GLOCOM Platform
Debates Media Reviews Tech Reviews Special Topics Books & Journals
Summary Page
Search with Google
Home > Debates Last Updated: 14:30 03/09/2007
Online Debate

Open Debate on the Digital Divide in Japan and Asia

Open Discussion


  • Jiro KOKURYO, Professor, Keio University
  • Teruyasu MURAKAMI, Executive Managing Director, Nomura Research Institute
  • Takahiro MIYAO, Professor, GLOCOM, IUJ


There have been a number of comments on the initial debate sent to us. We have selected the most relevant ones with some new insight into the main issue for further exchange of opinions.

The following is the initial round of exchange.

Takahiro Miyao


Although the digital divide seems to be a significant issue in Japan's IT Revolution, Internet use is rapidly expanding and becoming accessible across all age groups, North and South. I disagree with Kokuryo's statement that "Japan lacks the competence to teach IT use to other countries." Rather, Japan should take on a more global perspective in order to simultaneously solve the problem of the digital divide in Japan while aiding LDCs in becoming more technologically advanced. Membership to the "Internet community" in many nations remains a bourgeois institution, and I wholeheartedly agree with Murakami's statement that "economies of scale associated with commerce in goods, services, and contents in cyberspace cannot be fully realized if we are unable to share information on a global scale." I applaud Murakami's efforts to promote such initiatives as the eODA, Asia eGovernment Initiative, and admire his foresight in suggesting such innovative organizations as the eUN and eOECD. It should be noted that Japan's ability to even address the issue of the digital divide is a function of its political stability and economic stature; many other counties can't afford the luxury. Hopefully, however, with the appointment of an IT minister and discussions held at the Okinawa Summit, rapid advances can be achieved and the digital divide can be bridged domestically and internationally.

I would like to recommend that any policy changes be enacted swiftly and efficiently. Several notable insitutional economists, including Douglas North, advocate the "initial shock" approach to instituting policies rather than gradual introduction. The political economy can better support such initiatives when introduced in such a manner. In addition, this type of introduction serves a dual purpose because the initiatives will have a more immediate global impact.

Ashlyn Nelson

REPLY 1 (Kokuryo)

Thank you for the comment. I agree there is a need for action and share the desire for it.

Jiro Kokuryo

REPLY 2 (Murakami)

I share Ashlyn Nelson's view that "Japan's ability to even address the issue of the digital divide is a function of its political stability and economic stature".

On Tuesday of this week, Mike Nelson, a White House staff member during the early Clinton Administration and now Director of Internet Technology and Strategy at IBM, gave a speech to a Keidanren committee on the promotion of electronic commerce. After noting that Japan had been rated near the bottom of the G8 countries in terms of its readiness for the IT revolution, he stated that Japan was expected to surge to the top ranking group once its long conception period had ended and the enthusiasm of the majority had been ignited, whereas most countries follow an S-shape growth curve, and in some cases the "initial shock" approach might be possible taking an S-curve standing up at early stage as in the United States. My own views coincide with those of Mr. Nelson and I think the S-shape curve is about to stand up in Japan.

My concern, in these dog year days, is how far the gap between the US and Japan will have widened by the time the whole of Japan wakes up to the IT revolution. I hope this Summit conference will provide a priming charge to awaken Japanese society in the sense suggested by Mike Nelson.

Teruyasu Murakami


In the initial debate, Mr. Murakami seems more optimistic than Prof. Kokuryo, as Prof. Miyao said. I largely share Mr. Murakami's view. Benefits from the IT (or ICT in Europe) revolution are and will be so huge that I wish to live long to measure its effect on the global economy. PCs used to be very expensive and few predicted that students could ever use PCs. But now most students are using them, as their prices have come down substantially.

The digital divide in absolute terms will be thus conquered by learning and scale merit of related products. Although the relative gap may become larger, as bigger firms have more advantages than smaller firms in general, many small firms may make better use of information for their advantage than large firms, and in fact have begun to use the Internet to get orders from non-keiretsu companies including overseas firms.

Interestingly, elderly people have begun to use PCs actively in Japan. This must be the reason why Toshiba announced it will stop manufacturing word processors without Internet transmission capability.

Japanese young people are using cellular phones (mostly I-mode) more often than their counterparts in other developed nations. They wish to talk to each other all the time.

The critical point is whether the Japanese can effectively reduce factor costs by e-businesses, using intra-firm network and PC related machines to raise real productivity mainly in white-collar jobs in the private sector as well as in the central and regional governments. Can educational reform proceed with the IT revolution? Can communities and public institutions such as hospitals use the technologies effectively for the welfare of people and a better treatment of patients?

