March 2, 2012

What is going on with Japan?

Considering that Japan is one of the world's most important scientific nations, its DNA sequencing capacity is surprisingly low. There are more sequencing machines in the Netherlands or in Spain, both of which spend only a fraction of what Japan does on research and development (R&D).

In this post, I ask whether sequencing in Japan really is as neglected as this suggests, or whether the reality is less gloomy.

Is the scarcity of sequencing machines due to  Japan focussing on things other than the life sciences? Hardly: Japan is considered to rank amongst the five leading countries in the world in healthcare, medical science, the life sciences, and biotechnology. According to the OECD, there are more biotechnology companies in Japan than in any other country except the United States.

If weakness in the life sciences generally is not the reason, what causes Nippon's neglect of sequencing? The answer seems to be a recent lack of growth in the biotechnology and medical sectors, combined with a scarcity of public funding for genomics.

For example Takara, a large biotechnology company that offers sequencing services on several Illumina and SOLiD machines, has seen sales stagnate for years. The (at least perceived) lack of funding for genomics in the public sector becomes apparent from the case of Yusuke Nakamura, a highly cited Japanese geneticist. Earlier this year, he quit his positions as the head of the government's Office of Medical Innovation and at Tokyo University for the University of Chicago. Nakamura says that what he perceived to be a lack of government support for genomics contributed to his decision to leave the country.

The outlook for sequencing for Japan in not all dark. For example, Hokkaido System Science, a company that provides DNA synthesis and sequencing services, is flourishing and aims to expand internationally. And then there is of course Riken, Japan's flagship natural sciences research institute, whose impressive infrastructure includes ten next generation sequencers.

Will Japan's genomics revival come from a large government push, from the private sector, or not at all? For now, it seems impossible to tell.

Future plans

I am also considering reviewing the state of DNA sequencing in Canada, China, France, Germany, the United Kingdom,  and, if I feel up the challenge, the United States. Would there be any interest in this?


  1. Yup! I am curious how EU governments perceive genomic research & their funding strategies. I wonder whether Japan never shifted money into sequencing-based science based on the ROI principle - if I were the government, I probably also be spending more of my healthcare related funding in fields with more immediate impacts, especially with my rapidly aging population.

  2. Really interesting. Thank you for your post.

  3. Informative post on genomics in Japan. Looking forward to your posts about the other countries.

  4. (Disclosure: I am an employee of Life Technologies)

    Hello Art, quite an observant post!

    In meeting with my counterparts from Japan recently, a remark was made that in Japan, the direction from the government was to pursue functional studies (proteomics and protein function in particular) and leave the genomics discovery to other countries.

    1. Hi Dale,

      Thank you for your post. It's interesting to see that strategic government decisions like that have such an impact on at least nominally independent research institutions.

  5. Looking forward to France and Canada.

    1. Hi avilella,

      I'm planning to write posts on France, the UK and Canada as well. It may be a few weeks though until that happens, as I'm currently planning a series of posts on microbial sequencing.