Japan: Tortoise or Hare in the Technological Competitivenss Race?
by Pamela Saalbach
As your eyes sparkle and pocketbooks quiver at the latest in technological innovations shimmering on Akihabara shelves, consider that the dazzle is perhaps another manifestation of Japan's careful outer wrapping. Are Japanese users as excited as you are about the latest technology?
In some respects, the Japanese are certainly enthusiastic. Note the astonishing growth in cellular telephones over the last few years. Windows '95 was also a big seller here. But many Japanese bought it without realizing that they needed a PC to run it. Then, when they unflinchingly bought the PCs they needed, 85% of the ones they installed in their homes have gone unused, according to a recent NHK documentary.
Perhaps this is only a symptom of a larger issue related to Japan's national commitment to computerization. Until 1993, it was illegal to send e-mail out of Japan except for research purposes. On a larger scale, the government of Japan still can't get Hyogo and Kanto computers to communicate with each other. What Japan hasn't realized, as other nations have, is that computerization leads to greater prosperity, greater gainful employment of workers nationwide, and greater efficiency for competitiveness in the global marketplace.
I had occasion to hear Mr. Ikuo Nishioka, the Chairman of Intel, K.K. speak at the Second International Conference for Women in Business on August 16, 1997. His statistics were sobering of Japan's status relative to nations worldwide that have made formidable efforts at computerizing for competitiveness. Per 100 white-collar workers, Japan ranks a surprisingly low 12th in PCs per worker behind such nations as the U.S., Ireland and Portugal. Further reading (1) confirmed this by stating that Japan's overall information-related capital investment was less than half that of the U.S. (37% in the U.S. vs. 18% in Japan). Also, while the U.S. industrial sector invested 20% in computer and peripheral equipment, Japan invested a mere 6%. These figures are comparable, as they consider the real GDP of both nations. While the economic slowdown of the past few years has been blamed for Japan's lagging situation, the real solution may lie in changing the attitudes of the government ministries and certain values perpetuated by Japan's culture.
Note Japan's trends relative to its Asian neighbors who have been growing at GDP rates of 4.5 times that of G7 nations since 1991. Taiwan and Singapore clearly outpace Japan's 15% home computer growth by 30% and
36% respectively. According to Nishioka-san, Singapore's rate works out to be more than one PC per home. I'd gamble that Singaporeans are actively using their PCs, unlike Japan. From living there from 1990 to 1994, I'm familiar with Singapore's aggressive IT policies and its dedication to training its nation's workforce to be technologically savvy. At the same August 16 conference above, I met a dynamo of a lady who serves as the principal of the Raffles Girls School in Singapore. She stops short of nothing in demanding the very best from the Ministry of Education for the girls in grades 7 through 10 that her school educates. Of the school's 800 students, 60% own their own PC and use it at home. And this is girls ONLY! Would that this could be the same situation in Japan!
A female schoolteacher serves as my pulse on Japan's educational front. In marked contrast to Singapore, there are few to no computers in schools to prepare Japan's next generation of workers. This was confirmed by Nishioka-san who mentioned that the government has run a program from 1994 to 1997 to introduce computers into schools via one computerized classroom per school. But, in actuality, each student will only have access to a computer once in a very great while due to the total number of students per computer. Nishioka-san was right in saying that this is hardly a valid program. Such weak national commitment will do little to match Japan's Asian neighbors in gearing up its nation's people and systems with the latest technological know how. Japan needs to focus its efforts on competing with the rest of Asia, not with the U.S. The Chinese will go so far as to buy a 166MHz computer and transport it to their home by bicycle. They know that their money spent on a computer will carry them forward a lot farther and faster than a car.
Resolving the computerization issue is not only the fault of government programs or lack thereof. The Japanese culture also contributes to it. Consider again the female Japanese schoolteacher. She has no computer. While she is beginning to appreciate the possibilities the Internet can offer her and her students, her husband who *does* have a personal computer in another city has dictated that the opportunity for her to discover the Internet will not be available until at least a year from now when the computer will be accessible to her. Somehow a laptop in her resident city is not an option, despite a comfortable income that can afford it. And she is not questioning his authority, as is proper for her generation. Curiously, she is also resisting the thought that she can learn in the meantime off mine.
I'll throw out another statistic I ran across: of the 20,600 Japanese surveyed recently, only 7% of the 87% of Internet users between the ages of 20 and 40 are women. I guess I'm attracted to statistics on women, because they always seem to reveal the underlying trends. Women in Japan seem to be content with minute advances in their lives. Take, for instance, their participation in management: women in director positions have risen to 1.3% from 1% 12 years ago. They have only slightly topped this rate of change in section manager jobs to 2.7% from 1.5% over the same period. (3) Are these minute advances a reflection of Japan's overall commitment to change?
To conclude, perhaps you can understand my utter delight when I saw a woman and her young daughter comfortably nestled together and playing at a computer terminal at T-Zone's top floor arcade in the heart of Akihabara. I wanted to stop, buy her some coffee, and say "Atta girl"! Instead, I wrote this article as a tribute to her-a tiny island of wisdom in a great sea of technological stagnation. The tides had better turn quickly if Japan wants to remain in the race.
(1) Electronics Policy Division, Machinery and Information Bureau, Ministry of International Trade and Industry (MITI). "'Sink or Swim?' Re-Vitalization of the Japanese Economy through Computerization," Science and Technology in Japan 16(62):2-9.
(2) Cyber Space
(3) Basic Survey on Wage Structure, The Policy Planning and Research Department, Minister's Secretariat, Ministry of Labor.
Copyright 1997 by Pamela S. Saalbach.
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