by GRAIN | 25 Mar 1998

March 1998



As the first of the Asian Tigers, Japan underwent a dramatic transformation into a successful industrial giant in the 1960s and 1970s. But recently the country has found itself on a rocky road. In the wake of its recent financial crisis, Japan has been forced to rethink and reorganise its whole economic system. The biotechnology sector is seen as an important growth sector and a vanguard industry for the country’s next economic boom. Japan already ranks third in the global biotechnology market, and given the emphasis and investment the government is committing to it, the industry is set to expand rapidly. Here we examine the current activities of the Japanese biotech industry and the implications of unleashing a booming Japanese biotech industry on farmers and consumers around the world. This article was researched and written by Lene Santos and Janet Bell.


Japan was a late starter in the biotechnology arena. Japanese companies began to make their first forays into biotech’s brave new world in the early 1980s, attracted by the anticipated high rates of return and the potential to become less dependent on oil-based products and energy-consuming production methods. Unlike the US, whose biotech industry grew out of small biotech start-ups, Japanese interest in biotechnology came from large corporations looking to diversify their activities. Some 88% of Japanese companies involved in biotech introduced it into existing portfolios. These include Japan’s largest pesticide producer Sumitomo Chemical; seed and pharmaceutical company Suntory; the world’s second largest tobacco producer Japan Tobacco; and the world’s sixth largest corporation Mitsubishi.

These large, established companies relied heavily on joint ventures with US companies to carve their way into the biotech business. At least 375 strategic alliances have been established since 1981. These partnerships suited both parties - US companies provided the technological expertise, while the Japanese were endowed with much needed venture capital. Given Japan’s proven success with product and process improvements, many thought that biotech -like computers before it - would soon be dominated by the Japanese. The country has certainly made great strides: it now stands in third place in the global biotech market (with 9.6% of sales), after the US (46.3%) and Switzerland (17.3%). Nevertheless, the new industry has had a bumpy ride. It has yet to establish its credibility in the global arena and achieve acceptance of its products at home.

According to a 1996 survey released by the Japanese Science and Technology Agency (STA), Japan continues to lag behind North America and Europe in basic research and advanced science and technology. Although in-house capacity for basic research is improving, the rate of technology transfer from US to Japan is still four times that of Japan to US. The lack of basic research is considered the weakest link in Japan’s biotechnology industry and the roots of its shaky foundations.

Recently, the government recognised these shortcomings and launched several new policy initiatives to help the industry thrive in what it describes as the ‘mega-competition’ of the global market. These initiatives are included in the government’s radical and ambitious overhaul of Japan’s economy known as the ‘Program for Economic Structure Reform’, which was adopted in December 1996. R&D, and basic research in particular, are heavily emphasised in the plan, swallowing up yen 79.9 billion (US$0.6 billion) of its yen 150 billion (US$1.2 billion) budget in 1997. Genetic research is highlighted as an important research area, and the ‘biotechnology-related sector’ is one of the 15 growth fields in the economy given special attention in the plan. Japan spent an estimated US$8 billion on biotechnology R&D in 1995. This represents 20% of total global investment, making Japan the second biggest spender after the US. The private sector, comprising more than 800 companies, continues to finance the lion’s share (80%) of biotech R&D.

Table 1: Field Testing of Transgenic Crops in Japan

Transgenic crop plant Developer Year Field Trials Completed
TMV-resistant tomato MAFF 1992 (experiment only)
CMV-resistant petunia Suntory 1994
RSV-resistant rice MAFF 1994
RSV-resistant rice Plantech Research Institute (Mitsubishi) 1994
CMV-resistant melon MAFF 1996
CMV-resistant tobacco Japan Tobacco ongoing
Low-allergen rice Mitsui Toatsu 1995
Low-protein rice KIK (Japan Tobacco) ongoing
PLRV-resistant potato Hokkaido Green-Bio Institute ongoing
CMV-resistant tomato MAFF 1996
CMV-resistant tomato MAFF 1997
High pectin tomato Kagome/Zeneca 1996
Long shelf-life carnation Suntory/Florigene 1996
Gluphosinate-tolerant corn DeKalb 1997
RSV-resistant rice MAFF ongoing
Violet carnation Suntory/Florigene 1997
Gluphosinate-tolerant corn Monsanto ongoing
Bt Corn Pioneer Hi-Bred 1997
Bromoxynil-tolerant corn Rhone-Poulenc ongoing
Low-protein rice Japan Tobacco ongoing
Gluphosinate-tolerant cauliflower Takii ongoing
Gluphosinate-tolerant broccoli Takii ongoing

