Analog/Mixed Signal

Rising from the silicon ashes: Japan's semiconductor manufacturing resurgence

26 October 2023
The once electronics powerhouse Japan is seeking to regain a foothold in the semiconductor industry by investing in chip manufacturing and wooing vendors to the country. Source: Pajaros Volando/Adobe Stock

The technological prowess of a nation often mirrors its economic might, and nowhere is this clearer than in Japan's semiconductor journey. In the annals of technological evolution, Moore’s Law, which foretold an era where microprocessor transistors would double every two years, positioned Japan at the zenith of global semiconductor dominance in the latter decades of the 20th century. Titans like Toshiba, NEC, and Hitachi anchored Japan’s rise, establishing it as the epicenter of innovation and manufacturing expertise, while also transforming technology from home computers of the 1970s to the pervasive smart devices and digital ecosystems of today.

Yet, by the dawn of the 21st century, Japan's semiconductor prominence waned, increasingly overshadowed by emerging giants from South Korea, Taiwan, and the U.S. The downturn wasn’t solely a consequence of regional competition or internal strategic lapses. Japan lost its prominence due to stagnant sales of digital products, resulting in less capital to invest in research and development. Add to that upheaval, the semiconductor industry pivoted to a broader, application-driven focus that necessitates advanced sensors, intricate power-management circuits, and tailored silicon solutions for a new age defined by mobility.

Faced with these industry-wide disruptions, Japan recognized a golden opportunity for reinvention. Integrating its storied history with the growing sentiment that Moore's law was approaching its practical limits, Japan envisioned a semiconductor industry on the cusp of transformation. Determined, they charted a path forward, intent on leveraging their accumulated knowledge and expertise to lead a more diverse and innovative era of semiconductor technology.

Key strategies for revival

To resurrect its semiconductor stature, Japan crafted a multi-pronged strategy. Drawing on wisdom from the past and with an eye on the future, the nation built a holistic plan to reclaim its reputation. Grounded in six strategic pillars, their vision aspired to propel Japan back into a position of leadership.

Policy Reforms: The Japanese government had recognized the indispensable role of the semiconductor industry and initiated policies to rejuvenate and safeguard the chip supply chain. Their approach was dual-faceted: strategic autonomy, which aimed at achieving Japan’s objectives without excessive dependence on foreign entities, and strategic indispensability, which enhanced areas where Japan excelled or saw potential growth within the global semiconductor framework.

To further these ambitions, the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry (METI) had earmarked $2.8 billion from its 2022 fiscal budget for chip company incentives, aiming to attract both domestic and international semiconductor giants. Additionally, Japan’s Economic Security Promotion Act designated semiconductors as “specified critical material,” facilitating support measures, such as subsidies and low-interest loans for essential semiconductor raw materials.

Leveraging domestic strengths: Japan's historic and cultural ethos of precision and reliability was not just a point of pride. It was a competitive advantage in the semiconductor domain. In an industry where minute details could lead to significant performance differences, Japan's meticulous delivery was an asset. Japan offered a unique value proposition by redefining and setting new benchmarks for production standards.

First, Japan sought to cultivate a new cohort of semiconductor experts by seamlessly merging theoretical academia with pragmatic industry exposure. A curriculum that prioritized hands-on experience and real-world application was designed to prime students to tackle semiconductor challenges head-on. This educational strategy ensured a strong grasp of semiconductor technologies as soon as they entered the workforce, positioning Japan as the hub of upcoming semiconductor leadership.

Second, Japan led the charge in semiconductor sustainability, pioneering eco-consciousness with industrial advancements. Recognizing the pivotal role of infrastructure investment, the government allocated more than 1 trillion yen (close to $7 billion) to support semiconductor manufacturing plants. This allocation aimed at enhancing Japan’s global influence in semiconductor production. Furthermore, the nation’s shift toward zero carbon emission, clean energy solutions, and advanced materials research reinforced its role in environmental stewardship.

