Japan has been promoting aspects of the bioeconomy through policies for nearly two decades. Both in the early days and today, this has been integrated into holistic considerations. In the Biomass Nippon Strategy of 2002, for example, which focused on the production and industrial use of biomass, this was done to stimulate the rural economy. Currently, in the bioeconomy strategy adopted in 2019, the topics range from the circular economy to sociopolitical tasks. Climate protection is also a central goal, both then and now.
Biomass strategy since 2006
As early as 2006, the Biomass Nippon Strategy was revised to explicitly focus on bioenergy in addition to biomass. In 2009, Japan added the "Basic Act for the Promotion of Biomass Utilization" to the Biomass Strategy and initiated the Council for National Biomass Policy. The next step was the “National Plan for the Promotion of Biomass Utilization” in 2010. It set a series of quantitative targets at the municipal and national levels, including, for the first time, fixed quotas for biofuels. Thereby, the plan considers the complete value chain from residual material utilization to biorefineries.
The reactor disaster in Fukushima in 2011 marked a turning point in the public perception of energy supply. As a result, the "Biomass Industrialization Strategy" was created in 2012, with which the country is striving for decentralized and autonomous energy production. In addition to biofuels and biorefineries, which had already been discussed earlier, the strategy focuses for the first time on the use of microalgae. In 2014, the "Strategic Energy Plan" set a target of 24% renewables in the 2030 energy supply, of which five percentage points are to be contributed by bioenergy. The now fifth version of the 2018 “Strategic Energy Plan” has increased the target to 44% renewables in 2030. This is to be accompanied by a national energy autarky of 24% (up from 8% in 2016), to be achieved primarily through renewables and the restart of nuclear power plants. Biofuels continue to be considered primarily as imported products. The scenarios have also been further developed to 2050, but without setting detailed quantitative targets in them beyond full decarbonization.
Japan eventually formulated an explicit bioeconomy strategy in 2019 (downloadable PDF in Japanese). It closely links the bioeconomy with ecological, environmental, social and health objectives and describes a circular bioeconomy as the basis of a sustainable and healthy living system. The appreciation of the environment and a nature-oriented way of life are deeply anchored in Japanese culture, it says as an explanation.
As Japan has limited agricultural biomass resources due to its geography, the bioeconomy strategy focuses particularly on biotechnological developments, often in connection with artificial intelligence or technological applications - from plant breeding to regenerative medicine. The strategy paper admits that Japan is no longer a technology leader in this sector and needs to invest more in this field. However, measurement and sensor technology, image analysis technology and robotics are strengths that the country can also exploit bioeconomically.
The overarching goal for Japan, according to the bioeconomy strategy, is to "achieve the most advanced bioeconomic society in the world by 2030". This includes the sustainable use of biogenic resources and consistent recycling, the international networking of data, people and resources with the aim of open innovation, and the merging of biotechnology and digital technology.
For implementation, the strategy defines five basic trends:
- the creation of new markets and the conquest of overseas markets
- the establishment of a large collection of biodata and the associated infrastructure to use it
- networking to attract investment from both domestic and foreign markets
- harmonization of trade policies and protection of intellectual property and genetic resources
- increased involvement of the humanities, social sciences and public dialogue to address ethical, legal and social issues
The bioeconomy strategy criticizes the fact that Japan has so far focused too much on plant breeding, while new fields of application have only been considered at a late stage, for example in the field of highly functional materials, modern diagnostics and healthcare.
Particularly the country's great genetic diversity of biotic resources should be better identified and utilized. Forest areas and their use are to be expanded, as is the cultivation of bioeconomically interesting raw materials such as sugar cane and corn, along with the development of intelligent agricultural technologies and functional foods.
The social acceptance of products made from renewable raw materials, wastewater and waste is to be increased and a carbon cycle created that overcomes environmental problems. The strategy also identifies environmental remediation as another future market. In addition, structural changes in the research landscape are to be driven forward, toward more centrally organized research that cooperates better nationally and internationally.
