Japan Today



Japan's aerospace industries falling further behind


Once, in another lifetime, Japan's military aircraft dominated the skies. Although not as fast as the RAF's vaunted Supermarine Spitfire, the Mitsubishi A6M Zero was able to out-turn and out-climb the Spitfire with ease, and stay in the air for three times as long. By 1944 however, its dominance had ended as the U.S. mass produced tougher and more powerful carrier aircraft.

Japan's pioneering days as a designer of high-performance aircraft are long gone. Shukan Gendai (March 25) was moved to write an expose on the country's string of failures following the aborted launch of the new H3 rocket, which is intended to supersede the H2A. The large-scale rocket developed jointly by Mitsubishi Heavy Industries (MHI) and the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) had to be aborted in mid-flight during its maiden test from the Tanegashima Space Center on March 7. "What's the reason why Japan's rockets and passenger planes don't fly?" the magazine asks.

For rocket components, MHI relies on subcontractor firms like Ise Kogyo, a medium-sized manufacturer based in Anjo City, Aichi Prefecture. Ise Kogyo was entrusted with development of the tubing that injects fuel to the rocket's engine. The company has been a supplier of components to Toyota Motors, but has been hard hit by the auto industry's switchover to carbon-reduction models. As a survival strategy it sought to diversify by supplying aerospace projects.

"We lost quite a bit of money from our work on the rocket," the company's president, Shinkichi Aiba, told the magazine. "Mitsubishi and JAXA pressured us to hold down costs."

But Aiba is willing to absorb losses to keep his country in the race.

"If we fail here, Japan will find itself left behind," he said. "That's why we have got to continue to keep doing whatever it takes. Before we deliver our products, we stay up all night checking to make sure the components we made are free from defects."

Rocket development isn't the only sector that's hurting. From 2008, Japan began efforts to realize a "Hinomaru Jet," i.e., native-produced passenger aircraft, within five years. Its delivery date was extended six times, and in the meantime the initial budget of ¥150 billion ballooned to ¥1 trillion. Finally, after 15 years of futile efforts, the project was abandoned.

What's the explanation for this record of abject failure?

One fault may lie in the country's corporate culture. According to the article, MHI has two major centers for development of aircraft and missiles. A strong rivalry exists between the two, and this regularly sparks trouble. The article mentions several, including tensions over the differences between salaries paid to foreign technicians and Japanese staff.

But problems are endemic throughout the industry, where small- and medium-sized subcontractor firms are grappling with a shortage of manpower. There's also a serious brain drain by which outstanding technicians have been leaving Japan to work abroad.

Still another thing that can't be overlooked is money. Over the past three decades the Japanese government has been less than generous in subsidizing high technology. According to OECD data, during 2019 Japan earmarked just $170 billion for research and development, less than one-third that of the U.S. and China. And while funding has been stagnant over the past decade, the gap with other countries continued to increase. Japan's investment in aerospace R&D was less than one-twentieth that of NASA.

Because Japan only conducts rocket test launches three times a year, domestically produced components can't benefit from economics of scale.

Ultimately, Shukan Gendai concludes, Japan has found itself stuck in a time warp, continuing to rely on mentality and manufacturing methods that worked well enough in the previous century, but which are rapidly becoming outmoded.

"Placing dependence entirely upon efforts at the workplace while sparing upper management from assuming responsibility for their decisions reflects an outmoded 'Showa-style thought process' that has reached its limits of effectiveness," the article concludes. "This sort of thinking had already become deeply embedded even prior to the Pacific War; at present it can be regarded as the essence behind the current string of failures."

© Japan Today

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Because Japan only conducts rocket test launches three times a year, domestically produced components can't benefit from economics of scale.

Just like Japanese jet, don't expect anyone outside Japan will line up to buy.

-9 ( +7 / -16 )

Same across most industry here.

Little understanding of need to innovate and adapt.

In some cases, focussing on craftsmanship and handmade quality can still prove successful,for example,Nitto,which celebrated 100 years of making excellent bicycle parts.

That's a rare exception that proves the rule,though.

-3 ( +9 / -12 )

Rather embarrassing that Mitsubishi failed where Sukhoi succeeded with its 'Superjet'.

-6 ( +2 / -8 )

Japan is falling behind on everything because the country and its people are deathly allergic to change and can't quite grasp the concept of innovation and thinking outside the box. Pity.

-10 ( +6 / -16 )

I have no idea why Mitsubishi's SpaceJet isn't called out by name here- truly a massive corporate, techincal, and strategic debacle that lighted absolute mountains of money on fire.

Comparing it to Sukhoi, which has had decades of continous airplane manufacturing experience, is a bit bizarre though.

1 ( +3 / -2 )

After the yen began to soar in value relative to the US dollar, Japan's industries gradually began shifting from finished products to components. Take TDK, for example, which made audio cassette tapes and later Betamax and VHS video cassette tapes, etc., which it sold under its own brand. Now you seldom see the brand any more. Instead its parts are embedded, like the gaskets in microwave ovens. Or the cameras in smartphones, of which Sony owns the dominant world share. Or the carbon fiber composite materials that make up a significant portion of the Boeing 787, produced by Toray. And so on. So Japan has been increasingly relegated to being a supplier of reliable, high-quality parts, and is content to operate behind the scenes.

1 ( +2 / -1 )

Technology in America is unusually heavily subsidised by government. Silicon Valley was a venture founded by the government and is heavily subsidised by research grants and the military-industry complex.

-1 ( +1 / -2 )

Although not as fast as the RAF's vaunted Supermarine Spitfire, the Mitsubishi A6M Zero was able to out-turn and out-climb the Spitfire with ease, and stay in the air for three times as long. 

As stated by someone who doesn't know what they are talking about The Zero lacked armor and other advanced features like self-sealing fuel tanks, making it lighter thus more maneuverable. The problems was that they were one step away from suicide machines, as unprotected Zero pilots died quickly in huge numbers. Spitfire's pilots were well protected.

Further, the Spitfire was upgraded throughout the war and beyond. The Zero couldn't be upgraded because its structure was too weak for more powerful engines, etc. The Zero only dominated the air for a brief period until the Allies got their act together in 1943.

4 ( +4 / -0 )

Japan has lost almost all core industries and technologies. It's so bad that the country won't probably have anything left to compete against emerging Asian giants after 2025.

Yesterday, I learned that JOLED (Japan's government venture in display tech) went bankrupt. It doesn't give me any hope for any of Japan's future technology initiatives. Rapidus will likely fail as well as numerous govt ventures.

-6 ( +8 / -14 )

Strange that they do not mention the HondaJet that is the best-selling small business aircraft in the world.

1 ( +3 / -2 )


I only know what I read, but Forbes and Bloomberg both say that it is a best seller.





1 ( +2 / -1 )

..They just seem to spread press releases around...

Sadly that seems to be the vast majority of what passes for "journalism" these days.

1 ( +1 / -0 )

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