Abbreviations: TMV = tobacco mosaic virus; CMV = cucumber mosaic virus; RSV = rice stripe virus; Bt = Bacillus thuringiensis. Source: Innovative Technology

The Product Pipeline

Biotechnology is not a completely new avenue of interest for the Japanese, thanks to their long history of fermentation. Foodstuffs such as miso, natto (fermented soya), soy sauce, sake and beer have long had their place in the Japanese kitchen. Many food companies, such as Ajinomoto, Meiji Seika, Kirin and Suntory, continue to exploit these techniques, but they are not putting much energy into expanding into other biotech fields for their food processing activities. Many of them are paying more attention to penetrating the pharmaceutical sector than developing DNA foodstuffs. A few exceptions to this rule include Kagome’s high pectin tomato, KIK, Japan Tobacco’s low-protein rice (for sake brewing) and Mitsui Toatsu’s low-allergen rice, which have completed or are currently undergoing biosafety testing.

Bounty from the Deep

Japan has long had a love affair with the sea, and Japanese trawlers are found in every part of the globe dredging for shrimp or catching tuna. Now Japan is turning to the seas for a different kind of harvest and is spending wildly on marine biotechnology research. Every year, the government is channelling almost US$1 billion into marine biotechnology R&D - almost 20 times that invested by the US. The main beneficiary is Japan’s Marine Biotechnology Institute (MBI), which also receives support from 24 member companies. Its research programme focuses on the isolation of novel products from marine micro-organisms for use in pharmaceuticals, pesticides and the like; the biological degradation of oil; bioremediation and microbial carbon dioxide fixation.

In Japan, research emphasis on drug development is expected to continue on developing cancer therapeutics and treatment for gastric ailments, hepatitis, and various diseases associated with the elderly. The government anticipates that the next generation of pharmaceutical products to treat these ailments could come from marine resources. MBI is steadily building up its collection of organisms from various marine environments, which it considers to be the ‘greatest remaining technological frontier’ yet to be explored and exploited. Samples have already been collected from Micronesia and other Pacific Islands. But the host countries do not seem to be getting much of a deal. In exchange for access to their waters, the Micronesian government only receives research reports, quality analyses of sea water and training opportunities. This seems more than a little unfair given that Micronesia is one of the poorest countries in the world in economic terms, but one of the richest in terms of biological resources. Its reefs are estimated to be home for 60% of the world’s coral species.

A total of 90 patents have already been applied for since MBI’s founding in 1988. Of these, 84 are held solely by MITI and the rest are shared with member companies. These include Hitachi Zosen, Kirin Brewery, Suntory, Nippon Steel and Kyowa Hakko Kogyo – Japan’s leading microbial biotechnology company. MBI maintains that its microbe collection is shared upon request, but according to one scientist, there is not much evidence of that happening.

Sources: MF Dilworth, ‘Visit to Marine Biotechnology Research Institute at Kamaishi’, Special Scientific Report, National Science Foundation, July 28, 1997; ‘Marine biotechnology research, competitiveness and technology transfer’, National Sea Grant Office web site:

The vast majority of Japanese companies involved in biotech R&D are focusing on the pharmaceutical sector. Japan’s pharmaceutical market is the second largest in the world, worth about yen 6,000 billion (US$46 billion) in 1995. More than 50% of the market is controlled by domestic drug companies, and an additional 20% by Japanese companies under foreign licence. The pharmaceutical sector is booming, largely in anticipation of the country’s ageing population and the attraction of the high value-added nature of drugs. Genetically-engineered drugs are doing quite well, and in 1994, the 14 biomedicines marketed in Japan achieved a market share of 7%. Japan is investing heavily in research into marine resources as future sources of pharmaceuticals.

