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America: land of Silicon Valley and home of tech-heads making crazy dollars inventing things we never knew we needed. We are perpetually told how American-led technology is changing the way we talk, date, understand the world — and order ramen at 3 a.m.
Even though half of U.S. economic growth came from technological innovation during the past 50 years, it looks like that is rapidly changing, as the land of the free falls behind its international counterparts when it comes to math and science.
Meanwhile, in Japan, product innovation has impacted day-to-day life in ways that seem straight out of a science fiction novel. While some of these products seem to be more about novelty rather than convenience, they show the sort of creativity that the U.S. is in dire need of.
Here are seven ways Japanese technology and innovation is running rings around the U.S.:
1. The bullet trains that travel 200 mph.
The bullet rain (or Shinkansen) rail network is Japan's Concorde, except it is still in operation and transports 353 million passengers per year. Japan is the birthplace of high-speed rail, which has now spread across Asia. These trains reach 200 mph and are absurdly punctual, with the average delay a blink-and-you-miss-it 36 seconds.
In the network's 49-year history, not one of its 10 billion passengers has died. To put that in context, in the U.S. in 2013, collisions between trains and cars at crossings alone killed 251 people. Can't help thinking that a lack of deaths would improve the daily commute somewhat.
2. The toilet that checks your urine like a doctor's office.
Japan's snazzy electric toilets are treated as a bit of a joke, with their many buttons, music and ability for sudden speech. This bidet-style "washlet" is now in more than half of Japanese homes.
They have the ability to wash, deodorize and warm your nether regions. But more importantly, some have to ability to check urine for sugar levels and can be used to monitor health conditions.
Outside of the home, however, squat toilets are still common in public bathrooms. So watch your step.
3. The alarm clock pillow that gently vibrates when you want to wake up.
Japan has a few inventions that only wake you up while leaving your bed companion snoozing gently: equally useful for not disturbing your loved one and avoiding conversation with the guy from the bar whose name you don't remember.
This is my pick of the bunch: a vibrating pillow that wakes you silently, mostly because I would love to wake up with a blissful expression and perfect hair. That's the way it works, right?
4. The butter grater that shaves your butter like its Parmesan.
But then you come across something like the butter grater, which may be the clearest sign we've had of the second coming. Never again will you ruin your sandwich when you break through the bread (and your heart) while trying to spread butter. Like Parmesan, the butter of any temperature is churned out in beautiful yellow swirls, ready to be spread easily. That's the kind of innovation we can all get on board with.
5. The coffee table that doubles as a room heater.
The Japanese have created the ultimate cave of warmth to tempt you at least out the bedroom: the kotatsu, a low table with a radiator underneath and a quilt thrown on top to keep the heat in.
The idea here is that you keep your lower body warm, while your arms are free to type or eat or whatever. It s such an effective snuggle pit that some people sleep under their kotatsu.
6. The heated vending machine that serves piping hot soup.
Best of all, though, is the chilled and heated vending machines with a blue strip above items for cold and red for hot. Manufacturers even claim they are environmentally friendly, and for easy and enjoyable snacking, they can't be beat.
7. The cell phone that can feed your dog remotely.
Japan's largest mobile phone operator NTT DoCoMo created a normal-looking flip phone a few years ago. This can then be installed with the equally innocuous Pet Phone feature. If you're out and about and lose track of time, all it takes is a call through to your home phone. Check in on the pup through a video stream at which point you can whisper sweet nothings at him and then bam! — food is dispensed automatically into the dog bowl from the Pet Phone.
This is one of those wonderful modern inventions that make it much more acceptable to be a very lazy person. Japan, I salute you.