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Is Japan the world’s most innovative country?

YOSHIKAZU TSUNO/AFP/Getty Last week, The Economist posed the question: Why is Japan the source of so many bright ideas? At 1,200 patents per million people, Japan has the highest rate of patents in the world—even when you account for multiple counting. But Japan’s success in patenting only tells part of the story. Patents are often ...

YOSHIKAZU TSUNO/AFP/Getty

Last week, The Economist posed the question: Why is Japan the source of so many bright ideas? At 1,200 patents per million people, Japan has the highest rate of patents in the world—even when you account for multiple counting.

But Japan’s success in patenting only tells part of the story. Patents are often awarded for incremental achievements; for instance, improving the clarity of photos on a cell phone camera rather than coming up with a unique new design. So it’s likely that incremental innovations inflate Japan’s patent figures. Another reason for Japan’s patent performance could be its concentration of manufacturing and particularly electronics industries. The “clustering” of competitors and demanding clients means that not only do companies have an incentive to come up with constantly improving products, but they also have a strong incentive to make sure they patent each improvement so as to avoid copying by competitors. Switzerland is the second highest patent-awarding country after Japan, no doubt bolstered by its cluster of big pharmaceutical companies.

Perhaps it’s an issue of quantity over quality. As John T. Preston, the former director of MIT’s Entrepreneurship Center, states, “The radical breakthrough patents that we see mainly come out of laboratories in the United States.” A number of truly innovative and useful inventions—such as cell phones, the Internet, and Windows—all have their origins in the United States. The Japanese may have plenty of ideas, but the real question should be, are they really that smart?

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