Japan’s current plans to build an information superhighway are the latest manifestation of 25 years of “joho-ka” (informatization) as a national slogan. The plans are heavily driven by a desire to “catch up” with the U.S., a desire to create new markets for leading electronics producers, and develop weak sectors of Japan’s information industries.
There are a variety of NII plans from rival ministries, and real questions remain about whether these “visions” will become a reality. Actual demand, as well as the feasibility of these plans, however, remain in question. In the past year, some of the NII hype has been toned down and replaced with more pragmatic assessments of the opportunities and challenges inherent in developing Japan's NII. The explosion of internet use has changed the focus somewhat from infrastructure to content and applications.
The key ministries are spending significant sums on NII trial projects and promotion, but the focus is shifting. Also, the debate about NTT's possible breakup has moved to the top of the NII agenda. Continuing conflicts among government ministries and the uncertainty about NTT's future are hobbling Japan's efforts to implement a coherent NII strategy. Japan's top-down, bureaucratic policy approach is also hampering its ability to respond flexibly to the rapid changes taking place in the global information technology environment.
Japan recently began debating plans for a nationwide digital communications network (often referred to as a national information infrastructure — NII — or “information superhighway”41). Because such an infrastructure is potentially the largest public works project since the construction of theshinkansen (bullet trains) in the 1960s, the debate has been entered by the leading industrial companies, corporate think tanks, academia and several government ministries.
The initial NII visions developed in 1994 seem to have little to do with the questions of how or why such a network would be used, but instead were driven by technological competitiveness concerns and a desire by electronics manufacturers to find new large and yet-untapped markets.
As with all important issues involving national policy in Japan, bureaucratic rivalry is central to both the process and likely end result of the NII debate. Also involved is the mutual dependence and rivalry between ministries and industry as they seek to gain both support and wrest leadership from each other.
This overview paper summarizes the policy-making processes at work in the contemporary Japanese NII debate. Because much of the debate is an explicit reaction to U.S. NII plans, it also highlights a few of the similarities and differences between those plans, as well as those issues universal to most countries planning to build a NII.
Motivations: The Origins of Japan’s NII Plans
Plans for a NII are based on the prediction that developed nations will shift from an industrial society, in which tangible objects are manufactured, to an information-based society, in which knowledge is gathered and sold. In Japan, Masuda predicted that a combination of computer and communications technology would bring “the increasing emancipation of man from labor for subsistence” (1980, p. 62). Most recently, the Telecommunications Council (denshi tsushin shingikai, an advisory group to the Ministry of Posts and Telecommunications) said the NII could address Japan’s problems of an aging population and over-dependence on Tokyo, and shift Japan to an “intellectually creative society” (Telecommunications Council, 1994a). Not coincidentally, the creation of an information society would create new economic opportunities in software, services, entertainment and information content, all of which are presently areas of weakness in the Japanese economy.
Of course, anywhere NII plans are being discussed — whether the U.S., Japan, Singapore, Korea or Europe — there is an implicit or explicit subtheme of technological competitiveness in computer and communications industries. In Japan, this subtheme is an especially powerful motivator in the 1990s, as Japan’s electronics giants have suffered through a decline in revenues and a collapse in profitability. An additional powerful force behind the recent surge of interest in the NII in Japan has been fear of falling behind the United States in an important economic arena—a concern which became acute with the Clinton administration’s 1993 announcement of its NII strategy. Finally, the emergence of the NII issue in Japan has coincided with the quest for a new mission on the part of key economic ministries, particularly the Ministry of International Trade and Industry (MITI) and the Ministry of Posts and Telecommunications (MPT).
These four issues–creating an information economy, bolstering the electronics industry, reacting to the U.S. challenge, and redefining bureaucratic missions–are the key factors motivating Japan’s drive to develop a NII strategy. The following discussion looks more closely at each of these issues.
Joho-Ka: Creating the information society
The phrase “joho-ka” — usually translated by the quasi-English word “informatization” and denoting change to an information-oriented society (joho shakai) — has been a slogan of Japanese government policy for more than two decades, even though the actual effect of the slogan has been minimal. It is generally associated with two threads — the abstract concept of Japan as an information society, and a shift in government industrial policy away from heavy industries in the late 1960s and early 1970s.
In the early 1960s, the phrase “information industry” (joho sangyo) was popularized by Tadao Umesao, while joho-ka is credited to Yujiro Hayashi of the Economic Planning Agency in 1967.42 In 1971, a report of the Industrial Structure Council advocated a transformation of the Japanese economy from traditional heavy industries to “knowledge intensive” ones (Morris-Suzuki, 1988, p. 27). The “oil shock” of 1973-74 made salient home the country’s vulnerability as a resource-poor industrial nation, and Johnson places MITI’s first detailed vision of a “knowledge-intensive industrial structure” at November 1974 (1982, p. 301).
Hiromatsu and Ohira (1991) argue that though this first “information society boom” had little impact in Japan, it was exported to Europe, from which it inspired a similar boom in North America and started a second boom in Japan in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Certainly from the 1980s onward, the shift to an information society was repeatedly cited as a national goal, as in Prime Minister Nakasone’s speech opening the Diet in February 1984, and became the subject of various books, articles and television programs (Morris-Suzuki, 1988, p. 28).
Since the initial conception of information technologies, the Japanese government has spawned many research and demonstration projects in software and related technologies, including the Fifth Generation Computing Project, Pattern Information Processing System, Sigma (Anchordoguy, 1989; Fransman, 1990) and the more recent Real World Computing project. But despite the desirability to shift from producing tangible (“hard”) to intangible (“soft”) goods, Japan has not become a major worldwide supplier of software and other intangible information technology products.
Thus far, Japan’s role in the global computer industry has remained primarily in electronic components and peripherals, with a limited role in complete computer systems and a negligible role in software; by one calculation, the size of the information industry increased only from 3.1% to 4.0% of GDP in the period 1975-1985 (Hiromatsu and Ohira, 1991). Public policy debates on information technology are still dominated by considerations of manufacturing and selling hardware — perhaps because the major electronics keiretsu still have far more political influence than smaller software-only firms.