I cannot be too optimistic on these points. These are related to good education, deregulation in general from the laws and regulations which have benefited vested interests.

Here we also need political reform whereby the voices of urban residents can be proportionately reflected in our political decision-making process. Another thing I worry about is whether the Japanese can effectively communicate with the rest of the world by the Internet in such areas as e-education, e-business, e-trade etc. This is evidently related to our ability in communicating in English (international language) with people overseas and also in achieving a high level of contents in communication. Meaningless talks will bear no fruit. One of the things I try to do to improve the situation is to teach young people in this respect.

Toshihiko Kinoshita (Professor, Waseda University)

REPLY 3 (Miyao)

Thank you, Prof. Kinoshita, for your insightful comments. I think your view seems be shared by many young people, especially college students. The following is an example.

Takahiro Miyao


I feel that although there is a gap between the young and the old on the use of the Internet, it is a problem that happens with technology in any age. Plus, this is an occurrence that happens in any culture, not just in Japan. The younger generations are generally more prone to try out new things whereas the old tend to stick to the known and comfortable because they do not want to take as much risk as they grow older. The young are willing to try out new things because they have less to lose and thus are willing to try something new. This doesn't mean that all the older generation are hesitant to try learning how to use the Internet. My Aunt and uncle in Japan are always on the cutting edge and constantly badger my parents on why they aren't keeping up.

As long as Internet use is spreading in Japan through cell phones and video game systems I think it outweighs the problem that the older generation is falling behind. Plus, a lot of the times the older generation is paying for these products for their kids. So this is moving the economy along.

On the issue about Japan's role in organizing an Asian Internet bloc I feel that Japan is not capable of leading it but is certainly important in playing a part of it. It surely would benefit all the nations if they worked together on these trade issues instead of each creating their own system by themselves which could lead to conflicts with one another.

Brian Inagaki

REPLY 4 (Miyao)

Let me go back to Prof. Kokuryo's points. I have found quite a few people who have more or less agreed with Prof. Kokuryo. Read the following two comments.

Takahiro Miyao


I believe that the digital divide problem is more serious than Mr. Murakami stresses. Mr. Murakami may be correct in stating that Internet use is increasing rapidly, but there still exists a divide among generations. While it is true that Internet use through alternative methods is quickly increasing in Japan, ie: video games and cell phones, these methods cater more toward younger users. These methods do little to correct the ever-widening gap between generations. Professor Kokuryo's plan to "further research into a friendlier man-machine interface" may be a successful way of incorporating all generations into the IT Revolution.

Jennifer Halvas


I am inclined to agree with Mr. Kokuryo's statement that the digital divide should be discussed in terms of social classes, not national boundaries. In my experiences with those who are the so-called "have-nots" in the IT revolution, I have found two recurring reasons for their situation: lack of funds and lack of trust.

Connecting to the Internet can be quite expensive, whether it be by PC or mobile phone. So long as the cost of connecting remains high, so will the number of people on the "have not" side of the digital divide. Consider how unattainable Internet access is to the elderly, poor and uneducated. They must be able to buy either a PC or a cellular phone, the needed software and pay the connection fees, perhaps even enroll in a course to be able to operate their new machines. Mr Murakami's idea of "eODA" may be that important first step to solving this problem.

Next, I would like to address the large population who do not trust the quickly emerging IT technologies. There are many reasons for this mistrust. Some fear it is simply another form of mass media, perpetuating the problem of globalization and dying cultures. Others do not feel it is safe to give out credit card numbers or other personal information, and so they shun its use. How can we resolve these issues? I would suggest campaigns in classrooms, libraries and government offices advertising the Internet as a way to learn and teach about the preservation of culture. Also, I believe a more secure system for online shopping should be established, one where credit card numbers are given only over secured connections, so consumers feel safe about their transactions.

Abra Murra

REPLY 5 (Kokuryo)

Thank you for your valuable comments. A couple of comments to stimulate the discussion.

In order for eODA to function properly, we need to train experts that understand both the technology AND the cultures of receiving countries. We will also need careful management. We made many mistakes in the past by throwing money at problems and complicating them. We may have lots of people with good intentions, but perhaps not the competence. Let us address that first.

I support Abra's idea (COMMENT 5) of promoting the Internet as a way to learn and teach about the preservation of culture. We must be very careful that we do not impose our values on others when we help. Economies of scale on the net is probably a reality, but it should not happen by monopolizing the world. Instead, we should aim at the net that embraces diversity.

