How should Japan promote its information technology revolution?

First, it is essential for Japan to recover lost ground in the area of Internet proliferation. Recently, Japan not only lags behind the industrialized countries of North America and Europe, but is also trailing behind some Asian countries.

It is clear that Japan most likely has the lowest level of Internet proliferation among major industrialized countries, and that it cannot even be called a leader in the Asia-Pacific region in this field. We are also lagging behind even when the comparison is limited to Internet usage in the business and administrative sectors.

Social changes brought about by IT are so swift now that the days go by as if they were “dog years,” and to leave the current lag unattended will certainly produce a gap in competitiveness further down the road.

Against such a backdrop of concern, the Japanese government set up on July 18 the IT Strategy Council, a 20-member panel comprised mainly of private-sector experts including myself, to deliberate IT policy and hold extensive meetings on relevant issues with the attendance of most of the Cabinet, including Prime Minister Yoshiro Mori.

On Nov. 27, the results of these discussions were compiled and submitted to the prime minister as the Basic IT Strategy for the nation. The reply to this question of how Japan should deal with the IT revolution is, in essence, included in this report.

Japan’s goals in pushing forward in the IT era

The report on the nation’s IT strategy begins with the following preamble: Japan must promptly take revolutionary yet realistic actions without being bound by existing systems, practices and interests, in order to create a “knowledge-emergent” society, where all citizens can actively utilize information technology and fully enjoy its rewards. We will strive to establish an environment where the private sector, based on market forces, can exert its full potential and make Japan the world’s most advanced IT nation within five years by building an ultra-high-speed Internet network and providing constant Internet access at the earliest date possible, establishing rules on electronic commerce, realizing an electronic government and nurturing high-quality human resources for the new era.

The knowledge-emergent society mentioned in the above preamble means a society in which a wide variety of creative activities are nurtured by having people be mutually stimulated through the sharing and interacting of each other’s knowledge. The Basic IT Strategy says it is necessary for the government to concentrate on four priority policy areas to realize such a society and build the foundations of a new IT state. These four priority areas are:

* Creation of an ultra-high-speed network infrastructure and competition policies * Facilitation of electronic commerce * Realization of an electronic government * Nurturing high-quality human resources.

Issues that need to be cleared to achieve these objectives:

What are the problems that may arise when we consider the possibility of fully achieving strategy’s goal of becoming the world’s most advanced IT nation within five years?

When we look for an answer using the above four priority areas as clues, I believe that the first — the goal of creating an ultra-high-speed network infrastructure and competition policies — is most likely to be realized and most specific, and so I will begin my explanation here.

This item mainly covers the need to upgrade telecommunication infrastructure, and thus is easy to quantify. For example, the strategy specifically defines ultra-high speed as 30 to 100 Mbps. It is technically possible to meet the goal of providing at least 10 million households with constant access to ultra high-speed networks within five years. Furthermore, there is no problem, at least technologically, to the strategy’s proposal of having at least 30 million households have constant access to services, such as downloading music, provided on the Internet through DSL, cable television and wireless access systems.

By the way, I may add that with the use of ultra-high-speed networks, huge amounts of image data, such as movies, can also be downloaded. Of course, I do not mean to say that there are no technological walls to be cleared whatsoever.

On the contrary, the potential ability for the country to develop such technology, which is the basis of the general optimism I outline above, is itself what encourages the rapid development of new products and systems and just as quickly makes them banal. Thus, if Japan is to not just achieve its strategy goal but also continually remain at the most advanced level in the world, much more effort will be required.

In addition, in the short-term, the strategy calls for ensuring that all Japanese have constant access to the Internet at extremely low rates within a year through the use of various access networks including wireless. At the same time, the government is to promote the shift to IPv6-equipped systems so as to encourage the popularization of Internet access devices and digital home appliances. IPv6 makes it possible for various devices to be connected to the Net by lengthening IP addresses from the 32 bits of the current v4 systems to 128 bits. Thanks to Internet access via high-speed wireless systems, mobile communications services will be further popularized.

Mobile Internet access has become explosively popular, and in Japan we have seen an avalanche effect of people switching from personal computers to Internet-accessible mobile phones and portable information terminals when connecting to the Net, as represented by the i-mode service offered by NTT DoCoMo.

In many Asian nations, the use of cellphones is spreading more rapidly than that of fixed-line phones, and most people in these countries may prefer to access the Net via an i-mode type of connection.

In the case of i-mode, subscribers are certain to top 20 million in spring 2002, two years after its introduction. This unexpected success is very indicative of the future of the IT revolution in Japan. In other words, I believe it is proof that Japan not only has the ability – especially in the technological sense — to create new markets ahead of competitors, but that a social system using applied information technology can emerge here through the participation of a great number of people.

Ways to solve these issues

Of course, it is dangerous to interpret the example presented by the i-mode phenomenon too broadly. It is also obvious that there are individual problems and obstacles to the realization of the remaining three priority areas.

However, if we are to create the world’s most advanced IT nation within five years, it is realistic to believe that Net access through mobile devices, such as cellphones, is the strongest factor for Japan’s IT revolution. Therefore, it is logical to pursue solutions unique to Japan to the remaining issues by making full use of this strong point.

When doing so, we should note that any solution will have as common fundamental conditions the need to take into account the character of Japanese society, which is strongly influenced by tradition and culture, and its human resources.

In terms of information literacy, we should not just strive to greatly exceed government estimates that 60 percent of Japanese individuals will use the Net by 2005. We should recognize that we need to accept roughly 30,000 outstanding foreigners and secure top-quality IT engineers whose abilities exceed current levels of those in the U.S.

Shouldn’t Japan secure improved quality in the emergence of its IT society through such means as absorbing different cultural backgrounds? Of course, there are concerns that new security issues will present themselves as globalization progresses. I believe that pursuing an active and aggressive open network policy while improving information security technology will be the core of Japan’s IT strategy in the coming century.

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