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Japan wants to teach kids how to patent their ideas

China's move up the global patent ranking worries its neighbor

Hitomi Hirabayashi obtained a patent for a bicycle parking system when she was in the fifth grade.

TOKYO -- Until 2016, Japan was No. 2 in international patent applications, after the U.S. Now China holds that spot.

China overtook Japan in 2017, according to World Intellectual Property Organization data. It was the first time for China to clinch the position.

This has Japanese policymakers and other parties fretting. How can their country keep up with archrival China?

One solution is to take a page out of China's playbook.

The country is not only pushing its corporations to aggressively file for patents in the West, it began intellectual property education at designated schools in the 2015 academic year. Through the 2020 academic year, Beijing intends to designate 100 schools as models; provincial governments will designate another 1,000 schools. The Chinese academic year begins in autumn.

Now the Japanese government and other bodies are keen to do something similar.

Fresh ideas from children often surprise adults. To turn the best ideas into intellectual property or commercial products, a little help from adults appears to be essential.

Hitomi Hirabayashi, 11, obtained a patent on a bicycle parking system in November -- when she was a fifth-grader.

Her idea was to adjust the space between bike parking racks using the principle of magnetic force -- like poles repel and unlike poles attract -- to make it easier and safer to pull bikes out of racks.

One day when Hitomi was pulling her bicycle out of a thicket of parked bikes, she ended up damaging her basket. "The bike was damaged because I tried to move it forcefully," she thought. "Is it possible to move bikes without human power?"

She began exploring ideas and eventually thought of magnets.

Her invention uses magnetic force so bikes slotted into a rack can slide away from a bike that is being removed, then slide back.

She was able to transform an experience into a patent -- largely thanks to help from her father, Toru, a patent attorney.

"I knew there was a system that has to do with patents," the young inventor said, "and that people could use it to earn money from their innovations. I told my parents that I wanted to obtain a patent for my bike parking idea, and they were willing to help me."

She prepared the application documents on her own, in which she explained the idea in a clear and concise manner.

"I tried to give her minimum assistance," Toru said. "I only told her how to proceed with the application process and was present when she submitted her documents."

Asuka Kamiya, another kid inventor, won a patent about three years ago while in the sixth grade. She invented a trash box that automatically separates steel and aluminum cans for recycling purposes. It, too, uses magnetic force. The idea was born out of an independent research project that was a summer vacation assignment. 

"A patent attorney I had known told me that my daughter's work could probably obtain a patent," her father, Toyoaki, said. The attorney proceeded with the application on Asuka's behalf.

These examples show that a little guidance from the adults in a child's life can help to turn kids' ideas into intellectual property. What's more, the process can become a valuable experience that motivates children to take further steps into the land of capitalism.

Last year, Asuka and her father launched a company that helps young innovators obtain patents and commercialize their ideas. Toyoaki represents the startup, but Asuka, now 14, serves as president.

The company's name, Yakuni-tatsumono-tsukuro, means "Let's create something useful." The goal is to help obtain patents on ideas that come out of school projects.

In reality, Hitomi's and Asuka's cases are outliers. "There is usually one invention or none a year that could eventually obtain a patent," said a representative from the Japan Institute of Invention and Innovation. The institute promotes innovation among and organizes community circles for kids. A total 9,000 or so children across Japan have registered for and participated in its events.

The role of older people is to create environments that help children think outside the box and create something new.

It is a role that the Japanese government is stepping into.

The Japan Patent Office hopes this new mangalike online guide helps to convince kids that inventing stuff is fun.

It revised its curriculum guidelines in March 2017, calling on elementary and junior high schools to voluntarily begin intellectual property education in the 2018 academic year, which began in April.

Beginning with the 2020 school year, elementary school textbooks will devote more space to intellectual property matters. Junior high school textbooks will follow a year later.

One lesson could be on how to legally quote or sample copyrighted works. Another could be to let children think about how to improve everyday objects, say a bookend.

In a similar initiative, the Japan Patent Office on April 18 launched the mangalike JPO Kids Page, a website designed to convince children that inventing stuff is fun.

One page is dedicated to simple questions and answers, such as "What is a patent?" Another page offers information on how inventions have come about.

JPO Kids Page is expected to be used at schools and homes and can be downloaded for free in the form of an e-book.

Masahiro Nishina, an official of Japan's Intellectual Property Strategy Promotion Bureau, said the goal of these initiatives is to "foster the abilities to create new things from the questions and challenges that emerge every day, not just offer detailed information, such as how to receive a patent."

That, Nishina said, "should lead to increasing the competitiveness of Japanese companies."

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