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Ibaraki's high-tech treasures: prefecture's hidden gems get easier to discover.

Some of Japan's most exciting innovations in advanced technology happen quietly in a prefecture just beyond the hustle and bustle of the capital. Tokyo tends to overshadow this prefecture of almost 3 million people, but in the laboratories and science parks of Ibaraki, fascinating and potentially lucrative applications are being churned out with surprising regularity.

Ibaraki, Tokyo's neighbor to the north, offers a nice contrast to the capital city: It has land available for less money, a young and eager work force, and a varied landscape that welcomes both beachcombers and hikers. It also offers a vibrant economy that is increasingly getting noticed as a place where exciting new products and ideas are being developed. Tokyo is Japan's capital; Ibaraki is its R & D lab.

The Tsukuba Boom

Walk along the bike paths of Tsukuba University as they wind through forests and ponds, and you'll feel like you're light years away from Tokyo. You'll hear all sorts of foreign languages as you walk by researchers and students from all over the world. The campus has the look and feel of an elite research getaway.

Unfortunately, there are no trains in Tsukuba, and the bus trip from Tokyo's Ueno or Tokyo stations to Tsukuba's downtown can also feel like light years when traffic is heavy. But that is all about to change as the long-awaited Tsukuba Express gets ready to begin service this fall. The train line will cut down the commuting time between Tsukuba and Tokyo's Akihabara district to just 45 minutes.

This long-awaited train line may be just what it takes to unleash the full potential of Tsukuba Science City, also known as Tsukuba Academic City. New condominiums are going up around the city in expectation that Tsukuba won't be just for students and researchers anymore. Businesses are getting ready for more traffic, and researchers are eager to get the word out about some of their latest creations.

Here are a few examples of research activity in and around Tsukuba to whet your appetite:

Dancing Robot

The HRP2 robot wowed the press this January when it joined two kimono-clad Japanese women in the traditional Aizu-Bandaisan dance. The humanoid robot--one of the most advanced of its kind in the world--is a joint effort by the Humanoid Robot Project, which is backed by the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry (METI) and the New Energy and Industrial Technology Development Organization (NEDO).

HRP2, nicknamed "Promet," is a classic example of the business-academia collaboration going on in Ibaraki's laboratories and science parks. The overall robotic system for Promet was designed by Kawada Industries and the Humanoid Research Group of the National Institute of Advanced Industrial Science and Technology; the arms were originally designed by Yaskawa Electric Corp; and the vision system was created by Shimizu Corp.

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

The 154cm, 58kg robot, which can also get itself up off the floor, was designed by Yutaka Uzubuchi, who also designs robots for animated films. Anime fans will know him as the designer of Pat Labor.

No-Hands Segway

Researchers at the National Institute of Advanced Industrial Science and Technology (http://www.aist.go.jp) have been developing a product that is sort of like a Segway tailored to a train-riding public. The PMP-2 (Personal riding-type wheeled Mobile Platform), unveiled last fall, is a platform with wheels that moves forward and backward like a Segway, but does not have a handle, making it much smaller than the American invention. The idea is that commuters could ride the PMP-2 to the station, for example, carry it on the train, then use it on the other end of their commute to get to the office. The PMP-2 can be made compact for carrying. It also has a mechanism to keep it from running into others, and even on an incline, the passenger needs only to stand straight. The developers say the PMP-2 is still a bit too heavy to carry, but they are continuing research in hopes of having the next version of the PMP on the market.

High Intensity Proton Accelerators

Not all of Ibaraki's interesting research is centered around Tsukuba. Just north of the capital city of Mito in Tokai is the Japan Proton Accelerator Research Complex (J-Parc;http://j-parc.jp). Researchers are engaged in exciting work at the High Intensity Proton Accelerator Facility here, working on the front lines of particle physics, nuclear physics, materials science, life science and nuclear technology.

The goal of J-Parc's high-power proton accelerator is to generate a MW-class high-power proton beam by the summer of 2007. The complex will have 23 beam transport lines set up to handle research analysis. Three of these lines will be maintained by Ibaraki. Two of the lines will focus on the structural analysis of industrial material and life substances material. Researchers are working hard to attain this goal and make J-Parc one of the world's most important accelerators, along with others in North America and Europe. By providing the Asia region with a world-class accelerator, J-Parc plans to make Ibaraki a household name well into the 21st century.

For more information on business and investment opportunities in Ibaraki, contact shosei4@pref.ibaraki.lg.jp.
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Publication:Japan Inc.
Date:Feb 1, 2005
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