Agriculture is a sector which is relatively underexploited by the biotech industry. Japanese agriculture has always been a highly protected sector, and it was not until 1994 that the country was finally forced to allow rice imports. The use of advanced breeding material is envisaged as a way to cope with the new competition, and the agbiotech sector is expected to grow considerably over time. The Japanese seed market has a value of about US$1 billion, comprised of 30% rice seeds, 50% vegetable seeds, and 20% other seeds. Current research in plant biotech focuses heavily on rice, with the main aim of shortening its breeding and growing time. To date, rice breeding has not attracted much interest from the industrial sector, but that situation may well change with the advent of the so-called ‘Terminator Technology’ , which has the potential to increase dramatically the profitability of rice breeding.

Japan is currently the world leader in rice genome research, which it hopes will provide advances not only in rice breeding, but also other cereal crops like wheat, maize and barley (see Box). The main corporate players in plant biotechnology are Japan’s largest pesticide producer Sumitomo Chemical, seed and pharmaceutical company Mitsui Toatsu, beverage company Suntory, Mitsubishi’s Plantech Research Institute and brewer Kirin, and the national organisation of agriculture co-operatives Zennoh. There is something rather disconcerting about the main players in the agricultural genetech field having no experience in seeds or breeding, raising questions about the direction the agbiotech sector will take in the future.

Meanwhile, more than 40 transgenic crops have been developed in Japan. Most of those in the field testing stage are focused on viral resistance and modifying the nutritional qualities of rice (see Table 1). Genetic engineering in animals has concentrated mainly on developing animal models for disease, like the oncomouse, but there is also some interest in livestock applications. Japanese researchers were the first to introduce a gene into a fertilised chicken egg through micro-injection, and they have also produced chimera pigs.

Humans have not escaped Japan’s biotech research. Although Japan started late on human genome research, it owns the largest number of patents for human DNA sequences. Out of 1,175 patents granted between 1981-1995 worldwide, approximately 40% are owned by Japanese companies. Patenting is considered an essential feature for the successful commercial exploitation of the human genome for new diagnostic and therapeutic tools, such as gene therapy. However, despite owning the bulk of the patents, Japanese genome research lags behind the US and Europe by some five years. Japan’s patenting frenzy reflects its research community’s fascination with the brain and its vague hopes for future exploitation: most have no clear application at this point. This kind of patenting activity has been described as ‘driftnet patenting,’ a catch-all safety-net approach to patenting to ensure that no opportunities for future commercialisation are missed.

So where is all this gene research taking the country? In its 1997 ‘Basic Plan for Research and Development of Life Sciences,’ the government anticipates the creation of new pharmaceutical and food industries based on DNA information, and the development of innovative information-processing industries (eg brain-type computers) that benefit from new knowledge of brain functions. In addition to a multiplicity of medical applications, gene research is expected to play an important role in developing technologies to conserve ecosystems, deal with global climate change, increase crop yields, and create ‘improved’ and ‘superior’ crop and livestock species. With the intensification of DNA-related R&D, the biotech industry is expected to grow from the current market of yen 1 trillion (US $7,700 million) to an estimated yen 10 trillion (US$77,000 million) by 2010.

The Rice Genome Research Project

The Rice Genome Research Program (RGP) took off in the late 1980s when Japan’s Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries (MAFF) received funding from the unlikely source of the Japanese Racing Association. The RGP was conceived as a joint government-industry initiative to advance Japan’s status in the field of plant molecular biology. With an annual budget of US$5.5 million, the programme aims to construct a map of the 12 rice chromosomes and to sequence its genome of almost 450 million base pairs.