Jiro Kokuryo


Let me next talk on the digital divide in Asia. People in the world, in this context Asians, can generally relate to digital devices in various ways. The effects on their economies are different depending on the situation. Some people will get jobs as workers, get additional money as shareholders, reduce necessary costs in their production, and so on. Overall, we can safely say the potential of IT is huge and complex in any country.

In rich countries like the U.S. and Japan, many enjoy using mobile phones and PCs; many people are hired in such industries; many firms make profits by selling manufactured products (hardware) and software; many investors get money by investing in such IT related companies which are growing very rapidly. Still we need to discuss possible effects of what we call the digital divide by generations and income-groups.

In poor regions like Indochina countries, however, a very limited number of people use mobile phones, although their growth rates may be quite high. Few foreign investors invest in those countries to manufacture those IT related products. You can hardly find good engineers or technicians. The nature of the digital divide in those countries is very different from that in such affluent countries as the U.S. and Japan.

Basically, we should consider how to grow their economies faster, how to teach people better in laws and business climate and how to educate higher-quality engineers and technicians. In many Asian countries, educational levels in technology and engineering are extremely low. You can hardly find good teachers. They are underpaid and tempted to work for big firms rather than teaching at schools.

Therefore, when Japan's PM Mori announces a new package of official assistance to those countries at the Okinawa Summit, it will be welcomed. But money is not everything. What really counts is how to create systems to nurture good teachers and to grade up technological and engineering capabilities in those poor nations. It will be very time-consuming efforts on our part. That is the digital divide issue in Asia.

Toshihiko Kinoshita


Regarding Asian countries, I feel that the digital divide is increasing between Asian countries that are more developed, such as Japan, and countries that are less developed such as Thailand. As Mr. Murakami has pointed out in the initial debate, this could be a global problem because all countries must be able to share information via the Internet to realize the potential benefits. If some countries fall behind in the IT Revolution it makes the whole global system obsolete.

In the case of Japan, I believe that it will make a relatively rapid transition into an IT efficient society. Speaking about Mr. Kokuryo's ideas, it seems natural that reforms which allow compatibility between organizations and the Internet environment are likely to be used in the near future. And as Mr. Murakami has said before, Japan is already narrowing the age and social gap by using new technologies that allow easier and faster Internet connections.

However, in Thailand it will be much harder to solve the digital divide question because it is caused by both social and economic problems within the country. The only area of Thailand that is undergoing any type of IT Revolution is the capital city of Bangkok. There, people are much wealthier and more educated. They have the means and the knowledge to connect to the Internet, whether at home or at work. In Bangkok, there are numerous stores that offer the public access to the Internet for hourly charges. People ranging from the ages of 10-30 years are the ones who take advantage of these types of services, while also connecting to the Net using other means.

Outside of Bangkok, in the mostly agricultural and rural areas, lack of income and education have lead to a lack of awareness of the IT Revolution. This problem will be nearly impossible to reform, leaving Thailand as a whole technically obsolete when it comes to the Internet. People in the rural areas are rightly concerned with where their next meal will come from. They probably don't know and don't care that the Internet exists.

This is a problem that the Thai government must deal with. And I don't see any solution in the near future unless the entire system is uprooted and reformed from top to bottom. As I have said before, there cannot be an IT Revolution in Thailand if there is no socio-economic revolution first. The government must find ways to increase standards of living and education in rural areas. Then maybe when Thai people don't have to worry about poverty, they can start catching up with the rest of the world on issues of technology. But this can only happen if those who are in power put the welfare of the country before the welfare of themselves.

In conclusion, I would like to say that the economic differences between underdeveloped and more developed countries will undoubtedly lead to different rates of IT growth. There is no "one size fits all" solution that Asian countries can implement. Each must deal with its own problems and that takes time.

Nicholas Detwattananun


I am impressed with Murakami-san's recommendations for us to overcome the digital divide in Asia. On the whole, I agree with his recommendations. There is an urgent need to build an infrastructure for the digital age. A major question is "Is Japan ready for this?" I regret to say that GOJ (the Government of Japan) is all the time too late and too little. This is exactly the reason why Mr. Murakami's recommendations are important. GOJ should act boldly and decisively. I support his recommendations wholeheartedly, knowing that the chance that the GOJ will adopt it in its entirety is small.

Thus, another alternative is to have other governments of the developing countries urge GOJ to act in support of Murakami's recommendations. This Internet conference may play an important role in this respect.

