Leading without Followers: How Politics and Market Dynamics Trapped Innovations in Japan's Domestic Galapagos Telecommunications Sector

While globally successful Japanese industries were able to use their domestic market as a springboard into international markets, Japan’s telecommunications sector became decoupled from global markets, trapping Japanese ICT firms in the domestic market. This persistent pattern of leading without followers was not simply the result of misguided technological choices, ill-informed corporate strategies, or insular government standard-setting processes. Rather, the dynamics of competition, shaped and reshaped by political dynamics and regulatory structures, decoupled it from global markets. These dynamics created a “Galapagos effect,” in which winning in an isolated domestic market led to losing in global markets. Major regulatory shifts transformed the dynamics of competition since the late 1990s, decreasing the isolation of Japan’s telecommunications sector, but some factors pulling it along a proprietary trajectory persist. This paper highlights the dilemma of how to develop beyond a follower status, but avoid becoming a leader without followers.