A smart place to work

Cheap housing, close proximity to Tokyo and a burgeoning research ecosystem are thrusting the ancient prefecture of Kanagawa into the modern world.
Brett Davis is a freelance writer based in Melbourne, Australia.

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Photo showing power station in Kanagawa Prefecture, Japan

Kanagawa hosts a concentration of heavy industry.Credit: JTB Photo/UIG via Getty

Given its ready access to the economic juggernaut of Tokyo, it would be easy to imagine next-door Kanagawa and its metropolitan area of Yokohama–Kawasaki to be little more than a satellite ‘bed town’. But the region is very much a destination in its own right — a rich ecosystem built on a pairing of the industry and research and development (R&D) for which Japan is renowned.

Kanagawa is the second most populous of Japan’s 47 prefectures, and home to the nation’s second largest city, Yokohama. The region stretches along the coast of the country, from the south of Tokyo to the foot of Mount Fuji (see ‘Centre of an island’). The bayside area forms what is known as the Keihin region — Japan’s largest concentration of heavy-industry and manufacturing organizations. The region was the industrial powerhouse of Japan’s rapid recovery after the Second World War, but it has now evolved a new character, driven by the promotion of an innovative R&D culture and attractive incentives for international investment.

“Kanagawa has the largest pool of researchers in Japan,” says Tōru Hashimoto, executive director of development cooperation for Yokohama City Government. “We have so many research labs and institutes, and a real environment of innovation.” Hashimoto points to the technology giant Apple as a beneficiary of that environment. In 2016, the world’s most valuable company established one of its first R&D centres outside the United States in the prefecture. “I think this shows how attractive this area has become for global R&D,” Hasimoto says.

Map of Japan

Kanagawa claims more than 60,000 research staff, a full 50% more than in Tokyo. They work in more than 1,000 research facilities, and many are in the prefecture’s 40 universities. They include some of Japan’s foremost institutes: the RIKEN Yokohama Campus, the Yokohama Institute for Earth Sciences, the New Energy and Industrial Technology Development Organization, the Tokyo Institute of Technology and Keio University.

Innovation by design

Kanagawa receives the obvious rewards that come from hosting so many research institutions. It is part of the Yokohama–Tokyo region, the world’s most prolific innovation centre. More than 94,000 patents were filed from the region in 2011–15, double the number from runner-up Shenzhen–Hong Kong and three times more than from third-placed Silicon Valley.

This culture is fed by the leading industrial firms that call the region home — including engineering giants Nissan and Bosch, computer manufacturers Fujitsu and Toshiba and chemical companies Shiseido and Takeda Pharmaceutical. These and hundreds of other engineering and technology firms are spurring a new culture for research labs and creating a healthy environment of collaboration between research and engineering. “In recent years, we have made a deliberate and very careful conversion from a manufacturing-dependent economy to one that is very much focused on research and innovation,” says Hashimoto. “This has resulted in a remarkable change in the composition of our workforce to be more research-oriented, and we see that trend continuing.”

A historic melting pot

Kanagawa was once the ultimate seat of power in Japan. For almost four centuries, the southern city of Kamakura was a major seat of power in Shōgun-era Japan, and it is thought to have been the fourth largest city in the world during the thirteenth century, after Hangzhou, Cairo and Fez. When Kamakura was destroyed by the Tokugawa Shogunate, the nation’s capital was relocated to what is now Tokyo. The resulting 200 years of isolationist policy in Kamakura was eventually brought to an abrupt end in 1858 when the United States and Japan — in the shadow of American gunboats — negotiated the opening of Yokohama and other Kanagawa ports for international trade. Yokohama quickly became a portal for everything Western, a true melting pot where foreign ideas, influences and technology were blended with Japanese sense and tradition before being scattered across the country.

“Through that period, the port of Yokohama was very important,” says Hashimoto. “It was the first place in Japan to get street lighting, water treatment, a lighthouse, iron bridges, street design and even railways — all Western technologies that were introduced to Japan through Yokohama.”

By the end of the nineteenth century, Yokohama was a vibrant city with a population of half a million, and bursting with technological innovations, entrepreneurship and foreigners. Yet this would all be brought to an abrupt end with the Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923, which levelled almost every building in the area. Rebuilding began in earnest, only for the city to be ruined again by air raids in the Second World War. Yet it was from these embers that Japan found the means for its economic and industrial resurgence, which was driven in no small part by the rapid restoration and rise of the Keihin Industrial Zone with its concentration of heavy industry, including steel mills, oil refineries, petrochemical complexes and shipyards.

By the 1980s, Keihin had become so successful that the Yokohama region risked being entirely consumed by heavy industry. Recognizing a need for diversification, local government decided to convert shipyards and warehouses into mixed-use business, industry, research and residential zones and create centres of employment, collaboration and innovation. Since then, successive governments have actively nurtured this environment. The most prominent of these districts, Minato Mirai 21, now forms the vibrant central business centre of Yokohama.

Clusters speed up research

A region with so many R&D institutions is bound to form research clusters with a specific scientific focus, and Kanagawa boasts many. Two of the largest are Yokosuka Research Park, with its concentration of leading wireless and mobile-communications companies, and Kanagawa Science Park, which spans a wide a range of sectors.

