FOR more than a century, Japan has played technology catch-up with the West. And in many areas, from microchips to microwave ovens, it has sped ahead like a bullet train.
But only in the past decade has Japan seriously tried to catch up with the West in basic scientific research and generate its own new industries.
So far, however, the government crusade to raise up basic research has fallen flat, beset by bureaucratic barriers, lack of public support, and, despite a near-worship of Einstein and Edison among the Japanese, a deficit of creativity. Japan remains a high-tech, low-science industrial giant.
"If Japan has not made a major scientific discovery by the end of this century or the early next century, then the Japanese do not have any creativity," says Dr. Michiyuki Uenohara, adviser to Japan's electronics giant, NEC Corporation. The former Bell Labs researcher predicts Japan will soon make discoveries similar to the transistor and the laser.
To promote science, the government launched many programs during the 1980s, creating an alphabet soup of acronyms, such as ERATO (Exploratory Research for Advanced Technology). But funding was hampered by a need to cite practical results.
"There is a tendency for the exploration of these frontier research areas to be isolated from daily life if one does not consider them very deeply," said a 1990 government paper on science policy, citing a Japanese resentment of "impractical" research.
The new programs all had research topics that were government-directed, gleaned from foreign research, and tightly focused to aid industry. The most visible project, one to develop a fifth-generation computer, fizzled out and was quietly dovetailed this year into a sixth-generation project. Another project to develop a "science city" near Tokyo has not met designers' hopes.
`BUREAUCRATS are risk-averse and do not want to support the kind of high-risk research needed in basic science," said Hiroshi Inose, former engineering dean at the University of Tokyo. "In our bureaucratic society, failure is the most dangerous thing."
Of the $24.3 billion spent by government on both science and technology, only about 13 percent goes to basic research. Among the developed nations, Japan has the lowest percentage - 17.1 - in government research spending.
Japan has tried to become a global player in "big science" projects. In space research, it has sent a satellite to the moon, put an astronaut on the United States space shuttle, and is developing its own giant rocket. Other money is going into nuclear-fusion experiments and deep-sea research.
But looking to the future, the nation worries about a lower birthrate that could mean a shortage of 510,000 researchers by the year 2005.
"While Japan talks about doing more basic research, right now the most practical step is still to get a free ride off American research," says one government official. An estimated 25,000 Japanese are working in US research centers, many to return home to help Japanese corporations.
To overcome US criticism that it has practiced "techno-nationalism," Japan has tried to bring foreign researchers into its labs and to fund more international research. But success is sketchy.
If basic research has made any headway in Japan during the past decade, it is in corporate labs. Awash with profits in the 1980s, the big firms set up more labs both in Japan and abroad. "Corporate labs will do most basic research for a while, but most of that research is still mission-oriented. " says the NEC's Dr. Uenohara.