Computer-Mediated Communication Magazine / Volume 1, Number 6 / October 1, 1994 / Page 6

Japan Playing Catch-Up in Digital Communications

by John Ratliff (

TOKYO (September 18) Since arriving in Japan 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 observations:

  1. 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.

  2. 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.

  3. 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 MITI (Ministry of International Trade and Industry) and MPT (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.)

  4. Situation is somewhat complicated, however, by this year's developments in the U.S., where proposed mergers 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 cards?
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 implementation 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 West.

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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