Japanese inventions, emoji, selfie stick, Walkman, jetski, CD
Design: Time Out Tokyo

10 things you didn't know were invented in Japan

From pop culture icons like the emoji to technology staple like flash memory, Japan has changed the world profoundly

Written by
Taryn Siegel

Everyone knows that we have Japan to thank for contributions to the world like sushi, origami, Marie Kondo and Pokémon, but there's a whole host of ideas, inventions and gadgets that have come from Japan. Some were groundbreaking, some were very silly, but almost all of them have profoundly changed the world in one way or another. Here's our top ten list of the best inventions you didn't know came from Japan.

poop emoji
Photo: Sincerely Media/Unsplash

1. Emoji

It should come as no surprise that the land of mascots and kawaii cuteness – where even a notice about a tsunami is invariably accompanied by a cheerful cartoon bear or something – is also the home of the emoji. In fact, 'emoji' is actually a Japanese word, combining the word for 'picture' ('ei') and 'letter' or 'character' ('moji').

It was first introduced on Japanese-made phones in the 1990s, at first not meant for texting (which was not really a thing yet) but for weather reports or business info. It's come a long way since then, though. In 2015, Oxford Dictionaries announced the 'face with tears of joy' (😂) as its word of the year.

Photo: Martin Engel - Grafiker Hamburg/Unsplash

2. Walkman

Anyone born after 2000 probably doesn't even know what this wacky device is, but in 1979, Sony completely changed the way we listen to music with its portable cassette player dubbed the 'Sony Walkman'. The player was so immensely popular the world over that 'Walkman' became shorthand for any portable music player (until the iPod, that is). It's hard to imagine, but before Sony put the Walkman into the market, listening to music while you were on the go was just a pipe dream.

Photo: Gio Bartlett/Unsplash

3. CD, DVD, Blu-Ray, VHS

While we're at it, Sony's contribution to music and media doesn't end with the Walkman. The Compact Disc (CD) was co-invented by Sony and Phillips (a Dutch company) and released in 1982, giving birth to digital audio recording. In 1995, the two companies teamed up again to release the Digital Video Disc (DVD).

Ever the forward-thinking group, Sony unveiled the first prototypes of its newest video technology, the 'Blu-Ray disc', in 2000, releasing them to the general public in Japan in 2003. And not to give Sony all the credit, the Video Home System (VHS), which preceded the DVD, was invented by Victor Company of Japan. So basically we have Japan to thank for every piece of media tech pre-streaming.

Photo: Hiroshi Tsubono/Unsplash

4. The novel

Yes, that's right – we also have Japan to thank for the novel. As far as we can tell, the Japanese story 'The Tale of Genji', written by a lady-in-waiting at the Imperial Court named Murasaki Shikibu in the early 11th century, was the first example of the modern novel ever written. The story revolves around the life of Hikaru Genji, the son of an ancient Japanese emperor, and a beloved concubine.

jet ski
Photo: David White/Unsplash

5. Jet Ski

This one's a bit of a left turn, but Japan is also where the Jet Ski came from, released by the Japanese company Kawazaki in 1972. 'Jet Ski' is actually another co-opted brand name, like the Walkman. It's the registered trademark name of Kawazaki's very successful personal watercraft vehicle (PWV), but these days the term 'jetski' is used to refer to anything that looks like a water motorcycle. 

While the technology to support a human on a bike-like device on water had been invented prior to that, Kawazaki's Jet Ski was the first commercially successful PWV and obviously the progenitor of all the other water-bikes to follow.

type laptop
Photo: Christin Hume/Unsplash

6. Laptop

In 1980 at a computer show in Las Vegas, the Japanese company Seiko unveiled the first laptop-sized notebook, called the Epson HX-20. To advertise their new invention, the company pictured it on a two-page spread in a magazine with the caption 'Actual size'.

It looked very different from the modern laptop – no retina-display 15-in screen that folds up, just a tiny calculator-like screen above the keyboard. The beige, black and red colours and clunky keys kind of make it look like a children's toy today. Nonetheless, this was the first truly portable computer, and the grandfather of all the MacBooks, Chromebooks and whatnot to follow.

A 3D-printed ball
Photo: metalurgiamontemar0/Pixabay

7. 3D printing

Dr Hideo Kodama patented the first technology for 3D printing back in 1981, which he called at the time 'rapid prototyping'. Unfortunately, the doctor never saw his project all the way to fruition. It was next picked up by the French and, by the late '80s, some Americans, until we had the 3D printing devices we know today. But we still have Dr Kodama to thank for laying the groundwork.

selfie stick
Photo: Steve Gale/Unsplash

8. Selfie stick

Finally we get to a really profound contribution, providing enthusiastic Instagrammers with an easy way to grab a selfie and everyone around them with an easy way to judge them. The 'telescopic extender' for compact cameras was patented by Ueda Hiroshi and Mima Yujiro in 1983 and immediately dismissed as a totally useless invention.

Enter the smartphones of the 21st century. Other inventors and companies came in around this time, piggybacking on the Japanese invention, to patent a device capable of holding a smartphone. By 2014 the term 'selfie stick' was born and topped Time magazine's list as one of the top 25 inventions of that year. Other items on that list include Lockheed Martin's compact fusion reactor that could revolutionise the way we produce energy within a decade. But we can probably all agree that the selfie stick is the real standout.

iphone camera
Photo: Angela Compagnone/Unsplash

9. Camera phone

Of course it makes perfect sense that the country behind the first selfie stick is also responsible for the camera phone, without which that ingenious (former) device would indeed be a 'totally useless invention'. Technically, this invention came from a long convergence of a lot of different technology dating back to 1956.

Samsung (a South Korean company) takes credit for the first phone with camera abilities with its SCH-V200 flip phone, which hit markets in June 2000. But the J-Phone, which Softbank released in November of the same year, is often considered the real first camera phone, since it allowed users to send the photos via the phone, whereas with the SCH-V200, you could only access the photos if you hooked your phone up to a computer.

flash memory
Photo: Harrison Broadbent/Unsplash

10. Flash memory

Not everyone knows this, but our nifty smartphones would never be able to function without flash memory, which is responsible for holding on to our immense phone data and keeping it even when our phones are powered off. Fujio Masuoka from Toshiba invented flash memory in 1984 and forever revolutionised the cell phone and mountains of other electronics.

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