Techno tradition - Issue 9 - Magazine | Monocle

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Think of Kyoto and the images that come to mind are of Buddhist pagodas, Zen rock gardens and Shinto shrines but not, for most people at least, touch-screens, light emitting diodes and multilayer ceramic capacitors. And yet, apart from its fame as Japan’s ancient capital, Kyoto is also a world centre for the most advanced electronic components – the ones that make mobile phones smaller, graphics sharper and sounds crisper. Some of the systems involved in the Nintendo Wii, the elegantly simple touch panel on a Prada phone, and even the melody ringtones on mobile phones are all made possible thanks to technology developed by Kyoto companies.

Nintendo is based in Kyoto, along with parts companies that the average consumer will not have heard of: Rohm, Murata Manufacturing Co, Nissha – as well as the more famous Kyocera and Omron. Each is a world leader in its field, making contributions that are changing the face of the technology that we use every day. “Three hundred years ago Kyoto was the centre of everything – culture, novelty,” says Nobuo Hatta, a director of Rohm. “The centre has moved to Tokyo, but Kyoto still has a feeling of wanting to be number one.”

Rohm, an electronic parts and semi-conductor manufacturer founded in 1958, was one of the original creators of the melody ringtone download system (or chakumero). Since that time, it has developed processors for phones and gaming machines that can create 64 tones, 118 sound variations and surround sound. The company excels at minimising technology, making small parts even smaller – it recently introduced the world’s smallest LEDs, which will end up as backlights in millions of mobile phones. At its research centre, engineers – dressed head to toe in spacesuits to prevent dust fouling up the microscopic parts – are working on the next generation of products, including flexible LEDs and power devices for hybrid cars.

“Kyoto thrives on core technology and creating a core business,” says Hatta, who spent 20 years in California after Rohm opened an outpost in Silicon Valley in 1971. “For their size, these small companies have a large share of the global market; Kyoto entrepreneurs don’t like to stop with limited success.”

At first glance, all this technology seems to be a paradox, coming as it does from the ancient city of Kyoto. In fact, the most successful hi-tech companies in the city frequently have their roots in more traditional industries. Kyoto is also a centre of scholarship and has three of Japan’s top science faculties at Doshisha, Kyoto and Ritsumeikan universities, from where graduates feed directly into local companies.

Many of the best Kyoto electronics companies have benefited from visionary founders. Omron, today a €3.8bn company specialising in sensor technology, was founded by Kazuma Tateisi, an inventor who dabbled in trouser presses before launching his company in 1933. Since then, the company has developed an impressive list of firsts – from automatic traffic signals to a fully automated train station system. Kyocera was founded as the Kyoto Ceramic Company in 1959 by Dr Kazuo Inamori, a Zen monk who continues to oversee his empire.

The 80-year-old Kyoto printing company, Nissha, dominates the world market in decorative film for plastic moulding for cars and consumer electronics; it also has the biggest global share of touch screens for PDAs (personal digital assistants), gaming machines and car navigation systems.

Nissha engineers have developed pioneering techniques that combine moulding and design transfer to create these decorative surfaces on everything from mobile phones to car interiors. If a car manufacturer – and customers include Toyota, Honda, Nissan and GM – is looking to create, say, a faux wood or metallic interior, they come to Nissha. Nokia is its biggest client, but it also works with a long list that includes Blackberry, Nintendo, Sony and SoftBank. When LG Electronics wanted a sleek exterior for the Prada phone, it went straight to Nissha.

Nissha started out as a traditional paper printing company, and today the company is run by Junya Suzuki, the founder’s grandson. Forty years ago, Suzuki’s father (then president) saw that paper printing had limited growth and started experimenting with printing on other surfaces. Its breakthrough product was the original Sony Walkman, and it has never looked back.

These days, paper printing accounts for 30 per cent of Nissha’s revenue; plastic mould and touch-screen printing for 70 per cent. “Kyoto is a very traditional city,” says Suzuki. “We cherish Kyoto’s culture – that’s our spiritual origin. But a company like Nissha has to send out a message to employees and customers that it’s interested in new things.” He’s added a strikingly modern building with a design studio – unheard of for a parts maker – where a design team, surrounded by mood boards, dream up new applications for its technology.

Another company with its roots firmly in Kyoto tradition is Murata, the world’s leading manufacturer of multi-layer ceramic capacitors – tiny energy-storing devices that eliminate noise in electronic products, and which are present in all home appliances. A flat-screen TV has around 1,500, laptops 700 and mobile phones 300. Murata credits its unrivalled ceramic technology to its background in the more traditional Kyoto art of pottery.

“Our founder [Akira Murata] was born into a pottery family,” says Murata’s Harumi Sekiguchi. “He joined the family business but he wanted to do something new. He learnt about temperature and kilns from his father, taught himself and worked with university professors. Our business has moved away from traditional ceramics but the background is that knowledge of the flame, its colour and how it responds to oxygen.”

Murata is one of the reasons phones worldwide are smaller – in spite of having extra functions, such as televisions and cameras (Rohm’s increasingly tiny chips are another). It has perfected a technique of stacking up to 70 layers of ceramic on to one chip; high capacity but so small – the size of a grain of sand – that they can only be made by machine.

Ongoing research is essential. “You can’t stop moving – once you stop, someone catches up,” says Shinji Mikami, who runs Rohm’s western Japan sales division. At Murata, 7 per cent of sales revenue is put back into research and development, and it hires 200 new graduates each year. Murata and Rohm also build their own machinery, which makes their products more distinctive and less easy to copy.

“Tradition is the backbone of technology in Kyoto,” says Hatta. “It’s hi-tech but full of artisanal culture. There’s a level of craft in the core products. If somebody wanted to compete with companies like Kyocera or Murata, it would take 15 years just to catch up because of the accumulation of skills.”

Valley highs

Nissha Printing Co
Founded in 1929 as a paper printing company, Nissha’s IMD (In Mould Decoration) has become the world’s most popular method of plastic printing, used for phones, PCs, appliances, packaging and car interiors.

Murata Manufacturing Co
Founded in 1944, it uses its ceramic technology to make electronic parts. Best known for its ceramic chip capacitor, and small module parts such as Bluetooth, wi-fi and sensors.

Electronic components designer and manufacturer, founded in 1958. Famous for its LEDs, audio processors for mobiles and gaming machines.

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