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Scarcity of international collaboration hampers Japan’s innovation

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  • Richard Katz

    Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Affairs

In Brief

Researchers’ international experiences have a large impact on a country’s ability to innovate both technically and commercially. Overseas experience teaches researchers to ask the kind of questions and see the sort of options that those without that experience do not.


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A growing number of new successful Japanese entrepreneurs have had significant international experience. Some have studied or worked overseas while others have worked for a foreign firm in Japan. Similarly, corporate chief executive officers (CEOs) who have had managerial experience overseas generate better firm performance, even in their domestic operations, than those without such experience.

When foreign-owned firms in Japan conduct research and development, reports Yasuyuki Todo, they generate seven times more spill-over efficiency benefits to other firms — suppliers, customers and even competitors — than domestic firms spending the same amount. Todo says that is ‘probably because knowledge of foreign firms is often new to domestic firms’.

The same results show up in scientific and technical research. When scientists in any country work with foreign counterparts, the quality of their work improves. Both Japanese scientists who have worked abroad and foreign scientists who come to work in Japan produce more highly cited papers. In the most influential journals, papers in which Japanese scientists collaborate with foreign counterparts outnumber those involving just domestic authors.

But Japan’s innovativeness is being hampered by a dearth of international collaboration and Japanese scientists are insulated from global trends. Relatively few Japanese university students study abroad for a year. While CEOs at nearly 90 per cent of leading companies in Europe and North America have worked overseas, the share in Japan is a mere 17 per cent. In 2019, Japan came last out of 196 countries in the cumulative amount of inward FDI.

The same fetter applies to scientific and technological innovation, as documented in the OECD’s 2017 Science, Technology, and Industry Scoreboard. While more than 3400 Japanese academic and business research organisations have produced more than 1.8 million papers and articles over the last couple of decades, only a thin slice of this work involves international collaboration. Among 30 OECD countries, Japan is last among scientific articles where scientists collaborate with those from other countries.

There is some good news. Among Japan’s top 12 research institutions involved in international collaboration, that collaboration has increased. At the elite University of Tokyo, the share of scientific papers involving international cooperation increased from 21 per cent in 2009 to 28 per cent by 2017. Unfortunately, that’s the exception. By contrast, Australian, British, Canadian, Dutch, French and German scientists now produce more papers involving international collaboration than ones with only domestic authors.

Only 2.7 per cent of Japanese scientists have spent time working overseas. Among the rest of the OECD, the average is 6.5 per cent. Only 1.3 per cent of Japan’s scientists are foreigners, compared to an OECD average of 4.4 per cent. On this measure, Japan comes in second-to-last.

This isolation starts early. Not only is there a drop in the number of Japanese university students studying abroad, but only 2.1 per cent of these students are science majors — the 3rd lowest in the OECD. Things are very different at the doctoral level. Among the Japanese PhD candidates who are internationally mobile, 29 per cent of them study natural sciences. That is not far from the OECD average of 37 per cent.

While difficulty in mastering English does pose an obstacle, the data suggests that it is only part of the problem. The number of Japanese students studying abroad almost quadrupled from 18,000 in 1986 to 65,000 in 2003. Then the numbers fell back to only 30,000 in 2016. Of these, only a few thousand students spent at least a year abroad. Language does not explain either the rise or the subsequent plunge of study abroad. Among 27 OECD countries, Japan comes in second-to-last in the share of students who received a college degree from a foreign university. The trend for international mobility of scientists is probably not that different from the trend for students.

Japanese companies fail as badly as scientists in collaborating across borders. Only 1.3 per cent of all Japanese patents include a foreign company or researcher as a co-inventor, the lowest rate in the OECD. The OECD average is 14 per cent. Among large companies, only 8 per cent engage in any collaborative innovation with foreign companies, the second lowest share in the OECD. The OECD average is 40 per cent. There is a big correlation between Japan’s low rate of international collaboration among scientists and the low rate of co-invention by companies. The more that countries do one, the more likely they are to do the other. Doing less of each translates into less impactful innovation.

The low level of international collaboration is a waste of Japan’s talent. Remedying this would help boost Japan’s economy.

Richard Katz is a Carnegie Council Senior Fellow. This article is an excerpt from his blog, Japan Economy Watch.

One response to “Scarcity of international collaboration hampers Japan’s innovation”

  1. This is a good article and Katz’s point is well made. In my own experience as a social sciences student and then academic involved with Japan since first travelling there in 1986, I broadly agree with his arguments. A couple of points to pick up on and to clarify, in the light of more than 12 years living, working, studying and researching in Japan, and numerous encounters with Japanese students, researchers, and officials in more than 30 years of involvement with the system of education and research.
    I have collaborated with Japanese academics in the past, and am doing so on a project right now. Almost always the initial prompt has come from me. I have only been approached to work with someone once. That resulted, eventually, in an article that is the most highly cited article in that journal for that year (out of approximately 25 articles published). So, two lessons from this experience. First, Japanese do need to be more outgoing in terms of initiating contact. Second, and agreeing with Katz, cross-border collaboration can produce really good results.
    Collaborations often arise out of conferences and citations. Two people might start to talk either in real time or electronically, and then ideas begin to flow and friendships form. In my experience Japanese are not good at this, it has to be said. They often do not attend international meetings, preferring their own Japanese language only domestic ‘Gakkai’, let alone start conversations. They rarely cite international work in their own publications, meaning they prefer not to read in English, or worse, that they don’t consider it worth reading. I am careful to pick up on and understand why and how my work is cited, and often get in touch with fellow researchers who cite my research. The majority of the 880 citations of my research about Japan is not done by Japanese researchers. Almost none of those citations are made in Japanese language publications. It is as if there are parallel scholarly universes existing that rarely, if ever in some cases, talk to each other.
    There are other issues that need much more discussion within and beyond Japan, and between Japan and elsewhere, in terms of how the research administration works to foster, or hinder, collaboration. But one thing I have found is that when international early career scholars start to build their careers, longer sojourns spent in Japan may indeed reduce their career opportunities and progression. That can’t be allowed to continue, in my opinion. That also prodices fewer opportunities for successful collaboration.
    The numbers on student exchanges that Katz presented might need some small clarification, though his point still stands. The numbers of younger people in Japan, as most will already know, have declined drastically. So, 65000 younger people studying abroad as a proportion of the 2003 population is around 0.9% of the 20-24 cohort, whereas 30,000 is about 0.5% of the 2016 cohort. Although the drop is substantial it is slightly less than the impression conveyed. I would like to see more up to date data, as I imagine the proportionate indicator will have stabilised, or even increased in recent years.
    I could go on, but the above is easily enough for readers to chew on! Thank you for the opportunity to contribute to this discussion.
    (note to editor: If you’d like to have me write something more formal for publication on this, please get in touch and we can discuss.)
    Matanle & McIntosh (2020) International mobility for early career academics: does it help or hinder career formation in Japanese studies? Japan Forum, 34(2): 152-180.

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