What I write here will deviate from the usual Photonics-related topics that have been addressed by my esteemed colleagues. With permission and with the hope that it will be beneficial especially to students, I have gathered my impressions below on life in the US and the differences with Japan.
I have lived in the US on two different occasions for a total of 10 years on both the East and West Coasts. My first occasion was as a Visiting Scholar at Columbia University for one year beginning in the October immediately following 9/11. The second occasion was when I was assigned to manage Sharp Labs of America (http://www.sharplabs.com) in Washington State for nine years. In my first US stint, I was on my own and faced many challenges in arranging everything and getting established by myself, and by the time of my second stint in the US I had a growing family, which made things very enjoyable but also presented other challenges. Although I would be happy to relate my family-related adventures, here I would like to focus on the attitudes in the US toward research and development as well as present my take on why interesting technologies and business models originate in the US.
The one year at Columbia University was short but very sweet. Although I did have to share equipment with other researchers, I was able to spend as many hours of the day as I liked, from morning to evening, on experimentation. Although I was on a limited one-year program and therefore was not taking any classes, other international students who were studying toward a postgraduate degree had to take classes. Foreign students faced the difficult challenge of English tests, which they had to pass to earn their degree, no matter what outstanding research and development they were working on. I remember the sight of students studying desperately despite having a much better command of spoken English than I did. A Korean, with whom I became friends as we discussed experimental results, had quit his job, immigrated to the US with his family, and paid high tuition fees and lived off his savings as he pursued his postgraduate degree. It is no wonder such students study for their dear lives!
Another strong impression I received was that, despite all the international students from many different countries in all the labs, there were almost none from Japan. This was especially true of the school and research program (that I had enrolled in) covering mathematics, physics, and devices that had a high number of foreign students from Asia. After my time was up, I took the results of my research at Columbia back with me to Japan, basing the design and study of prototypes for a manufacturing device on those results.
Eventually the time came for my second stay in America. My initial assignment in North America was to investigate new device technologies and their supporting process technologies and bring them back to Japan. After some unanticipated developments, I ended up becoming the manager of Sharp Labs of America. Of the roughly 170 employees at Sharp Labs, a Sharp subsidiary, only six or seven employees were on assignment from Japan with the rest being locally hired researchers and engineers. The people at Sharp Labs, though hired locally, included not only US nationals, but naturalized US nationals, Dutch, English, Chinese, Korean, Japanese, Indian, Turkish, Italian, French and other nationalities. Even though there were a variety of cultures and backgrounds, they were a powerful driving force when they all meshed together. The hiring policy was to hire only experienced professionals; fresh graduates were not on the radar. Of course there were exceptions; an exceptional student deemed necessary for a project at Sharp Labs would be hired even if they had just come out of school. The hiring process includes resume screening, an interview with HR, and evaluations by multiple interviewers of the candidate’s technical background, presentation skills, and communication skills. I, too, had the valuable opportunity to conduct interviews.
It was at this time that I realized the significance of having a postgraduate degree as well as an inkling as to one reason why I saw so few international students from Japan at Columbia University. Although it is a fact that American society is a meritocracy, it is a hierarchical society even more so than in Japan. There is a large gap in lifetime earnings between those with a postgraduate degree and those who are not. Unfortunately in Japan, having a Master’s degree or PhD does not result in a sizable difference in lifetime earnings (with the exception of some people), although having a higher degree may win admiration. Although this may be a biased view, I feel that this is one factor in why there is such a small number of Japanese students in US universities. At the same time, having a postgraduate degree does not necessarily guarantee smooth sailing; it does not guarantee being hired and may even lead to being laid off. True story: Sharp Labs once received an employment application from an assistant professor but we rejected him.
