Five ways the Japanese are technically better than us

Us Brits may have a proud tradition of innovation, but now we're having our rear-ends handed to us by brilliant Japanese engineers who live, breathe and in some cases eat technology

Ian Morris
6 min read

We're British, so we know when we're being beaten at something. If we're honest, we're beaten at most things. Especially sports, and even more embarrassingly, the sports we invented. When it comes to technology, we do have a proud history of inventing such monumental gadgets as the modern flushing toilet, the television and the ZX Spectrum.

But even with our glorious history, we'd never pretend to rival Japan for sheer technological nous. If you speak to people who have been to Japan, they're full of barely believable tales of shops selling things so futuristic they couldn't even comprehend what they were for. Or why they had a picture of a cat on them.

So we felt it was time to honour the Japanese by taking a good look at some of the many things they do better than us. Here are five of the most compelling reasons to sell all your stuff on eBay and move to the Land of the Rising Sun. -Ian Morris

In most of the world, when you go to the toilet you plonk yourself on the seat, get on with your business, use the provided paper-based products and depart. If you're in mainland Europe, this will be preceded by a long wait for the single cubicle to become free and followed by wondering why you just did your business in a hole in the floor. Depressingly low-tech.

The Japanese, who like tech so much they even stuff the smallest room in the house with it, took one look at boring paper-based cleaning solutions and said, "Not on our watch." Thus was born the techno-toilet, a device so well-designed that it anticipates your every need.

The experience starts by the toilet opening its lid for you, and for the gentleman, lifts up the seat too, without any need for human-seat interaction. A brilliant start, but it gets better: if you don't like sitting on a cold throne, the seat can be warmed to a more pleasant temperature.

Once business is taken care of, you can instruct the toilet to clean you with a variety of sprays delivered at a number of different pressures, which eliminates the need for toilet paper and, apparently, cuts down on the chances of haemorrhoids and other bottom-related medical problems. See how technology makes our lives better?

Happily, you can buy one of these magnificent toilet seats here in the UK for just £600. 

Photo credit: Drinkstuff.com

Japanese TV programmes have more than their fair share of weirdness. But let's be honest, when you've seen one British or American game show, you've pretty much seen them all.

So when we discovered Hole in the Wall, or Human Tetris as it's sometimes called (despite being very little like Tetris at all) we could hardly believe it. Instantly our faces were illuminated with joy: a game show that doesn't try to be high-brow or gimmicky; quite the opposite, it aims for slapstick humour, and it works a treat.

Even this simple show requires something the rest of the word would never dare to do: mix technology with water. But the Japanese just don't care for such ludicrous concerns -- either their gadgets are all waterproof, or the health and safety inspector was too busy on the techno-toilet to take a look at the studio.

Hole in the Wall is now a global hit, of course, but when you watch the BBC version you know they must have filled in literally hundreds of health and safety forms to make our own British version. It's a certainty that during recording there's an army of green-jacketed men with clipboards in the studio, ensuring each and every step is carried out according to HSE guidelines.

Photo credit: BBC

When you go to a train station in the UK it's generally ancient with peeling paint, spiders as big as your head liberally strewn around and underpasses with a stench of urine so strong it would distress a tramp. The staff will be rude and unhelpful, and will either try to fine you for not having a valid ticket or deafen you with their incessant whistle blowing.

Once you get on the train (which will arrive late), there will be some reprobate listening to his music over his phone speakers and you'll be squashed together in conditions that would horrify cattle. The train will travel at 30mph and frequently stop because there is a leaf on the line, while the guard mumbles some incoherent nonsense over the tinny PA system.

In Japan on the other hand, major cities are linked via the Shinkansen, or as it's known abroad, the bullet train network. In its nearly half century of operation, the Shinkansen has carried as many as 7 billion passengers -- an estimated 200,000 people a day. The bullet train is also incrediby fast, with regular speeds of up to 190mph. It's possible for it to travel faster than that, with the Japanese rail company having conducted speed tests that prove its trains can travel at up to 275mph, and have broken a record on maglev tracks going at 361mph.

They are also safe; accidents involving the Shinkansen are incredibly rare. Pretty much only earthquakes can knock them off their rails, which is why each train is fitted with a system that slams on the brakes if it detects a quake. That's not the only safety feature either: because reading a speed-limit sign at 190mph is quite tricky, each train signals the driver with a currently posted speed limit. If the driver ignores it, the train can slow itself. Even with all this technology, there's plenty for the driver to worry about -- check out this YouTube video for a look behind the scenes.

Photo credit: MK Products via Wikipedia

There's almost nothing you can't buy from a Japanese vending machine. You might think that's an exaggeration, but here's some of the things it's possible to obtain from a mechanical shop in Japan: umbrellas, eggs, noodles, Hello Kitty popcorn (hot), drinks (including beer), cigarettes, toys, flowers, fried food, pornography, used pants, potted plants and of course iPods and other gadgets.

If that doesn't impress you, consider this: there's one vending machine for every 20 people in Japan and the industry was worth $56bn in the year 2000.

Selling cigarettes from a machine means there's no one to squint at the fake IDs of kids trying to score a pack of Marlboro Lights, so cunning vending machine designers created a system that would examine the face of the person purchasing and decide if they looked old enough. An idea of some genius, thwarted only by the ease with which a photo of an older person could be shoved in front of the camera.

Photo credit: LHOON (cc-by-sa-2.0)

HD is established in America and in Europe we're starting to get our first taste of the glory of watching TV in glorious high definition. Not so in Japan: they've had HD for so long they sneer at 1080p and laugh in derision at 720p.

Japan's earliest HD was analogue in nature and had a resolution of 1035i, a refresh rate of 60Hz, a 16:9 picture and even 48kHz 16-bit stereo sound. Launched in the late 1980s with the name Hi Vision, the signals took up more space than could be provided via terrestrial broadcast, so signals were sent via satellite.

To give you an idea of how backwards we are in comparison, Sky launched its analogue TV service on 5 February 1989 in the UK -- we didn't get HD until May 2006. Even now, we're only transmitting 1080i, which must have Japanese HD fans crying with a mixture of laughter and pity. We don't even broadcast Hole in the Wall in HD.

These days Japan is all about ultra high-definition TV. With a 33-megapixel image and frame sizes of 7,680x4,320, this system is 16 times more detailed than 1080p and glories in the name Super Hi-Vision. The sound system needs to be pretty good to back it up, so the audio is presented in 22.2, which features ten speakers at ear level, three below ear level and nine somewhere near the ceiling. It should start broadcasting in 2015, by which time 1080p may even be available in Britain.