Computer-Mediated Communication Magazine / Volume 1, Number 6 / October 1, 1994 / Page 3

Waiting for the Future in Sunshine City

by John Ratliff (

IKEBUKURO SUNSHINE CITY, JAPAN (September 18) As everyone tells me here in Japan, the big players are making serious moves to stake their claim to digital technologies. In particular, I have been struck by Nippon Telegraph and Telephone Corporation (NTT)'s efforts to convince its massive customer base that: a) their lives will be improved by being online digitally and b) NTT are the folks to provide them with their on-ramp to the superhighway. Their penetration into every aspect of Japanese society puts them, I think, in a good position to do this.

A couple of weekends ago, NTT held a exposition at Ikebukuro Sunshine City that was open to the general public, (in fact advertised in everybody's phone bill), as "Communication World '94." I went on Sunday--the place was crowded with students and lots of families on a weekend jaunt. Here are my impressions.

This exposition represented a serious resource commitment on NTT's part, in conjunction with some other firms and organizations. The overall message was: "This is your future, people." After wandering through a maze of interactive and dummy monitors, you came out into the introductory exposition, which was the home of the future, with a young lady waking up to immediately consult her electronic "agento-san." She was soon hooked up in a video call with a very good-looking guy from Los Angeles, which rapidly segued into a conference call with folks from Sidney and Jamaica to design the layout for a magazine on-screen. Guess her day's work was thus over after this call.

She then went on to order some fruit online (prices were not discussed), and do a little online clothes shopping. You get the idea. This is the world of the future, brought to you by NTT.

Moving into the next room, there were several expositions of applications presently in some state of readiness. There was an impressive demonstration of a video-on-demand order service, software developed by NTT, in which a number of channels of educational, news, weather, movies, animation, video games, etc., could be sampled and selected via an onscreen mockup of a VCR panel. Software samples were stored on a MPEG video server, but the actual product will employ lazer disk technology, according to the NTT engineer present.

Right next to this was a home shopping program being run on a PC, developed by Hitachi. One interesting feature of this was a hook in between some hot tv drama wherein the consumer could order the dress that their favorite star was wearing by clicking on it while viewing a video clip. This takes product tie-ins to a new level. At any rate, it was sophisticated software.

IIJ (Internet Initiative Japan Inc) was also there demonstrating a new Japanese flavor of Mosaic that looked very pretty, and was attracting some younger folks. There was a mockup music studio, and NOVA English school had a silly online hookup with an Australian English teacher in Osaka. This hookup allowed potential students to discuss the weather.

Questions arise from my experience at the conference include:

  1. Given the lack of real cable and the kind of telephone deregulation that characterizes the U.S. market, (and a lack of any real criticism for wasting bandwidth with home shopping by a bunch of weird Internet freaks as in the U.S.) isn't NTT in a uniquely powerful position to actively construct a commercially viable broadband system, based on such services as video on demand and home shopping? Will this make things harder (if not impossible) for smaller providers, especially as policy and regulation are implemented, one would suspect, basically in a policy discourse dominated by the Ministry of Posts and Telecommunications (MPT) and the Ministry of International Trade and Industry (MITI)?

  2. On a more sociological level, is Japanese modernity constructed in such a way that it is easier for central organizations such as MPT and NTT to successfully tell ordinary citizens what it is that they should consume? (Being back in Japan after a five year absence, I'm quite struck by how strong the pull of fashion is here. How in the world were all those women convinced to wear spike heels in Tokyo? I've already seen several with their legs in casts)

  3. In terms of the implementation of new technologies, is what's happening with digital convergence going to end up a replay of previous sagas of the construction of a reliable (read passive) domestic market which Japanese firms can use as a foundation to attack other, more open, markets. Or are there new forces at play here, a greater degree of individual preference, maybe even significant numbers of people prepared to opt out of the whole shuck, and stick with their good old seven channels? (Although I see an incredible number of BS dishes around, given how little you can actually see on them.) Enough for now. As always, I apologize for my lack of technological expertise (that, combined with how rusty my Japanese is, may have resulted in me getting some details wrong), and I admit the somewhat speculative nature of what I'm saying here. I humbly await the comments of those wiser than myself. ¤

    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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