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Alex Gover

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Japan -- One Year On

Posted: 03/16/2012 2:19 pm

If you have any kind of connection with Japan, March 11, 2011 was one of those terrible "I remember where I was" days. The earthquake struck, the tsunami swept in and 16,000 people lost their lives. Some 370,000 homes, schools, hospitals and factories were leveled and three nuclear reactors went into meltdown.

The power cuts that followed, the summer floods in Thailand, the increasing strength of the yen and the difficulties of high-profile names like Olympus, Sony and NEC have led many in the media to starting ringing the death knell of 'Japan Inc.'

But what we are seeing on the ground is quite the reverse: Firstly, the tsunami highlighted just how important Japan is to the global high-tech sector -- supply chains ranging from automotive to mobile came under intense pressure as many of the key components, modules and advanced materials come from the lesser known global leaders like Murata, Alps and Asahi Kasei.

Secondly, we are seeing some real moves towards the structural reforms needed for Japan to regain its edge in the increasingly competitive global marketplace. In the semiconductor space where margins have been steadily eroding, the merger of the chip divisions of Renesas, Fujitsu and Panasonic will result in a leaner 'meaner' outfit ready to take on its younger Korean and Chinese competitors. In LCD displays the establishment of the joint venture between Sony, Hitachi and Toshiba has cut through traditional rivalries and created a genuine force in an industry that was starting to lose its way against companies like LG and Samsung.

Thirdly there are dozens of Japanese firms in the high-tech sector that are posting healthy and growing balance sheets -- companies with more than a billion dollars in revenues but that most people have never heard of. Names like Ulvac, DaiNippon Screen and Shibaura will usually be met with a "who?" by the man in the street, but these are the guys that make the high-margin, high-end capital equipment that sits in semiconductor and display factories across the world.

In other words every time a "non-Japanese" brand sells an iPod or mobile phone, that's cash dropping in the coffers of Japan Inc.

That's not to say the big names are lying down. The automotive sector is as strong as ever and in consumer electronics, the new smartphone paradigm is seen as a golden opportunity for the handset manufacturers to get back into overseas markets. Sony for example bought out Ericsson and last month launched its new Xperia smartphone at Mobile World Congress to rave reviews, while Panasonic, NEC and Fujitsu also brought out new phones for the export market. Whether they all survive remains to be seen but they are certainly not giving up without a fight.

The Tsunami was a tragedy and there is much still to be done in the reconstruction effort. But many see it as the catalyst for a renewed entrepreneurial and collaborative spirit that will ensure Japan maintains its place as the leading high-tech country in the world.