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"Japan as laggard in the information revolution"

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"Japan as laggard in the information revolution"

"The Japan Times" Opinion Monday, September, 21, 1998

Shumpei Kumon

The Japan Forum of International Relations has recently presented to Prime Minister Keizo Obuchi a set of policy proposals titled "Japan and International Society in the Age of Information Revolution.'' Here, as head of the task force that worked out the report, I would like to briefly explain the background to the proposals.

From the 1970s to the '80s, a number of Japanese, including myself, appear to have established an incorrect image of the future. First, we interpreted the end to the period of rapid growth after the war as the limitations of Japan's industrial expansion, and believed that the era of limited resources, or high prices, would continue for the foreseeable future.

Second, we thought that advanced industrialized nations, in particular the United States, would suffer irrecoverable damage and tread the path of steady decline.

And finally, we assumed that Japan, even though it may not be able to return to the era of rapid growth, had succeeded in raising its position among industrialized nations to a degree that its status would be unshakable.

However, it was a crucial mistake to think this way. We almost fully lacked an understanding of the fact that, during this same period for Japan, the rest of the world, especially the U.S., was preparing for what could prove to be the third industrial revolution _ a series of major innovations led by information technology _ and a resulting era of unprecedentedly long-lasting economic development.

In fact, the social changes that took place during this period had a deeper historic impact than just the arrival of a new industrial revolution. These years saw the beginning of a revolution in knowledge and information power that was equal to or even more important than the revolutionary changes in military power and economic strength earlier experienced by the modern world.

The failure of Japan to catch up with Western industrialized nations, and even some of its Asian neighbors, in the information revolution of the 1990s was mainly attributable to this insufficient understanding of the future. Such a flawed perception needs to be corrected as quickly as possible.

What the world is seeing is not the end of industrial growth, but a series of breath-taking periods of progress and development. While the United States, defiant of the confusion and risk involved, stands in the forefront of the move toward a new era, Japan is at a loss as to which direction to head. The nation may be good at catching up, but it often feelsuncomfortable breaking new ground. This is the basic premise behind the forum's proposals.

The situation turned even worse as members of the forum discussed its recommendations. At the start of 1995, the number of host computer terminals in Japan connected to the Internet reached 100,000, and there were projections that the figure would continue to rise at an ever-accelerating rate. At that time, the author hoped that Japan would somehow manage to catch up to the rest of the industrialized world within several years.

In the latter half of 1997, however, growth in personal computer sales and Internet use suddenly began to decelerate in Japan, while in the United States the number of Internet users started to literally explode. Internet traffic in the U.S. is said to be increasing twofold nearly every 100 days, and how to secure sufficient supply to meet the demand is emerging as a serious question.

In Japan, meanwhile, people are again asking if there is enough of a telecommunications demand to necessitate a nationwide optical-fiber network, and are beginning to doubt if they really need the Internet.

The author believes that it would be damaging not only to Japan but also to the entire world if such a gap should continue to exist and expand. Therefore, the central theme of the forum's recommendations was to forge a common understanding that this gap needs to be quickly removed, and to present concrete ways to realize that goal. With this in mind, the forum emphasized the need for the public and private sectors to cooperate in establishing within each regional community the information communication infrastructure most suited for the Internet.

Another gap that members of the forum could not overlook was the difference in the way Japanese and U.S. authorities are trying to deal with the so-called Year 2000 computer software problem. In the U.S., the government has taken a strong leadership position to warn against the seriousness of the issue and to actively search for workable solutions. Even with such precautionary measures, Washington is aware that the problem cannot be completely resolved, and Vice President Al Gore is at the forefront of efforts to devise a contingency plan to prepare for the worst.

The issue is of course widely known in Japan as well, and many experts have mentioned the need to cope with it. But it appears that here in this country, the matter is not taken as seriously as it should be. The government says that steps have been taken to cope with the problem, and does not seem to foresee any major inconveniences arising from it. No contingency plans have been prepared, as a result.

Japanese tend to believe that if you talk about a possible disaster, you might help to bring about it. But problems like the

Year 2000 bug will only become more serious if you try to avoid squarely facing it. What Japan needs to do now, the author believes, is to change such ways of thinking and behavioral patterns among its people. This is why the forum included the Year 2000 problem as one of the main points of its report.

Shumpei Kumon is executive director of the International University of Japan's Global Communication Center (Glocom).

Main points of policy proposals

The following are the main points of the policy recommendations presented by the Japan Forum of International Relations to

Prime Minister Keizo Obuchi:

  • Construct IP (Internet protocol) networks as part of a global information infrastructure for a new age;
  • Construct CANs (community area networks) as a strategic move in the transition to an information society;
  • Reform business processes as a fundamental means of advancing the information revolution;
  • Construct open systems needed to integrate information technology;
  • Build networks with security in mind;
  • Resolve the ``Year 2000'' problem and other sources of instability in information systems and administer systems in a socially responsible manner;
  • Encourage the training of information system specialists;
  • Pave the way for optical fiber links to all schools and Internet connections in all classrooms;
  • Promptly devise a new concept of education that employs the Internet and establish the necessary social infrastructure;
  • Reorganize the Japanese legal system to correspond to the information age;
  • Promote electronic commerce on the de facto GII (global information infrastructure) of the Internet;
  • Develop an official Japanese approach to the Internet governance issue;
  • Eliminate barriers to competition and provide users with world-class service at low cost;
  • Use the principle of competition to secure access to quality information infrastructure for all residents of Japan;
  • Reform telecommunications charges for the construction of a value-creating cyberspace;
  • Develop global standards for interconnection rules to internationalize telecommunications.