Japan was not the first to dream up the idea. At the time, a team of scientists in Cornell University were already assembling their own rice genome map with funding from the Rockefeller Foundation. Initial collaboration was short-lived because the original Japanese project was shut down and a new one was set up with entirely new staff. This occurred because of the director’s concerns about monopolisation of the RGP by corporate interests. Although designed as a joint programme between the Ministry’s National Institute of Agrobiological Resources (NIAR) and Society for Techno-innovation of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries (STAFF), the project is basically run by STAFF, a semi-private research consortium of some twenty Japanese companies with interests in agricultural biotechnology, such as Mitsubishi, Kirin Brewery and Suntory.

In late 1993 project data began to be placed in public data banks. Almost half of the samples made available to third parties have stayed within Japan; China, the US and India are the top three foreign recipients. DNA clones are distributed for free, however use is restricted for research and cannot be sold or given to third parties. Nevertheless, the RGP is still being drawn towards corporate interests. MAFF has deliberately excluded genetic data on roots and flowers from being released, hoping to entice funding from private companies for the second phase of the project. This is due to start this year with a budget of US$17 million. IPR issues will become more important now that the RGP starts to focus on the characterisation of agronomically-important genes.

Main Sources: Rice Genome (1997), Vol.3, No.2, p.2; Rice Genome (1994), Vol.6, No.1, p.10; Science, 18 November, pp. 1186-1187.


Government Support

Although industry funding for biotech far exceeds public monies, the government provides important structural support and a necessary regulatory role. Despite being faced with a shaky economy, the government continues to increase its spending on R&D. 1996 spending almost doubled that in 1992, representing 11.9% of total R&D expenditures for science and technology. Government support for biotech R&D is scattered among the various government ministries and lacks co-ordination. The main actors are the Ministries of International Trade and Industry (MITI), Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries (MAFF), Education, Science and Culture (MESC), Health and Welfare (MHW), and the Science and Technology Agency (STA).

Public university funding comes almost exclusively from MESC, but due to the low level of this financial support, their facilities are inferior to their US and European counterparts. Increasingly, funding is being channelled through quasi-government organisations that manage extramural research activities such as the Society for Techno-Innovation of Agriculture Forestry and Fisheries (STAFF) which runs the Rice Genome Program and MAFF’s Bio-oriented Technology Research Advancement Institution (BRAIN). The latter supports private sector research through subsidies and loans, as well as making genetic resources stored in the MAFF gene bank available to companies.

Biotechnology R&D is regulated by different ministries, depending on the type of work involved. Each ministry has its own set of guidelines. MAFF covers environmental release and conducts biosafety reviews. MITI deals with industrial products, while the MHW concerns itself with human drugs and food products. MAFF has approved some 90 transgenic organisms to date: 48 plants, 24 animals, and 18 micro-organisms producing amino acids, enzymes and pharmaceutical products. So far, all the transgenic crops approved for sale in Japan have been imported from the US and Europe, although field testing was undertaken in Japan for all the products approved (See Table 2). The majority of the approved products are varieties genetically engineered for herbicide-resistance or to produce Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) toxins against insect pests.

Japanese biosafety regulations for transgenic plants are quite strict in relation to international standards, but biosafety regulations in other areas are very weak. For example, regulations related to transgenic micro-organisms are mainly restricted to sterilising the wastes from the experiments - in spite of the fact that there have been more than 250 applications for the large-scale fermentation of genetically modified micro-organisms and for cell or tissue culture.

As part of the Program for Economic Structure Reform, the government plans to reorganise its administrative system. The streamlining plan aims to reduce bureaucracy by consolidating the 22 ministries and agencies into a Cabinet and 12 ministries and turning more government bodies into independent agencies. This includes a measure to consolidate all the ministries involved in biotech R&D, including the STA, MITI, MAFF and MHW. This structuring could dramatically simplify and streamline the regulatory channels, something that the genetech industry would welcome.

