National information infrastructure

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Catching up with the U.S.

Although elements of what is now considered NII have been discussed in Japan for many

years, the rhetoric in the period 1993-1995 seems driven by a “catch up” mentality — the view that Japan is behind in both plans for an information infrastructure, and key technologies such as networking and software43.

Such a mentality became one of the periodic fads of the Japanese popular press. A visit to a Tokyo bookstore during this period would turn up several magazines and dozens of popular books devoted exclusively to multimedia, NII and the coming revolution in the information industries. Many examined technological issues, while others examined U.S. policies or explicitly paint an imminent economic rivalry with the U.S. Representative is the book cited Glen Fukushima (1995) entitled Joho Superhighway no Kyoi: Nihon Joho Sangyo Kaimetsu no Kiki (“The Threat of the Superhighway: The Crisis of the Annihilation of the Japanese Information Industry”).

In the words of Teruyasu Murakami, a prominent Japanese multimedia expert at the Nomura Research Institute:

Last year [1993], we had a new social infrastructure boom. The argument suddenly erupted around March. The point was [made] that in the Japanese budgeting system, only hardware investments such as construction of bridges or highways or airports are the subject of construction bonds. [It was argued] that bonds should be able to fund software development, including communication development44.

This argument was made by [those in] politics and industries from mid-1992. Throughout the year 1992 there wasn’t any enthusiasm [for it], but in February-March of 1993, suddenly this argument came to the surface in mass communications, TV, newspapers. A very important reason was the Clinton administration’s manifesto of the information superhighway development. That was the starting point of the whole information infrastructure in Japan.

Gore’s superhighway idea triggered the whole argument about a national information infrastructure in Japan . . . It’s a sort of artificial social phenomenon, not driven by Japanese society’s national indigenous needs (Interview, August 29, 1994).

Murakami cited a very concrete reason that Japanese politicians and businessmen were concerned about U.S. NII plans. In May 1993, a report published by the Council on Competitiveness (1993a) stated that U.S. NII plans could boost the competitiveness of U.S. industries. This report was taken very seriously in Japan, according to Murakami, because an earlier commission, headed by then-CEO John Young of Hewlett-Packard, published a report (President’s Commission, 1985) that, in Murakami’s words, “dramatically changed” U.S. science and technology policy toward Japan.

But here we have one of the curious points of the Japanese examination of U.S. policy discussions: many of the proposals cited are taken far more seriously in Tokyo than New York or Silicon Valley. Except for the Washington Post, which did two major articles, the 1985 Young commission report was limited to small stories buried on the business pages of the major newspapers. At least the earlier group — formally the President’s Commission on Industrial Competitiveness — got one day of coverage.

Eight years later, its successor, the industry-run Council on Competitiveness issued the 12-page NII report cited by Murakami. Despite the leadership of Young, the presidents of M.I.T. and CalTech, and the CEO of Motorola, the report was ignored by newspapers and only briefly covered by trade magazines.

Similarly, Japanese policy-makers intently studying the U.S. government can recite Vice-President Gore’s “Five Points” for any future U.S. NII: 1. encourage private investment; 2. promote competition; 3. quick regulatory response; 4. network access for all information providers; and 5. universal service. These points have gone generally unnoticed in the popular media or in the high-tech community, and given the complexity of the U.S. policy-making process, were likely to face major revisions even before the 1994 elections brought Republican control of the Congress.

There are three possible explanations for such a Japanese fixation on U.S. policy proposals far beyond their actual importance in U.S. policy:

· Confusion of the External Perspective. The United States is unusually diverse in both its social composition and the range of opinions that enter the public discourse. It is difficult for an outsider to distinguish between the president’s nominal and actual power, the actual influence of industry, or between legislative proposals that are seminal and those that are “dead on arrival.”

· Greater Perceptivity from an External Perspective. Japan’s industry has been credited with taking a longer view than that in the U.S., while its press is considered more international in focus. The Japanese may be recognizing merit in U.S. ideas that go unremarked here: so when Kumon (1994) cited Gore’s five points, he could be anticipating that they would play a role in policy outside the U.S. — as happened when they were later proposed as a global goal for the February 1995 G-7 meeting on the global information infrastructure (NTIA, 1994).

· External Threat as an Internal Weapon. It is also possible that the competitive threat of U.S. plans is being used in Japan as a consensus-building tool. It is well understood within Japan that government and industry do better when competing with an external economic rival, because it provides the external pressure necessary to speed up the decision-making process and force things to a conclusion. A crisis of competitiveness — real or imagined — has moved the Japanese closer to an information revolution in the last two years than anything in the preceding twenty.

Examples of this latter view — an explicit competitive threat to Japan from the Clinton-Gore agenda — can be found in Japan’s popular press of this time. Fukushima (1995) noted that the dust-jacket of a contemporary Japanese NII book proclaimed, “Who Will Control Multimedia? This Book Reveals the Strategy by Which Japan Can Survive the 21st Century Against the Clinton ‘Occupation Policy’ Toward the Japanese Information Industry.” He characterized the pictures portrayed by such books as “a starkly zero-sum game."

A few (mainly in the U.S.) have suggested that Japan lacks the creativity or other elements necessary for technological leadership, and thus needs to have a model to emulate. According to John Stern, the vice-president for Asian Affairs of the American Electronics Association, “The Japanese catch up better than they lead. . . .This is a nation that got rich following the taillights of America” (Interview, Sept. 1. 1994). But despite the “catch-up” rhetoric, there is little sense among Japan’s business and government leaders that the country is irretrievably behind. They face a number of problem areas in their NII plans, but, according to telecommunications executive Teiichi Aruga, “If these issues are resolved, playing rapid catch-up is Japan’s forte.” One of these issues, Aruga notes (1994), is the emphasis in existing NII tests and discussions on producer rather than, user motivations.

Since that time, voicing of Japanese strengths and American weakness has become more open. For example, a Kobe University professor (Seki, 1995) published a lengthy (if often inaccurate) critique, entitled “Piecemeal nature putting potholes in the U.S. info highway,” criticizing U.S. competition between cable TV and regional telephone companies and questioning the value of PC-savvy executives. Such outward criticism may be intended to rebuild Japanese self-confidence after excesses of “catch-up” rhetoric, or it may be intended to focus Japanese energies on building within the country, rather than constantly watching outside.

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