BOSTON — Americans have long comforted themselves with the belief that the Japanese may be very good at manufacturing and marketing, but Asia must still look to the United States for technical innovations.
Just five years ago that may have been true, but a new study by Japan's powerful Ministry of International Trade and Industry determined that Japan has caught up with or surpassed the United States in most key electronics technologies.
A MITI white paper on industrial technology released in Japan last December and just translated into English by the trade magazine Electronic Business concluded that Japan's technology equaled or surpassed the United States in 90% of the 40 key electronic products studied.
Five years ago, a similar MITI study found that Japan lagged the United States in nearly half the technologies studied.
Of those products with significant electronics content, the ministry found that the only areas where Japanese technology still lags are rockets, jet engines, magnetic resonance imaging equipment and computer databases. But the report said Japan is in a better position to develop technology for rockets and equal to the United States in developing jet engines and magnetic resonance imaging equipment.
Report Taken Seriously
MITI based its findings on a survey of nearly 1,000 companies and 16 national laboratories, as well as academic, government and industry experts.
Many of the industries that Japan ranked equal to the United States or better are not a surprise, such as semiconductors, copiers and consumer electronics.
Other conclusions are more controversial. MITI ranks Japan equal to the United States in microprocessors, for example, although U.S. companies dominate the world market for microprocessors and are considered to be clearly in the lead technologically.
"But MITI is very, very smart," said Jerry Wasserman, vice president of the consulting firm Arthur D. Little Inc. and a specialist in the Japanese electronics industry. "The general rule of thumb is, don't rule out anything they say."
The report does support the widespread view that Japan lags well behind the United States in basic research, the building block of future inventions. It found that only 4% of Japanese corporate research and development spending in electronics goes for basic research, while 78% goes for product development.
Critical Production Lag
But MITI seems determined to change that situation as well. The report calls on the government to double its spending for basic research, which already equals about $25 billion a year, 1% of Japan's gross national product.
The white paper is only one of a slew of recent reports critical of the United States' standing in the high-tech world. Last month the Massachusetts Institute of Technology caused a stir with a 340-page study warning that the United States' industrial base is in big trouble.
"American industry is not producing as well as it ought to produce, or as well as it used to produce, or as well as the industries of some other nations have learned to produce," according to the report by the Commission on Industrial Productivity.
The Commission, made up of about 30 MIT faculty members, was convened in 1986 when the school started thinking about its future as the top American training ground for engineers. Richard Lester, a professor of nuclear engineering and the commission's executive director, said the group asked "how could it be . . . that the U.S. cannot translate technical leadership into commercial leadership?"
Losing Market Share
Meanwhile, Harvard University looked at the rate of computer automation in the factories of 21 U.S. industries and reported in October that, as of 1987, only 11% of the machine tools in place were computer controlled.
A similar survey conducted in Japan in 1985 estimated that 30% of the machine tools used by that country's metal-working industry were computer controlled.
Last September the national Council on Competitiveness released its findings that in 11 key industries, most of them started by American inventions, U.S. companies had lost significant market share in their home market.
These included televisions, machine tools and semiconductors. "In field after field, America is literally going out of business," Sen. Ernest F. Hollings (D-S.C.) told a recent Congressional hearing.
One of the few electronic industries still dominated by U.S. companies, the $50-billion worldwide market for computer software, could also fall to the Japanese in the next five to 10 years, according to two more reports.
Beneficial 'Kick in Teeth'
U.S. companies currently control 70% of the world software market. But the U.S. Office of Technology Assessment recently surveyed international competition in software and concluded that "while European software firms have been more visible internationally than the Japanese, over the long run Japan will emerge as the primary U.S. competitor in software."
Adapso, a U.S. software industry association, commissioned a study called "Japanese Software: The Next Competitive Challenge," which warned that the Japanese government is implementing a comprehensive program to promote the software industry, using the same measures that enabled it to capture the lead in semiconductors.
There is a silver lining to all this, Arthur D. Little's Wasserman said. "This kick in the teeth has made a real impression on U.S. companies," he said. "It is only because Japan has become so strong that U.S. companies have finally starting turning around and becoming more competitive."