Table 2: Transgenic Crop Approvals in Japan


Transgenic Characteristic


Approved for:





Soybean Glyphosate tolerance Monsanto




Canola (x3) Gluphosinate tolerance AgrEvo



Canola (x5) Gluphosinate tolerance PGS



Canola Glyphosate tolerance Monsanto




Corn Bt Ciba-Geigy



Corn Bt Northrup-King



Corn Bt Monsanto



Corn Gluphosinate tolerance AgrEvo



Potato (x2) Bt Monsanto


Cotton Bt Monsanto



Cotton Glyphosate tolerance Monsanto



Cotton Bromoxynil tolerance Calgene



Tomato Delayed ripening Calgene



Source: Innovative Technology Division, MAFF, February 1998.

Going Global

Japan’s once vibrant economy has fallen on hard times - a relative term compared with some of its neighbours in the region, but enough to get the government sweating. The recent spate of bank and brokerage failures jolted the government into drawing up its rigorous reform plan. According to MITI, the economic crisis was caused by the ‘hollowing out of industry’ caused by the migration of the Japanese industrial base to foreign turf and a decline in economic vitality stemming from its ageing population. MITI also foresees problems caused by potential constraints to growth posed by increasing energy costs in response to Asia’s rising energy demand and measures required to address the climate change issue. Japan is more sensitive than ever to its position in the global economy and its heavy dependence on imports (of food and energy in particular) from the rest of the world. It is looking to foster greater foreign direct investment in Japan and increase its influence and competitiveness abroad.

In order to achieve this, Japan is looking to take a leadership role in international co-operation, to help ‘harmonise’ the rules of the global marketplace relating to trade and investment. In the biotech arena, that means working towards international guidelines on biosafety assessment, intellectual property rights (IPRs), and the sharing and development of genetic resources. Historically, Japan’s intellectual property system has been less stringent than those found in the US and Europe, much to the chagrin of foreign companies. Some claim that their Japanese competitors use the patent system as a weapon against foreign firms to appropriate their technologies.

The scope of protection afforded by Japanese patents was much narrower than those awarded in the US and Europe, meaning that making minor changes to patented products or processes caused them to fall outside patent coverage. Japanese biotech firms have often taken advantage of this situation to produce and patent near replicas of existing patented products. The most celebrated case of such copy-cat activity was the patent awarded to Sumitomo for its tissue plasminogen activator (tpA), which differed from Genetech’s version by the substitution of a single amino acid which had no impact on the drug’s activity.

Under pressure from the WTO and the US, Japan started to revise its patenting laws in 1997 by broadening the scope of its patents. In November 1997, the US, Japanese and European patent offices met to start working on a ‘common world patent system’ and adopted a so-called ‘Kyoto Action Plan’ to this end. Japan has wholeheartedly jumped on the globalisation bandwagon and is eager to help developing countries strengthen their IPR laws, particularly those in the Asia-Pacific Economic Co-operation (APEC) where Japan has most influence. Its biotech companies would obviously benefit greatly from strengthened patent protection in the region, and as usual, the losers will be farmers, consumers and the environment.

IPRs favour countries that are more technologically advanced. Now that Japan has largely caught up with the other industrial countries, it is eager to tighten up IPR regimes around the world, so that it can better capitalise on its inventions. The South-East Asian region represents rich pickings for the Japanese, since in many of the countries innovation remains at a more informal level. Many of these kinds of innovations, such as farmers’ informal breeding experiments or fermentation technologies, are not recognised by patent regimes. Japan’s biotech exports will rake in royalties via their patents, while Japan will remain free to pirate and patent the innovations it finds in farmers’ fields.

Aid or impediment?

With only 7.4% of its labour force involved in farming, Japan will be looking abroad for markets for its agbiotech products as the industry matures. This should make farmers in the region feel nervous. Not only will the products be developed in a completely different environment to that in which they will be grown, but they come from a country with a weak farming base, the products of science rather than farmers’ wisdom. The main vehicle for transferring the technologies is likely to be Japan’s Official Development Assistance (ODA). Despite a dramatic 35% reduction in funding between 1995 and 1996, Japan remains the world’s largest donor of overseas aid. Its 1996 budget was US$9,439 million, just nosing ahead of the US$9,058 million).

