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COVER: Gizmo Nation
For the past 50 years Japanese have embraced the notion that salvation is to be found through technical innovation--and the world has benefited from their ingenuity
Timeline: A look at the rise of technology in Japan (photo essay)
My Robot, My Friend: Japanese love not only to give their machines names, but also to make them pals
Viewpoint: Let no one say these citizens are automatons
Birth of a Robot: TIME takes an exclusive inside look at the design, construction and assembly of "Pino" (photo essay)
Land of the Rising Gadget: At times, this can seem like an almost fully automated society (photo essay)
The 10 Smartest Machines: These whiz-bang doo-dads are just around the corner; plus, the 5 dumbest head-scratching devices (photo essay)
Lonely Inventors: Surprisingly, the country doesn't always reward its most creative scientific minds
The Old Ways: Some tasks are still done better by humans
Local Talent: Ota ward remakes itself
Cellul-Oids: Japanese cinema is full of mechanical monsters, mayhem and monkey business
On the Boards: An interactive Shakespeare
Essay: Ryu Murakami bemoans the alienation of youth
Essay: Pico Iyer on why the new is old in Japan

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Nervy, gifted and terribly precocious, actress Cecilia Cheung may be the local film industry's next great hope
Web-only Interview: Cecelia shuns fame, rarely goes out, and has already moved house five times this year to escape press attention

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Handmade Tales
Tokyo's proud Ota ward tries to reinvent a neighborhood of tiny, family-run workshops as a technological hub
By HANNAH BEECH Tokyo


Shuzo Ogushi for TIME
The Tamenaga workshop employs just five family members.

Folks in Tokyo's blue-collar Ota ward like to say that if you toss a good idea into the air, it will flutter back down to earth as a finished product. For decades, the industrial strip along the shores of Tokyo Bay has fastened the nuts and bolts of Japan's technological revolution. Craftsmen at small, family-run workshops refined gadgets that no industrial robot could ever produce as adeptly. But in recent years jobs have migrated to other parts of Asia, and generations-old factories have closed their doors for lack of employees. Now this close-knit community is tackling its biggest project of all: reinventing a small-scale assembly line as a modern-day technological hub.

Ota is an unassuming place, a low-slung mix of back-street workshops, traditional bathhouses and modest apartments. But if the neon and glitz that infect other parts of Tokyo have not yet invaded, Japan's economic troubles certainly have. In the past decade, a quarter of the factories in Ota have closed (although 6,000 remain). First firms like Mitsubishi and Canon that funneled contracts to Ota's workshops began shifting jobs to Southeast Asia, where labor is cheaper. Easy loans made during the bubble years suddenly came due. Worst of all, with Japan's population growth rate at a record-low 0.27%, there have been fewer kids to inherit Ota's firms. "We've been here for three generations," says Tomohiro Ikeda, whose circuit-board company has gone from employing 18 workers 20 years ago to just two today. "But there's no one to pass it on to now."

Faced with such modern obstacles, Ota is relying on its historic strengths: a tightly woven community and the know-how of its veteran craftsmen. Industrial Ota was built on the foundations of an ancient fishing village, where men cast their nets as a group and housewives dried seaweed together. Today, Ota's 640,000 residents are more likely to cover one another's shifts when someone is sick or share work if a factory is overloaded. "For Ota people, the factories aren't just the workplace," says Tessai Sako, a government official, who grew up in the neighborhood. "They're the foundation that holds our family together."

Perhaps it's no surprise, then, that the few sons born into Ota families want to stay. Masaaki Tamenaga's metalworking factory consists of five relatives-father, mother, older brother, younger brother and younger brother's wife. It's a foregone conclusion that Tamenaga's older son, Yoichi, will one day head the firm. Such networks allow family members time to tinker in their workshops and sharpen their creative skills. Over the years, Ota's craftsmen have fashioned humble but handy creations like the pull tab that doesn't cut fingers or a gizmo that sucks air out of bottles before they're recycled.

It is precisely this type of subtle innovation that may carry Ota forward. While Southeast Asian factories may turn out gadgets more cheaply than southeast Tokyo can, only Ota's artisans have the skills to refine precision equipment and create the molds used in Asia's complex assembly lines. And the district's small firms-nearly half employ three or fewer people-aren't bloated by risk-averse bureaucrats, so prototypes can be tested quickly. In Japan's high-tech future, flashy software engineers may not be as important as those anonymous Ota craftsmen who quietly make good ideas come true.

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