Japan's Weird Science

Constrained by a system that discourages creativity, inventors struggle to stay on the cutting edge of technological innovation

The light bulb that flashed above Shuji Nakamura's head in 1993 to signal a brilliant new idea was, quite literally, blue. After four years of study, the senior researcher at tiny Nichia Chemical Industries, a company in southeastern Japan, had created a little azure beam that would revolutionize the global electronics industry. Nakamura's blue light-emitting diode was the missing link needed to produce cheap, energy-saving illumination in everything from traffic lights to big-screen TVs; it also promised greatly expanded storage capacity on digital video discs.

But Nakamura profited hardly at all from his pioneering work. Nichia, which holds the rights...

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