The largest part of Japan’s ODA is channelled towards South-East Asia (80% of its loans and 50% of its grant aid). Many countries in the region, such as Indonesia, the Philippines and China, rely for more than half of their total bilateral foreign aid on Japan. The reason for this bias is twofold. Firstly, most of the Japanese ODA in South-East Asia began as war reparations which continued after they were paid up. Secondly, Japan wants to develop South-East Asian economies, both to increase its exports to these regions and to satisfy domestic demand through imports. Most of Japan’s bilateral loans are channelled through the Overseas Economic Co-operation Fund (OECF), while the Japan International Co-operation Agency (JICA) is responsible for most of the grant aid. JICA specialises in technical assistance, and more than 25% of the 2,500 experts it dispatches work in the fields of agriculture and forestry. Historically, Japanese aid has been characterised by a heavy focus on large-scale infrastructure projects, in which aid money is largely ‘tied’ to the procurement of Japanese technologies and expertise, jumping right back into Japanese coffers. In response to criticism from NGOs and changes in overseas aid policies among the aid ‘heavies’ like the World Bank, there has been a shift towards more diversified assistance, including NGO support. The success of this shift, however, is questionable, as many Japanese foreign aid experts do not know how to ‘do’ aid differently, and struggle with issues of empowerment, local control and appropriate technologies. For example, JICA’s projects in support of genetic resource conservation in Sri Lanka, Pakistan and Chile all comprise ex-situ projects (ie gene banks) and involve working with government institutions rather than NGOs or farmers themselves. Despite leading the world in dollar-assistance, the Japanese ‘appropriate aid’ quotient is somewhat lower. As Japan’s agricultural base becomes more and more dominated by high-tech biotech agriculture, this is the model that the country will be exporting to the countries around it, to the detriment of the majority of farmers. For all the hype in Japan’s policy documents about biotech feeding the world and solving its environmental problems, transgenic crops are not the path to food security for most farmers in the Philippines, Thailand or Indonesia. Transgenic crops are designed to feed corporate coffers, not farming families.

Conscious Consumerism in Japan

Labelling of genetically modified foods is a hot topic in Japan. It is commonly assumed that Japan’s techno-oriented society would be more open to biotechnological products than other industrialised countries. Not so: they are as concerned as European consumers about its impact. Their main concerns include safety, quality, long-term risks, and lack of information. According to one Japanese housewife, ‘It‘s strange that there are no laws on the distribution of genetically modified products, while laws exist on agricultural chemicals and foodstuffs additives. There are too many unknown factors, including the effects on human health.’

Transgenic agricultural products began arriving in Japan at the end of 1996. The approval list has now expanded to 22 products, including animal feed and products used in cooking oil, beer and candy. Consumer groups have been active in demanding labelling, and more than 300 local assemblies have adopted resolutions to that end. The food producers, meanwhile, argue that approval by the Ministry of Health and Welfare is sufficient assurance of safety.

Consumer acceptance is critical for the Japanese agro-biotech industry. The Japanese have a preference for familiar, traditional food products. For example, the most popular rice variety is more than 30 years old, and during recent poor rice harvests in Japan, consumers were prepared to pay up to ten times more for rice from Japan than rice imported from Thailand. Food giant Kirin understands this food conservatism only too well, having decided to postpone its 1999 launch of the transgenic Flavr Savr tomato. According to a spokesperson, ‘We are afraid that commercialisation of the tomato may be several years ahead. It’s essential for consumers to accept our product first.’ Concern about consumer acceptance has caused many Japanese food processors to invest their biotech research in pharmaceuticals and non-food crops such as flowers rather than food products.

