Japan will be a leading IT nation in five years: Mori

By Kwan Weng Kin, The Straits Times, 24 September 2000

The PM expected kudos for his pledge but he was lambasted in parliament instead for failing to tell the people what IT would do for the nation

TOKYO—Prime Minister Yoshiro Mori expected kudos for his pledge to make Japan an advanced nation in the use of Information Technology within five years.

But the Japanese leader, an IT neophyte, received not only brickbats for thinking in terms of a five-year framework to create an e-Japan.

He was also lambasted for failing to tell the nation what IT would do for them in his key policy speech in parliament last week.

Within five years I shall make Japan a nation that stands at the forefront of information and communications, Mr Mori told parliament.

But opposition leader Mr Yukio Hatoyama immediately pointed out that five years is way too slow.

In this one year alone, countries like Hongkong, South Korea and Singapore will overtake Japan. What is he going to do about it? asked Mr Hatoyama, who holds a PhD in engineering.

The Japanese admit that they lag behind the United States in IT, the result largely of neglect by Mr Mori and his predecessors, but many are loathe to acknowledge that Japan may in fact also be falling behind other Asian nations.

Japan still lacks a high-speed nationwide communications network and access charges for Internet usage remain relatively high though they have fallen in recent months.

In business districts in major Japanese cities, optical fibres connect telephone exchanges to relay stations, but many office buildings are still not fully wired up for the Internet.

For the same reason, government departments in central Tokyo are unable to exploit the latest multimedia technology in their operations.

Besides its leadership, another of Japan's problems is that despite the jet-coaster speed at which the IT revolution is hurtling along, Japanese decision-making remains hampered by bureaucratic snarls.

Notwithstanding Mr Mori's emphasis on IT, the Japanese parliament during its current 72-day session will only see the tabling of a basic IT law while measures to push IT implementation and education will only be ready after January.

Economic Planning Agency chief Taichi Sakaiya complained recently that red tape was holding up Japan's bid to become a leading IT nation.

In what he admitted was a reflection of the mood of desperation to catch up with other IT nations, the government recently proposed to give a maximum 6,000 yen (S$98) per adult to subsidise classes in using the Internet.

The proposal was quickly shot down as a waste of taxpayers' money by many people, including Sony chairman and CEO Mr Nobuyuki Idei who heads Mr Mori's IT strategy council.

The Japanese media is also frustrated with the premier.

The influential Asahi Shimbun daily attacked him for using jargon like IP Version 6 (the next-generation Internet Protocol standard) in his speech which even the Prime Minister himself does not understand.

The leading business daily Nihon Keizai Shimbun also berated Mr Mori for his jargon-filled address, saying: If he can go so far as to use jargon, as a leader, he should have clearly painted a vision of what Japan hopes to achieve through IT.

In any case, Mr Mori's message lost out to the Sydney Olympics. Without exception, Japanese television networks filled their news broadcasts with Olympic results, giving short shrift to his speech.