Japan often appears stuck in yesterday’s vision of tomorrow. Flip phones are common enough that they’re cited as the exemplar of a phenomenon called Galapagos Syndrome, referring to the country’s tendency to stick with technologies endemic only to its islands. Another anachronism, Yahoo, remains a wildly popular. Tokyo of the 1980s may have inspired the futuristic cityscape of Blade Runner, complete with flying cars, but the fax machines that were cutting-edge when the film came out remain ubiquitous tools today.
Ensuring Japan doesn’t fall behind the technological curve has for decades been the job of the Ministry of Economy, Trade, and Industry, a powerful agency housed in a squat modern office block in Tokyo’s orderly government quarter, a few blocks south of the jagged moat surrounding the Imperial Palace. The building is orthogonal in every respect, a uniform stack of concrete threaded with long, featureless corridors. The bureaucrats here guided Japan’s postwar economic miracle, a boom that gave the world the transistor radio, the Walkman, and the Prius—and almost no transformative innovations since. None of the automakers championed by METI are today on the leading edge of robotic driving. For the most part, Japan’s faded tech companies can’t lay claim to either smartphone or internet greatness.