The Ministry of Agriculture, Forest and Fisheries (MAFF) set up a special study group in May 1997 that has yet to reach agreement on labelling. An interim report promised by the House of Representative’s Special Committee on Consumer Affairs is also way behind schedule. One reason the bureaucrats and politicians are moving so slowly on the issue is that Japan could become entangled in trade issues with the US. Labelling of bioengineered agricultural products is now regarded as a non-tariff barrier according to US trade policy. Since Japan is the biggest importer of US produce in the world, there is a great deal at stake.

The US provides about 90% of Japan’s corn and soybeans, the two biggest transgenic crops grown by US farmers. Some trading houses in Japan argue that labelling would complicate shipping and that consumers would not want to bear the extra costs involved. Others, however, have already started to segregate shipments of transgenic and conventional products. A spokesman from Itochu Corporation says that although prices are 20% higher, some consumers are indeed prepared to pay the difference for corn that has not been genetically altered.

Source: Nikkei, Asia Pulse Analysis, 15 October 1997; Public Acceptance and Regulation of Biotechnology in Japan, Biotechnology and Development Monitor, No. 22, March 1995.

Japan’s ‘Basic Plan for R&D of the Life Sciences’ states that ‘future life science research must be conducted ... in co-operation with developing nations.’ This sounds good in theory, but what does it mean in practice? If the biopiracy activities of the Marine Biotechnology Institute are anything to go by, one fears for other countries in the South-East Asian region with whom Japan seeks to work. Only too aware of its own gene impoverishment, Japan has been quick to name gene-rich Thailand, Indonesia and Malaysia as potential partners with whom to build up a network ‘for collecting, storing and providing micro-organisms and related information.’ Japan also has its eyes on South America’s genetic resources, and seeks to develop research co-operation in biotech with countries in the region - and not surprisingly - ‘especially Brazil’.


Japan is under pressure to expand its overseas markets because of its economic crisis. Biotechnology is seen as one of its great hopes for the country’s future wealth. Although its first experiences in the biotech arena were not as immediately successful as many had hoped, Japan is now well positioned to move its biotech industry ahead in leaps and bounds. The government is rallying round the industry to help it develop and thrive, and money is forthcoming from both public and private sources. The future looks rosy.

Japan is home to some of the largest corporations in the world, and many of them have developed a keen interest in biotech. It probably won’t be long before we see the likes of Mitsubishi becoming Japan’s Monsanto and starting to monopolise the farming sector. Mitsubishi has already achieved vertical integration of food production: it has agrochemical interests, a partner to develop and market seeds and various food processing companies. Corporate control of the food supply means that profits override all other concerns, such as food safety, the environment and sustainability. This is a concern not just for Japan’s citizens, but for people all over South-East Asia, given Japan’s expansionist plans for the biotech sector.

Japan’s consumers do not necessarily share the government and industry’s vision of the future and are making their concerns known. But a louder voice is needed from the larger South-East Asian region to counter the mantra Japan’s biotech industry has picked up from its US counterparts. Perhaps, and only perhaps, biotech could feed the world, make us live forever and solve our environmental problems if that was really the industry’s agenda. But it isn’t, and it never will be. Japan’s biotech industry may differ in some ways from its US and European counterparts, but not that fundamentally.


Main Sources:

* 1997 Survey of research development in Japan, National Science Foundation, Tokyo Office, Report Memorandum #97-13, Dec. 13, 1997.

* Basic Plan for Reseach and Development on Life Sciences, Office of the Prime Minister, Aug. 13, 1997,

* Report on activities of the Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries Research Council (AFFRC) Secretariat, an Agency of the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries (MAFF), National Science Foundation, Special Scientific Report #97-17, May 29, 1997.

* The Action Plan for Economic Structure Reform, Ministry of International Trade and Industry, May 1997,

* White Paper on Science and Technology, 1997, Science and Technology Agency, Japan.

* Innovative Technology Division, MAFF,

* Shelton RD and Geoffrey Holdridge, ‘Sleeping Tiger? Japan’s continuing advances in science and technology’, International Technology Research Institute, Loyola College, Maryland,

* Special Issue on Japan, Biotechnology and Development Monitor, March 1995.

Author: GRAIN
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