Further political sustainability goals
In addition, the past decade has seen a number of policies that touch on the bioeconomy at important points: for example, since 2012, government agencies have been directed by the "Act on Promoting Green Purchasing" to purchase environmentally friendly products. Consumers can identify environmentally friendly or bio-based products by labels such as the Ecoleaf, Green Pla or BiomassPla. The government promotes the use of renewable energies with fixed payments.
Japan has a number of instruments to promote investment, including tax schemes and direct payments. Support is provided, for example, for biomass recycling systems. Tax breaks apply to biofuel producers and research-intensive companies. Carbon dioxide emissions have been taxed since 2012.
The cultivation of genetically modified plants is generally permitted in Japan and regulated by the "Act on the Conservation and Sustainable Use of Biological Diversity Through Regulations on the Use of Genetically Modified Organisms" from 2003. However, with the exception of ornamental flowers, cultivation does not take place due to a lack of social acceptance. Nevertheless, more than 200 foods and food additives based on genetically modified organisms are allowed in Japan. Japan is one of the world's largest importers of genetically modified food and feed.
The main political actors in the field of bioeconomy are the Ministry of Economy, the Ministry of Agriculture and the Ministry of Science, but also the Ministries of Interior, Transport and Environment. One of the most important funding sources in Japan is the semi-governmental Japan Science and Technology Agency (JST). It also provides the government with proposals for new research priorities and is jointly responsible for achieving the goals set by the government. In addition to basic research, the agency supports (international) cooperation between industry and science as well as activities to promote patenting and technology transfer from universities to the market.
Japan's economy is highly industrialized, and the country has long been considered one of the world's leading export nations. As recently as 2016, the export surplus was $38 billion, but in 2017 it was down to $26.6 billion, and in 2018 there was an import surplus of $10 billion. Exports were dominated by the automotive sector, machinery, chemical products and electrical engineering. Next to electronic goods, petroleum, chemical products and food were the main import products. In this respect, Japan sees the bioeconomy primarily as a high-tech bio-based industry. Industry and mining contributed 22.7% to GDP in 2017, agriculture, forestry and fisheries only 1.1%.
Japan had a strong biotech industry early on. This is also measurable in biotech and pharma patents, where Japan is number one in Asia, as well as in the number of startups. However, after peaking in 2013, the industry has declined over the years. Nevertheless, there are still internationally significant companies. As the world's third-largest market for pharmaceuticals, Japan has research-heavy companies in the sector. Closely linked to this is a well-positioned bioinformatics sector. About 85 companies are affiliated with the Japan Bioindustry Association.
Japan's largest biotech company is PeptiDream, which specializes in the eponymous production of peptides and technology platforms for their research. In 2018, the company was valued at $7 billion with about 120 employees. A pharmaceutical giant focused on medical biotechnology is Kyowa Kirin. Listed on the Nikkei 225, it is one of the world's 40 largest companies in the sector by sales and had around 7,500 employees at the end of 2017. Its product range includes monoclonal antibodies, cancer drugs, as well as amino acids, vitamins and peptides. Ono Pharmaceutical is another major player in the pharmaceutical sector. The company is known for its cancer drug Opdivo. With around 3,500 employees, the company generated sales of $2.4 billion in 2017. The international chemical company Rakuto Kasei, based in Japan, is broadly positioned. Its biotechnological products focus on enzymes for industrial processes. Enzymes, for example for the food industry, are produced by the medium-sized company Amano Enzyme. And Immuno-Biological Laboratories, founded in 1982, relies on genetically modified silkworms. The company uses these to produce proteins that are processed into diagnostic or cosmetic products.
Biochemicals and biofuels
In Japan, efforts are being made by various parties to set up plants for the production of biofuel. By the time of the Olympic Games in 2020, which have now been postponed due to the pandemic, the airlines Japan Airlines (JAL) and All Nippon Airways (ANA) intended to have production facilities up and running in which aviation fuel would be obtained from waste and algae. In addition to the U.S. company Boeing, the Japanese government and the University of Tokyo are involved in this initiative, which was launched in 2014. Back in 2010, the beverage manufacturer Ehime Beverage opened its model plant, where waste from fruit juice production is converted into bioethanol.
