon-coated running shoes that never get dirty, or a wine called North Shinano Concerto, a 1993 Japanese Chardonnay said to have been considerably improved by having Mozart played to it while it was maturing.

Other inventions filed at the Patents’ Office would seem to be hardly worth the $280 application fee. Seventy per cent of patents, says Mr Ariga, never get beyond the initial filing.

Take application No 104,075 of 1985. How can one put it delicately? – a Dutch wife for dogs, is the description on the application, complete with a hormone spray to attract any horny canines in the vicinity.

Then there’s the handkerchief with a face printed on it, designed to be worn like a bandana as a disguise. One inventor seeking increased sensation has designed a mini-condom, held in place with a garter-like device.

Another thinks the world is ready for a hollow baguette that can be stuffed with sandwich filling. Perhaps the most curious of all, a technique for implanting a loach (a small, edible newt-like creature) inside an egg prior to boiling it.

“There are some strange people in the world,” said Mr Ariga, “but if they pay the money, we are obliged to register their application”.

Publishing Info

Pub date: Friday 12 August 1994
Edition: Late
Section: News and Features
Sub section:
Page: 12
Word count: 828