R&D enterprises in the region benefit from a multitude of economic incentives and support, including various incubation and innovation platforms. For example, the Keihin area has been designated a Life Innovation Comprehensive Special Zone by the national government. That brings with it a variety of incentives, including tax relief, relaxed regulations and business subsidies specifically. Further inland is the Sagami Robotics Industry Special Zone, where many of Japan’s leading and most innovative robotics companies are rapidly expanding the technology into practical applications, such as of life-support robots.

“We have had a particular focus on well-being and health care, starting roughly 20 years ago when we attracted RIKEN to establish a new life-sciences research institute in Yokohama,” says Kousuke Adachi, director of the life-innovation promotion division of the City of Yokohama. “Then, in 2003, we established the Leading Venture Plaza near the RIKEN Yokohama Campus as a low-cost incubation facility for biotech start-ups. That really laid the foundation for state-of-the-art life-sciences research and the concentration of industries in this field.”

The city also set up a life-innovation platform (LIP) in Yokohama to act as a network for cooperation between industry, academia and government in biotechnology and life sciences.

“Through the LIP, leading Japanese pharmaceutical companies and manufacturers of medical equipment, as well as leading academic institutes such as RIKEN and financial institutions, support the work of small enterprises and ventures,” says Adachi. “In all, we now have some 90 organizations participating in the LIP as a bridge between academia and the private sector to create and implement innovative projects, stimulating Yokohama’s economy and connecting the results of projects with advances in health care and well-being for our citizens.”

Kanagawa offers researchers a range of opportunities, from academic positions with organizations such as RIKEN and the Japan Agency for Marine–Earth Science and Technology (JAMSTEC), to industrial R&D with global technology giants. Finding the right position from abroad can be tricky — Japanese recruitment systems are often archaic and heavy on detailed documentation — but foreigners are generally afforded a warm welcome and respect as a source of international expertise, and most English-speaking foreign researchers can get by quite well without needing to know the local language, says Kyaw Moe, who moved to Kanagawa from Tokyo to work at the Yokohama Institute for Earth Sciences in 2001 (see ‘A researcher’s life in Kanagawa’).

A researcher’s life in Kanagawa

Kyaw Moe is a principal research scientist with the Research and Development Center for Ocean Drilling Science at the Yokohama Institute for Earth Sciences (YES), part of the Japan Agency for MarineEarth Science and Technology. Originally from Burma, Moe spent almost ten years at the University of Tokyo as a doctoral and postdoctoral researcher, before joining YES in June 2001.

What is your area of research?

I’m a marine geologist. My work with YES focuses on ultra-deep ocean drilling, at depths of greater than 2,000 metres. I now research high-resolution geochemical profiling to support resource exploration. I can spend two months or more at sea each year aboard YES’s drill ship; the remainder of my time is spent in the lab in Yokohama. I’ve also been involved in earthquake research and marine seismic surveys.

What’s special about YES in your field?

YES has so many facilities for our research: we have a very capable ultra-deep drill ship and port, our own supercomputer and of course many talented researchers. It is a very attractive institute for anyone in this field, and it is really the only institute of its kind in the world. We are proud of what we do here.

Are there many foreign researchers at YES?

There is a large community of foreign researchers at YES. Some are here for the long term, but we also get many on one-, two-, three-year and longer visits. Often they stay longer than planned. We also collaborate with researchers around the world, so I very much feel part of the global research community.

What’s special about research in Kanagawa?

I think this region has a very high level of research and innovation, particularly around some of the advanced high-tech industries. The Tokyo Bay coastline has been an industrial zone for a long time with many big names like Nissan, Toshiba and Shiseido, and now we are seeing a lot of collaboration with the many world-class research institutes located nearby. I think the smart-city movement and the push for renewable energy has been a particularly big draw for many tech companies.

How does life in Kanagawa compare with in Tokyo?

The lifestyle is completely different. Tokyo is crowded and getting around is difficult. Here we are not far from Tokyo, but we have a beautiful port, and you drive for 20 minutes and you’re in stunning countryside — beaches and Kamakura to the south, and Mount Hakone and Mount Fuji to the west. Apartments are also bigger and cheaper, and there is so much to do outdoors. It is a very nice place to live.

That welcome does have its limits. One of the more common pathways for securing a research position in Japan is a fellowship position through the Japan Society for the Promotion of Science, but they generally last for only a couple of years and are researchers can only ever get one. Those who hope to stay longer will need to find a position with an employer who is willing to sponsor a visa application.

People fortunate enough to find a longer-term position at a university can find the strict hierarchy stifling and difficult to climb. However, the government has tried to tackle that through its Top Global University Project, which offers better employment conditions and opportunities to attract international researchers.

Kanagawa has much to offer as an alternative to Tokyo for a place to live. It is on the fringe of the limelight, yet close enough to feel part of the global circuit. Its cheaper rents and house prices and more relaxed lifestyle make Kanagawa attractive to expats and locals alike. And it may well offer researchers new opportunities in the innovation capital of Japan.

Nature 552, S107-S109 (2017)

doi: 10.1038/d41586-017-08660-0
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