Third, the fragility of over-dependence on specific supply sources was exposed by recent global supply chain tremors. In response, Japan broadened and fortified its supply network. This strategy intended to insulate Japan from potential geopolitical rifts, trade disputes, and unforeseen economic fluctuations. This strategy not only aimed to ensure a continuous flow of vital components but also to pave the way for sustained production. The need for economic resilience and security was addressed at the G7 Hiroshima Summit in May 2023, where leaders emphasized this strategy of fortifying crucial commodity supply chains, including semiconductors.

Fourth, the cornerstone of Japan's revival lay in robust R&D, especially in materials science and chip design. Initiatives targeted enhancements or replacing conventional silicon substrates, with the potential of materials like gallium nitride (GaN) and silicon carbide (SiC) promising faster and more energy-efficient chips. The focus was on architecture that met the demands of quantum computing, AI, and machine learning, aligning with the global shift toward portable electronics and sustainability.

Fifth, Japan actively pursued global interconnectivity. Joint ventures and technological dialogues with nations like the U.S., South Korea, India, and various European countries were instrumental in addressing challenges such as semiconductor miniaturization. By leveraging international conferences, academic exchanges, and industry consortiums, Japan profited from a two-way flow of knowledge. This multifaceted engagement, spanning from next-gen technologies like MRAM and EUV lithography to discussions on industry standards, sustainability, and supply chain resilience, positioned Japan as both a contributor and a keen learner in the global semiconductor narrative.

Success stories and glimmers of hope

Stories of triumph, innovation, and resilience shine brightly against the backdrop of challenges. They underscore the nation's tenacity, it will innovate, and its capacity to rise amidst adversity. These glimmers of hope not only spotlight Japan's capabilities but also offer a peek into its promising semiconductor future.

Certain narratives stand out, casting a spotlight on Japan's inherent strength and adaptability in the semiconductor sector:

  1. Sony is ascending in the realm of CMOS image sensors, setting new benchmarks in imaging technology.
  2. The collaboration between Japan’s National Institute of Advanced Industrial Science and Technology and global tech stalwarts like IBM and IMEC is preparing to produce 2-nanometer semiconductors by 2027.
  3. In the spirit of global collaboration, Japan is working with the Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Company (TSMC) on advanced 3D semiconductor packaging technology.
  4. Japanese semiconductor manufacturer, Renesas Electronics, is emerging as a leading automotive supplier with microcontrollers and system on chips (SoCs).

At the forefront of next-generation computing, Fujitsu is blending traditional semiconductor expertise with innovative algorithms and cutting-edge computational methodologies to create solutions that revolutionize industries, from logistics to finance.

Conclusion

In today's interconnected digital era, Japan's revival in the semiconductor domain signifies more than just a national comeback. This resurgence, intertwining with Japan's legacy of precision and innovation, recalibrates global supply chains, injecting stability amidst ongoing uncertainty. As Japan sharpens its focus on pivotal sectors like IoT, automotive semiconductors, and specialized chip designs, the world anticipates revolutionary tech advancements that not only introduce new products but also redefine industry standards.

Moreover, geopolitically, Japan's resurgence in the semiconductor arena offers a potential counterbalance on the tech chessboard, long dominated by U.S.-China dynamics. As Japan continues on its current trajectory, with anticipated breakthroughs in the coming decade, it is poised to not only re-establish its stature but also become a formidable player. This could significantly shift technological power dynamics within the Asia-Pacific region and around the world.

About the author

Emily Main holds a J.D. in Compliance Law and a BS in Telecommunications. With extensive experience in digital networking and the semiconductor industry, Main has contributed to numerous publications and conferences, exploring technical challenges, innovations, trends and applications. Passionate about communication and networking, she is dedicated to sharing the latest advances in the field with a professional engineering audience through engaging and informative articles.

To contact the author of this article, email GlobalSpecEditors@globalspec.com


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