Biomaterial in Tokyo (bits) specializes in the use of sugars from biomass. In addition to various chemicals, the company is also working on algae-based biofuels. At the Green Earth Institute, the product spectrum ranges from green chemicals based on lignocellulose to biofuels for aircraft. Nippon Biodiesel Fuel focuses on biodiesel from vegetable oils. The company focuses on palm oil and oil from the nuts of the jatropha bush. Revo International produces biodiesel primarily from used household oils at its plant in Kyoto. The automotive supplier Denso produces algae-based biofuels. Some regional governments are engaged in small-scale production initiatives. Even the petroleum company Idemitsu Kosan produces green chemicals and biofuels.
Japan was an early adopter of bioplastics. The car manufacturer Toyota, for example, already had a bioplastics unit in 1998. The company itself produces bio-based polylactic acid and announced as early as 2008 that it intended to equip 60% of its car interiors with it. As a group, Toyota is also developing second-generation biofuels. Mitsubishi Chemical produces biobased control panels for Suzuki Group vehicles and cell phone housings for Sharp, among other products. Fujitsu, NEC and Sony have also been using bioplastics in cell phones and computer parts for years. The beverage company Suntory Holdings uses bottles made partly or entirely of biobased material. Other producers of biobased plastics include Mitsubishi Rayon, Teijin, Mitsui Chemicals and specialty chemicals groups Itoh Oil Chemicals and Kuraray.
Agriculture, fisheries and forestry
Japan imports food and feed in large quantities. But where geographic conditions permit, domestic companies engage in production. In times of crisis, a number of companies from outside the industry have discovered the potential of this rather stable sector for themselves. The agricultural machinery manufacturer Kubota, for example, has been involved in the food processing sector for several years and plans to cultivate rice and vegetables on large areas throughout the country. Aeon Agri Create, a subsidiary of Japan's largest retail company Aeon Group, is now one of the largest domestic vegetable producers. It is supported by advanced IT applications from Fujitsu. Even electronics manufacturers such as Toshiba and Panasonic have converted old factory buildings for vegetable production. Omikenshi, a textile company and one of the major viscose producers in the country, has expanded its activities to the functional and health food market. Among other things, the company produces noodles from tree roots.
Inplanta Innovations, which was spun off from the RIKEN Institute, focuses on plant breeding and sees itself primarily as a research service provider. In addition, green biotechnology in Japan is characterized more by imports than by an industry of its own. One exception is genetically modified ornamental flowers from Suntory. Fisheries are particularly important for the regional economy, with a yield of 3.8 million tons in 2017. The share from aquaculture is small and largely constant at 0.6 million tons. Also economically relevant are harvests of seaweed (0.4 million tons) and shellfish. Nevertheless, Japan is the world's second-largest fish importer after the USA, as national production covers only about two-thirds of demand.
Two-thirds of Japan's land area is forested. About ten of these 25 million hectares are managed forest, half of which is ready for harvesting. Domestic demand for wood, at 78 million cubic meters, is lower than the amount that grows each year; however, harvesting, at 27 million cubic meters, falls far short of demand. For power generation, the wood pellet market gained importance after the temporary shutdown of all nuclear power plants. The energy companies Sumitomo and Showa Shell Sekiyu have since been using wood in several large power plants. Another important forest product is mushrooms, whose production totaled around 450,000 tons in 2016.
Research and development expenditure in Japan amounted to 3.2% of gross domestic product in 2017. Traditionally, education and science have been highly valued. Since the mid-19th century, around 775 universities have been established, most of which maintain close contacts with industry. There are no nationally organized research organizations as in Germany. However, the government is striving to create central structures in research in order to improve both national and international networking.
