Blue LED Inventor Shuji Nakamura on Rewarding Innovators in Japan

October 21, 2004


Shuji Nakamura, Professor of Engineering, University of California at Santa Barbara

Jun Makihara, Chairman, Neoteny Co., Ltd.

Dr. Shuji Nakamura, creator of the blue laser diode and the blue, green and white light-emitting diodes (LED), explained why he finds the U.S. more conducive to innovation and Japan more conducive to manufacturing. Dr. Nakamura also discussed his lawsuit against his employer, Nichia Corporation, for patent infringement on blue LED technology culminating in a whopping $190 million award. Blue LED is the light that powers the ubiquitous white-flashing pedestrian sign at pedestrian crosswalks.
Dr. Nakamura observed that Japanese company researchers owe a deep, deep loyalty to the master, comparable to a samurai's loyalty to his lord in Japan's Edo period. That loyalty is a hidden strength of Japanese manufacturers, who are able to produce strong teams as a result of the cooperation they are able to elicit, he noted. By contrast, he finds Americans lack the team discipline for which Japan is noted and on which manufacturing relies. You tell Americans to come on time but they won't, he said with a smile.
In his new tenured position at the University of California at Santa Barbara, Dr. Nakamura also finds the heterogeneity of his American students really surprising in contrast to the relative homogeneity of Japanese students. The explanation lies in how Japanese and Americans are socialized, he said. "We're taught that silence is golden. You're taught to assert yourself." The U.S. emphasis on individualism is more conducive to invention than to teamwork, and it is also more conducive to innovation, he asserted.
By contrast, the self-perpetuating nature of Japan's social system that makes change difficult also makes innovation difficult, Dr. Nakamura reasoned. Japan wants to figure out how to produce inventions, but also keep the status quo, and given this reluctance, we won't excel in this department. He sees evidence of American flexibility in the U.S. legal system, and considers the outcome of his patent litigation as the exception that proves the rule.
"How did I come to America?" Dr. Nakamura said he began attending international symposia when he turned 40 and discovered an appetite for the challenge of adapting to new environments. Along the way, he also began questioning the superiority of the Japanese system when people pointed out how little money he was making in relation to the value he was creating. Every time I went to these scholarly meetings, my associates would say, "Dump those guys, come over and join me." I'd say, "No, I was a loyal Japanese salaryman" and they'd say, "My God, you're a slave: Slave-Nakamura."
How did you select blue LED as your research topic--because it had never been exploited or because you had an intuition?
Dr. Nakamura said the project of synthesizing commercial grade blue LED was assigned to him. We were all going after the blue--it was the holy grail. That was because with blue, you could have all the primary colors and thereby the entire palette. He also noted how, at the time his research began, some large Japanese corporations were spending ¥10 billion a year. He was working at a small company without a research budget, but his firm at the time was really serious about results, so he poured his heart into it. At some point, the firm tried to get him to move on to other projects, but he would not budge. After working single-mindedly and incessantly for 10 years, he decided to consider himself as having left the company. I went to the founder, saying I want to do the research, and he said go ahead and do it, and he gave me the wherewithal to do the research. I did it out of desperation, and it's just lucky that I got paid, he recounted.
Have you discovered a difference between filing a patent in a U.S. research institution and filing in a Japanese company?
I was working in the countryside in Japan--we're talking hick--and the idea was don't file for a patent, you'll disclose know-how, Dr. Nakamura recounted. He was most interested in publishing papers, which his firm strongly discouraged. He published them anyway; then he figured that filing a patent might mollify his employer. He did so against the warnings of his section manager. I told a new grunt that my section manager had hired that they were filing a patent. The grunt said, "We'll get yelled at." I said, "No, we're going to file it."
Dr. Nakamura also commented that ownership under Japan's revised patent law is ambiguous. By contrast, he found the arrangements in the U.S. to be clear: At the outset you sign a contract and it's 50-50 at universities, he commented.
Some would argue that American society has higher productivity for R&D; but it depends on the industry, and the difference between the commercialization of research and development, which is more unbundled in the U.S. It tends to be used by a variety of different areas. In Japan, the output is made by the company.
I don't think I said one environment was better than the other, but I was trying to say in Japan we are strong in manufacturing while in the U.S. the forte is invention. You cited areas where Japan is really good, and these require teamwork. My familiarity is with students primarily, and I can tell you, teamwork is not their strong suit, Dr. Nakamura responded.
You said change does not happen in Japan. Change may be perceived differently for Anglo-Saxon and Chinese cultures, rather than in Scandinavia or Japan, where change is more gradual.
Dr. Nakamura conceded that some change is occurring in Japan, gradually, but said the question is the speed of that change. "Things are occurring all around us. Are we responding quickly? In some cases, faster change is called for."
You filed your patents without authorization. You did not have specific orders to engage in some of the research that you conducted. Are you aware that if you did that in an American company, you'd probably get fired?
"You're absolutely right. American society is a contract and a litigation society. I would have been fired right away. But I was in a company in the boondocks. We are not a litigious society in Japan, and I managed to stay on," he reminisced.
You talk about education as a kind of brain-washing but you are, yourself, Japanese. How did you manage not to be brain-washed?
Dr. Nakamura conceded that he was pretty much brainwashed until about age 40, when he discovered blue LED. Up to that point, everything had been for the company, he said. Coinciding with his success, he began attending international conferences. That is when everything changed for him, and it is why he now recommends spending three to five years outside one's own country for a change of perspective, not only to Japanese in Japan, but to everyone. "Go to North Korea, he declared. "They think it's the most peaceful in the world and the science is the best in the world. It applies to Americans, too. They have a tendency to think of America as the best. We all do that."
--Ann Rutledge


Topics:  Business, Design

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