From the 1980s to the 2000s, the Japanese industrial machine and the finished items rolling off its production lines were the envy of the world. Tokyo-based companies such as Sony, Nintendo and Sega became brands recognised around the world for their quality and ingenuity, particularly with regard to the intense technological content of their offerings. With its emphasis on and full-spectrum domination of attributes such as minaturisation, consistency and innovation, Japanese industry became synonymous with the future itself; indeed, corporations such as Mitsubishi saw it as part of their mission to provide a roadmap to the robotized utopia.
However, the rise of China and the financial crisis still enveloping many of the world’s key economies have conspired to subvert this narrative. Chinese factories have shown themselves able to produce goods which, while maybe not quite matching their Japanese equivalents in either quality or originality, have been judged by the global public as more than adequate. Meanwhile, the increasingly extreme fiscal pressures being exerted on the formerly middle-class populations of the (post-)developed world mean that cheap entertainment is the order of the day; these demographic groups are generally willing to pay for hardware and essential software, but the days of laying the best part of fifty-to-one-hundred US dollars on the table for a single game appear to be fading into history.
But this shift surely has deeper implications. Ceteris paribus, the complexity, sophistication and pure brilliance of offerings from the likes of studios such as Rovio Entertainment – the Finnish operation behind the Angry Birds franchise – are incomparable to even decade-old Japan-developed titles such as Virtua Tennis World Tour (Sumo Digital with Sega, 2005). Nominally-priced gaming apps may be impressive in their mastery of certain yet-to-be-historically-proven monetisation models, but culturally it is difficult to see this sharp trend towards gaming-by-numbers as anything other than a regression. Similarly, while China and some European economies such as Finland and Slovakia can certainly undercut Japanese manufacturing and deliver excellent goods to consumers at low prices, their capacity to innovate – and push forward and reconceptualise entire industries – arguably remains relatively weak.
The example of Japanese industrial decline is from almost every angle a sobering one: the sight of formerly unbeatable corporations being choked by probably unserviceable debts is something that engenders contemplation. But even more disturbing is the fact that many of these entities are still designing and making truly amazing things; artifacts, sadly, that we no longer seem to have the appetite for, even at the risk of civilisational decay.