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Awards highlight best of Japanese innovation

A developer of computer-chip embedded cards for making cashless payments was the top recipient of awards designed to inspire Japanese innovation and creativity in a nation historically more famous for conformity than individuality.
/ Source: The Associated Press

Computer-chip embedded cards that make cashless payments, painless syringes, therapeutic planetariums and a singing duo who inspired a U.S. cartoon are among the Japanese products winning honors Wednesday for innovation.

Now in its fourth year, the awards were started by major Japanese publisher Nikkei Business Publications Inc. to inspire creativity in a nation historically more famous for conformity than individuality.

Analysts say new technologies and ideas — highlighted by the recipients of the Innovator Awards — are critical in Japan’s nascent economic revival after nearly 15 years of stagnation by providing new business opportunities and giving products an edge in fighting global competition.

The awards are also highlighting Japan’s growing prowess in new fields such as services and entertainment — what the Japanese are calling “soft power,” such as animation and music, in contrast to the manufacturing “hardware” capabilities of the past on which a modernizing Japan built its historical reputation.

Winning this year’s top award is Akira Iga, an executive at Japanese electronics and entertainment company Sony Corp., who developed a technology called FeliCa, which works for train tickets and instant cash payments.

The technology uses a tiny integrated computer chip in plastic cards that can communicate as quickly as fractions of a second so that people can simply slap their cards on a panel to gain entry at train station stalls or avoid the hassle of coins at cash registers.

More than 100 million FeliCa chips have been shipped so far, including 61 million in Japan. That means on average one out of every two Japanese is using the technology.

The chip is used for train systems not only in Japan but also in Hong Kong, Singapore, China, India and Thailand. The chip is also now used in Japanese “wallet” cell phones.

“I’m happy that people involved in technology who usually aren’t in the limelight are getting the honors,” Iga, 56, said of his FeliCa team in an interview with The Associated Press.

Iga, who also played a major role in developing Sony’s compact disks and global positioning system, said Sony hopes to use FeliCa technology in the future to have digital gadgets in homes communicate quickly with each other.

Singers Ami Onuki, 32, and Yumi Yoshimura, 30, a duo collectively known as “Puffy,” were awarded special “Japan Cool” honors for spreading Japanese pop music abroad, especially after the U.S. cartoon “Hi Hi Puffy AmiYumi,” with characters based on the two women, became a hit.

“Many Americans think Japan is cool, and so we were lucky,” Yoshimura said at an award ceremony Wednesday night at a Tokyo hotel, adding that they felt surprised and even a bit out-of-place receiving honors alongside engineers and inventors.

Takayuki Ohira, 35, won for designing planetariums, including one with 5 million stars, that the panel of judges praised as pioneering business opportunities and encouraging children’s interest in astronomy.

Guests at the ceremony gasped when lights were turned off and sparkling specks of thousands of stars were projected on the ceiling and walls of the room in a demonstration of Ohira’s invention.

Masayuki Okano, 73, and Tetsuya Oyauchi, 38, won together for developing a super-thin ouch-less syringe, which has been especially appreciated by children with diabetes who must receive regular insulin shots, they said.

“It’s fun to make something that doesn’t exist in the world,” Okano said.

Yoko Iwamiya, 64, who designed modern-day versions of traditional Japanese New Year’s decorations in the 19070s, was honored for developing ecological paper, which produces no harmful emissions even when burned.

Past winners include a producer for award-winning animation movies and the founder of Japan’s biggest Internet shopping mall.

Hiroshi Komiyama, president of the University of Tokyo, chief of the judging panel for this year’s awards, said scientific knowledge that leads to ecological smarts or efficient services has always been key in Japan’s development because the island nation is so densely populated and poor in natural resources.

“They do say necessity is the mother of invention,” he said. “And Japanese culture has a lot to offer in spirituality at a time when the world is crying out for that.”