Communication Magazine /
Volume 1, Number 6 / October 1, 1994 / Page 6
Japan Playing Catch-Up in Digital Communications
by John Ratliff (email@example.com)
TOKYO (September 18) Since arriving in
a couple of months ago to begin
research on developments in a Japanese implementation
of a National Information Infrastructure, everyone I talk to
agrees that this is a very hot topic. There is
widespread agreement among concerned Japanese on
all levels that: a) Japan is behind other industrialized
nations, especially the U.S., in the utilization of digital
communications (the figure of "ten years" seems
popular) and b) something must be done about this on a
national scale. Consensus begins to break down over
the interrelated issues of what priorities should be in the
development of digital infrastructure and who exactly
should be in charge of the process. Some preliminary
I've discussed policy issues only in this article. I'm
also very interested in more cultural questions
regarding the social contextualization of appropriate
forms of communication, which I think are also of great
importance when discussing the concrete
of new information technologies. For example, if the
Internet is a new form of public space, what are the
prospects for the spread of the Internet in a society
like Japan's, which has such different institutions and
cultural practices and mores associated with
appropriate forms of public communication? It's my
perception that while in the U.S. we have the
expectation that information "should" be free, unless
there's a really good reason why not, information
transfer in Japan is much more on a "need to know"
basis, with a general expectation that information be
more compartmentalized and accessible through private
networks, rather than public in the sense we use it in the
- The classic Japanese political-economic strategy of
bureaucratic leadership of systematic penetration and
ultimate domination of a given industrial sector has
worked best in areas where technologies are relatively
stable and/or technological development is fairly
predictable, thus facilitating long term planning.
Examples include autos, TV, VCRs, and DRAMs.
Where change in product architecture is rapid and
industry/consumer driven, such as in microprocessors
and software, bureaucratic developmental approaches
have been much less successful. One of the most
important aspects of convergence of computers, telecom
and broadcasting is that technologies of the later
category will tend to dominate.
- There is no doubt that there is a strong
"demonstration effect" from the U.S., where
deregulation and strong price competition in these
sectors (telecom, broadcasting, networked computers)
has led to massive consumer bases and superior
products. Above all, it has led to much lower prices.
One thing that has struck me is
that while American discussion on the future of NII
tends to be dominated by issues of access and privacy
(a la Clipper Chip), discussions among concerned
Japanese tend to focus on getting costs down. Thus, the
genuine demonstration effect from the U.S. worldwide is
the ability demonstrated here to get costs down in
information related technologies.
- It seems to me that there is general agreement among
the major players in the Japanese NII policy debate
that priority must be given to "catching up" through
developing a massive domestic consumer base for
information technologies and ultimately getting
production costs down and creating the possibility for
Japan becoming a player in technological innovation.
Contention seems to center around "top-down" vs.
"bottom-up" (read "market driven") approaches. What's
different here from previous efforts (HTV, for example)
is there are strong Japanese voices for comprehensive
deregulation--for the bottom-up approach--to lower
telecom costs and curtail monopsony supplier pricing.
This has the potential to change both the character of
the debate and possible policy outcomes.
(Don't know for sure, but it seems to me that there is
some parallel between the venerable turf wars between
(Ministry of International Trade and Industry)
(Ministry of Posts and Telecommunications)
for domination of this area and this split
in the debate, with MPT championing the top-down
approach and certain political entrepreneurs at MITI
trying to represent the forces of a controlled,
limited, guided market driven strategy.)
- Situation is somewhat complicated, however, by this
year's developments in the U.S., where proposed
have fallen through one by one, and the original
optimistic time frame for NII implementation is
seriously in doubt.
Given the incredible amount of
capital necessary for startup in information
convergence, and the uncertainty of the market, major
players are hesitating here, and the Clinton
Administration is not in a position politically to
create a clear policy framework for the future.
Might this be an argument for a dose of "administrative
guidance" to get things going in this field in Japan?
Especially within the present fluid political climate
in Japan, might some sort of policy compromise be in
The flurry of activity right now on this issue in Japan, and
the large number of people with something to say to me
about it have filled my time since arriving, but I hope to
write regularly on this issue.
All feedback is much welcomed.
John Ratliff is
in Japan on a Fulbright fellowship to spend at
least a year examining the development of electronic information networks
in Japan and the Japanese virtual community.
He is a graduate student at the
University of California at San Diego
and a Foreign Researcher at the Institute of Social Research,
University of Tokyo.
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