Japan Continues Failed Semi Strategy

The Japanese semiconductor industry has not learnt an important lesson – when in a hole stop digging.

For a decade, the chip companies have been consolidating, and the consolidation has delivered little benefit.

The sum of the whole has always proved to be less than the parts, with the consolidated company shrinking just as its constituent parts had been shrinking.

Now Renesas, Panasonic and Fujitsu are talking about merging their semiconductor businesses. It is thought the process could take a year.

The strategy will most likely fail in the future as it has failed in the past.

How many more times does 1 plus 1 have to equal a half before someone realises this might not be the right strategy?” asks Europe’s leading semiconductor analyst, Malcolm Penn, CEO of Future Horizons. 

Renesas was formed by a merger between the chip businesses of Hitachi and Mitsubishi in 2003. At the time of the merger Renesas was the world No.2 semiconductor company.

In 2010, NEC Electronics, the semiconductor subsidiary of NEC, was also merged into Renesas and, in 2011, the combined company was the world No.7 semiconductor company.

There is also talk that the manufacturing activities of all the merged companies will be spun off into a joint venture between Globalfoundries and a Japan government-backed body Innovation Network Corp.

Manufacturing was always the Japanese companies’ outstanding strength. This plan will ensure the end of that advantage.

The Japanese government is expected to back such a joint venture with a large investment – a case of taxpayers paying to destroy productive industry.

The last best chance for the Japanese semiconductor companies to retain their independence came in 2006, when a joint foundry project, backed by the government, was proposed.

A company called Advanced Process Semiconductor Foundry Planning Company under the leadership of Hirokazu Hashimoto of NEC was set up.

However after extensive talks the project failed because the different companies involved could not agree on what processes the foundry should run.

“The basic idea of the foundry is because there are not so many IDMs which can afford next generation fabs,” Dr Tsugio Makimoto, former CEO of Hitachi semiconductor, told me at that time, “the rest of the IDMs will go fab-lite.”

Looking back at their imminent consolidation today, I bet the CEOs of those companies which rejected the foundry plan now wish they hadn’t. The foundry plan would have given them autonomy – a lesser autonomy than before admittedly, but still autonomy. Now they’re losing all their autonomy.

With the collapse of the foundry initiative, the seeds were sown for the destruction of the autonomous Japanese IDMs.

The high point for the Japanese semiconductor industry was reached in 1988 when six Japanese semiconductor companies Matsushita/Panasonic, Mitsubishi, Hitachi, NEC Fujitsu and Toshiba – separately enjoyed positions in the world’s top ten semiconductor producers.

Since then, consolidation has not stopped the overall Japanese semiconductor industry decline. Only Renesas and Toshiba are in the top ten today.



  1. Well I have to say, Mr C, that the Japanese may have learnt this 1 + 1 = 1-going-on-0 strategy from us. Look at GEC buying English Electric, AEI and Plessey and what was the result of that? Thorn, Ferranti, EMI, STC, Decca – all consolidated – just as the japanese are doing now – and all gone with the wind. To my mind governments and finance people look at companies as a set of figures – forgetting they are groups of people – often very talented people. If, instead of consolidating ownership structures they looked more deeply into companies to extract the talent and give it some help to get going – then we’d see a better result than the usual slow decline which follows consolidation. In a rather brutal way the talent extraction procedure happens when these consolidated companies lose their way and shed their engineers. Then the engineers have to start new companies.

  2. I think you have to understand the Japanese way, for instance look at Bridgestone tyres, years ago when you bought a Honda or Suzuki motorbike the first thing that you would do is throw away the tyres and put Dunlop’s on. The motorbike manufacturers knew this but persevered and supported Bridgestone, it wasn’t long before Bridgestone provided the tyres for Formula One.
    You have to admire the Japanese for supporting their companies, privately and governmentally.
    I just wish we did it here in the UK?

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