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Fuelled by the economic rise of China and South Korea, East Asia’s influence in global research and innovation is growing. But with Japan’s economy flagging and its international research ranking slipping to tenth this year (see go.nature.com/2ygwyy3), the country risks being left behind (see Nature543, S7; 2017). Its new government must reform science policy and research infrastructure, and revitalize its base of next-generation scientists, before it loses more ground.