Universities such as those of Tokyo, Kobe, Kyoto or Osaka play a major role in the bioeconomy, although practically no university research center in Japan is explicitly dedicated to the bioeconomy. At the University of Tokyo, however, everything revolves around bioeconomy topics in the Faculty of Agriculture, where numerous groups conduct research on plant and animal breeding, food, agriculture and forestry, marine biology and ecosystems. Other faculties deal with biofuels and biobased materials as well as pharmaceutical research.
The utilization of marine resources is the research focus at Tokyo University of Marine Science and Technology, which together with the National Fishery University is a leader in fisheries research in Japan. At Kobe University, scientists have succeeded in producing biofuel from crab shells. Also aimed at biofuels is the cultivation of freshwater algae carried out jointly with the conglomerate IHI Corporation. In addition to the aquatic resources of the bioeconomy, however, terrestrial resources are also at the center of research, because alongside the Faculty of Marine Sciences, there is also a Faculty of Agriculture. Furthermore, in Japan, agriculture is the field of work of a number of correspondingly specialized technical colleges.
In general, the utilization of biomass and the associated processes and required enzymes are research topics at many universities, including the universities of Tohoku in Sendai and Hokkaido on the northern island of the same name. The Faculty of Bioresources at Mie University focuses on the utilization of residual materials such as mandarins that are not suitable for sale, but also examines the entire spectrum of agriculture, fisheries and forestry in terms of sustainability. Other Japanese universities with relevant activities in the bioeconomy sector are the universities of Hiroshima, Ibaraki, Kindai and Tottori.
While there are no national research organizations in Japan, there are outstanding non-university research institutions. The Center for Sustainable Resource Science (CSRS) has been located at the renowned RIKEN Research Center since 2013. With their work, the researchers in the 40 working groups aim to contribute to a sustainable society in terms of resources and energy. Another focus is on biomaterials. The CSRS also incorporated the former RIKEN Plant Science Center, which is one of the world's top facilities for plant research. Implementation in agriculture is being researched by the Japan International Research Center for Agricultural Sciences (JIRCAS) with its more than 200 employees. Food security at home, but also in developing countries, is one of the missions. Food and agriculture, including transgenic rice and a vaccine against pollen allergy, are the focus of scientists at the National Agriculture and Food Research Organization (NARO), which also includes the National Institute of Agricultural Sciences (NIAS) since 2016.
Spread across several centers in the country, the Forestry and Forest Products Research Institute (FFPRI) is considered a specialist in forestry. Two of its research fields are bio-based chemicals and materials made from wood. The Fisheries Research Agency (FRA), with its ten sites spread throughout Japan, plays a key role in fisheries research.
The National Institute for Advanced Industrial, Science and Technology (AIST) is one of the largest public research centers in the country. Here, researchers work on solutions for biobased and environmentally compatible chemistry and for renewable energies, among other things. To this end, the approximately 2,300 scientists have access to a biorefinery research center and demonstration facilities. Renewable energies - also from biomass - define in particular the field of activity of the semi-governmental New Energy and Industrial Technology Development Organization (NEDO). The approximately 800 researchers are looking for enzymes that can be used to produce second-generation biofuels, i.e., based on non-edible biomass.
As a result of the government's centralization efforts, some 25 clusters of research and industry have now emerged in the life sciences. The largest center of protein research is the PMK Initiative. The majority of the members of this network are located in and around Osaka. This is also where the Northern Osaka Biomedical Cluster is located, whose members focus on pharmaceutical, medical and other life sciences research. The cluster is currently being expanded into the Northern Osaka Health and Biomedical Innovation Town. However, the largest biomedical cluster in the country is the Kobe Biomedical Innovation Center, established in 1998. The Hokkaido Bio Technology Industrial Cluster has a biotechnology focus. The health-focused Sapporo Bio Cluster is also about health-promoting foods, the Tsuruoka Metabolome Cluster concentrates on its eponymous metabolome research, and the Hakodate Marine Bio Industrial Cluster focuses on marine resources.