Let us move on to another topic. New products, concepts, and business models seemingly all originate from the US. Apple has built a superb ecosystem and business model for its iPhone, which now has many users in Japan as well. Some people say that, as a piece of hardware, not only is the iPhone inferior to Japan-made or Korean (Samsung)-made smartphones, but that almost all of its parts are made in Japan, Korea, or China. Such people say Apple succeeded only because they excelled at building the business model. However, their uncompromising obsession with design and the finished product, as well as the finish on the hardware, deserves a begrudging tip of the hat. Apple is famously known as having started as an idea in a garage, but I believe the pro-innovation environment was a significant enabler. Even today, the Bay Area where Apple grew up remains rife with entrepreneurs as well as venture capitalists and angel investors. Now there are venues for entrepreneurs to network, an example of which is Plug and Play Tech Center (http://plugandplaytechcenter.com/), a platform already being leveraged by Japanese companies and universities. This platform is very open and is producing interesting ideas every day, as well as small companies based on those ideas. The public has even embraced The Apprentice, a TV program that was hosted by presidential hopeful Donald Trump in which he evaluated and invested in people with interesting ideas. Such opportunities are constantly evolving. Another evolution is crowdfunding, a mechanism still in its infancy in Japan, which raises 10 times, sometimes even 100 times, the amount of funding in the US compared with Japan.
Another positive aspect of US society is that there are many figurative dangling ropes for climbing out of the proverbial hole for people who have made a mistake but who just have that indomitable spirit. As mentioned above, people with higher degrees may become unemployed, but there are also many opportunities for a new job and new employment. The barriers to changing jobs seem low. If a job calls for a higher degree, there are many open doors to earn that degree. One’s social status (housewife or working professional), race, and age, has no bearing on their enrollment in US universities as students of all walks of life study to attain their goals. There may of course be several such students in Japanese universities, but they are likely few in number. Many companies no longer have pension plans which make it easier for workers to change jobs and companies to hire experienced professionals. Other factors for the low barriers in changing employment are that age and gender basically are not an issue and that information on income levels for occupation, region, and skills are essentially commonly known.
I may have painted a rosy picture of the US, but keep in mind there are negatives as well and aspects in which Japan is superior in a systematic way. What I can say is this: there is no substitute for experiencing the US on a first-hand basis. Even if it is for one week (but not on a guided tour), you will be able to get a taste of the openness of that country. If you have the confidence and the desire to test yourself, then I definitely recommend earning a degree at a US institution. If you are not interested in going overseas, at the minimum I recommend that you study English, which is absolutely necessary if you are to be competitive with your global peers.
Vice President of Corporate R&D Division
Head of Advanced Technology Research Laboratories
別の話をしましょう。新しい商品、コンセプト、ビジネスモデルはほとんどが米国発です。Apple社のiPhoneは、そのエコシステムの構築からビジネスモデルまで非常に素晴らしいものであり、日本でも多くのユーザーが居ます。iPhoneをハードウェアとして考えると、日本あるいは韓国のSmartphoneの方が優れているし、そもそもパーツのほとんどは、日本製、韓国製、中国製なので、彼らはビジネスモデルとしてうまく構築しただけだという人もいるかと思います。しかしながら」、そのデザインや最終製品に見る製品に対するこだわりに妥協はなく、ハードウエアとしてもトータルでの仕上がりでも残念ながら脱帽せざるを得ません。もともとは、アイデア勝負でガレージから出発したことは周知のことですが、それを生み出せる環境があったということが大きいと思います。Apple社が育ったBay Areaには今でも沢山の起業家があり、それを支えるベンチャーキャピタルやエンジェルと呼ばれる投資家たちがおり、さらに彼らの出会いを提供する場もあります。一例として、既に日本の企業や大学も利用しているPlug and Play Tech Center (http://plugandplaytechcenter.com/)を紹介しますが、非常にOpenで日々面白いアイデアとそれに基づく小さな会社が生み出されています。これだけにとどまらず、大統領選に出馬しようとしているトランプ氏が審査員を務め、面白いアイデアには出資するテレビ番組(The Apprentice)さえあります。これらの仕組みも日々更新されている状況です。また、日本でも最近使われるようになってきたクラウドファンディングですが、米国では日本の10倍、時には100倍もの資金が集まります。
シャープ株式会社 研究開発本部 先端技術研究所所長
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