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They are the nuts and bolts of daily life — rust-resistant screws, machinery for making instant noodles and the clocks used to time triathlon events precisely are overwhelmingly made in Japan. Their producers are Japan’s “hidden treasures” — companies that command global market shares of at least 50 per cent although few Japanese, let alone foreigners, have ever heard of them.

Many of these products are vital to global supply chains, as car factories in Germany, Brazil, Britain and the US discovered within two weeks of the 2011 earthquake off Japan’s Pacific coast. Supplies of specialist components — in this case, vibration-proof LCD screens, airflow sensors and two particular shades of metallic paint — dwindled fast after plants were destroyed by the quake and subsequent tsunami.

A few “hidden treasures” such as Shimano, which has three-quarters of the global market for bicycle brakes and gears, are known abroad. But in many cases, world leaders in their niches occupy ageing buildings on the edge of dreary industrial parks.

Fish and seafood processors everywhere rely on the machinery of Towa Denki and Nikko, while anyone planning to open a public aquarium is more or less obliged to buy their large acrylic viewing panes from Nippura. Countries aspiring to build nuclear power plants must join an international queue for a crucial part of the reactor core made in a single Hokkaido furnace by Japan Steel Works. Wig-makers around the world source 50 per cent of their acrylic imitation hair from Kaneka Corporation.

Japan’s semiconductor industry may have been overtaken by competitors in Taiwan, South Korea and China, but all those upstarts still buy their silicon wafer polishers from Japan.

The FT and Nikkei is publishing a list of 29 leading “hidden treasures”, bringing them out of the shadow of Japan’s long battle with stagnation and the decline of great names such as Sharp, Panasonic and Toshiba.

Yet even the “hidden treasures” feel insecure. In interviews with the FT and Nikkei, the chiefs of three such companies voiced shared fears of the difficulty of attracting brilliant innovators from a shrinking population; the lack of expertise in globalising operations and a permanent risk of disruptive technology.

Japan’s “Hidden treasures” by sales, numbers 11-18
CompanyYear foundedProductGlobal market shareTotal sales (in Ybn)Number of employees
Furuya Metal Co1968Iridium crucibles65%21.5291
Teikoku Seiyaku1918Medicated plasters50%21.2702
MASDAC Co1957"Dorayaki" sandwich pancake making machine100%12.2260
Nippon Tungsten1931Base material for harddisc drive's magnetic head 70%11.3378
IST Corporation1983Printer toner fixing material50%10100
Ueno Seiki1972High-speed tester for semi-conductors80%8.6185
KTX Corporation1975Molding technology for automotive interior90%4.2125
Yanagiya Machinery Co1950Food processing machine70%3.4153
Towa Denki Seisakusho Co1963Automated squid-fishing equipment70%3.152
Nippura Co1969Acrilic panel for aquarium70%2.687
BBS Kinmei Co1956Semi-conductor silicon wafer polishing device80%1.891
YS Tech Co2005Heat-resistant barcode labels100%122
UNISOKU Co1974Scanning microscopes70%142
Tohoku Electronic Industrial1968Ultraweak luminescence measuring instrument80%150
Nishimura Works1945Compact Disc Dryer100%0.750
TDC Corporation1989Super precise mirror polishing technology100%0.656
Micro Talk Systems Corp1994Time-keeping system for triathlon 50%0.516
Nitride Semiconductors Co2000UV LED banknote checker for ATM80%0.310
Amaike Textile Industry Co1965Textile using ultrafine thread100%0.243

Source: Nikkei

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