Koichi Mera (Professor, USC)


I would like to point out an aspect of IT-related ODA from Japan to Asian (or any developing) countries, which seems to be not well-addressed by the two guest discussants. Unlike the traditional physical infrastructure-related ODA that is in a sense politically neutral and expected to make a recipient country as a whole economically better off, IT-related ODA from Japan to Asian countries would unleash serious debates over political ramifications of such IT-related ODA to recipient countries, especially in those countries that maintain their tight state control over the mass media. Taking into account the nature of the Internet, IT-related ODA could affect such state control over the mass media, and the Chinese government's recent regulations concerning the Internet indicate that the Chinese community party takes the potential political ramifications of the Internet and IT development seriously. Recipient countries may consider IT-related ODA as a Trojan Horse that destabilizes their existing political structures and courtly request Japan to concentrate her IT-related ODA on no-political-ramification projects such as e-commerce-related ones that are covered by Mr. Murakami's paper. This would force Japan to come to terms with her long overdue post-WWII homework, i.e., what are her national interests and how to pursue them through her ODA.

Akio Sone (Massachusetts, USA)

REPLY 6 (Miyao)

Thank you Prof. Mera and Mr. Sone for your comments with some serious political questions about Mr. Murakami's policy recommendations. Prof. Mera is showing his distrust in the Japanese government to carry out Mr. Murakami's recommended policies, while Mr. Sone is casting doubts about the effectiveness of eODA in recipient countries. I would think that while there may well be serious political problems surrounding eODA at home and overseas, they are by no means unique in the IT field. The Japanese government is notorious in its inability to deliver appropriate economic and social policies at home, and any foreign aid can be used or misused by those who happen to be in power in recipient countries. Having said this, I would like to add that it is equally important to keep in mind that eODA can be as political as regular ODA, and in any event Japan needs to do its "homework," as Mr. Sone put it, about its national interests and strategies.


Regarding Toshihiko Kinoshita's question on "how to create systems to nurture good teachers and to grade up technological and engineering capabilities in [the] poor nations [of Asia]."

Certainly, many countries around Asia are faced with the problem of finding enough quality teachers to educate their populace. The Internet is precisely the type of tool that may, one day, diminish this problem. As soon as the Internet infrastructure is built to reach the poorer and more isolated portions of Asia, distance learning via computer will make it possible to raise the educational level of students in these countries. Thus, technical and engineering students in Thailand can share resources and receive instruction from schools in Japan, the United States or India.

The problem of how poorer countries will afford to provide Internet access to their people will lessen in the future - and the future may not be as far away as many people think. Technologies currently under development, such as low earth orbiting communications satellites, will allow poorer countries to deploy Internet access much more affordably than is currently possible. In addition, the cost of PCs is continually dropping and will continue to do so into the foreseeable future. These circumstances will lessen the effect of the digital divide among the poor countries in Asia.

Jack Freis


Before concluding this debate, I must add one point to our discussion, that is the role of volunteers and nonprofit organizations in overcoming the digital divide, especially at the community level. For the last few years I have been working as manager of a nonprofit organization, CAN (Community Area Network) Forum, whose mission is to help community members connect with each other to achieve quality of life in their community, and found it very difficult to overcome the digital divide at the community level for numerous reasons. In fact, there seem to be widening and destabilizing gaps among different communities, different age groups, different occupations, different social classes, etc., despite various efforts to narrow those gaps by the central and local governments. There are some cases, however, where the digital divide has been overcome and almost everyone in the community is connected for his/her own benefit. And in those cases, without exception, volunteer groups and nonprofit organizations are playing a crucial role in helping residents, young and old, to help themselves connect with each other to enrich their daily lives (ex. Blacksburg, VA and Joint Venture Silicon Valley, CA in the U.S., and Yamada Village, Toyama Prefecture, and Smart Valley, Suwa, Nagano Prefecture in Japan), Probably we can overcome the digital divide in Asia by working together at the community level through interactions and mutual learning between communities across national boundaries, that is, by establishing a kind of CAN (community area network) system in the "global community."

Takahiro Miyao

CONCLUSION 2 (Murakami)

As I listen to the various views put forward in this debate, including those of Kinoshita, Halvas, Detwattananun and Miyao, I realize that I am nearer to the optimistic end of the spectrum as far as thinking on the digital divide question is concerned.

This is probably because I tend to be relatively optimistic about the speed of technological innovation. Over 30 years ago, I learned FORTRAN by struggling through a massive instruction manual. After writing my program, I carried my punch cards into an air-conditioned computer room. I still remember the overwhelming sense of intimidation that I felt. Today I can buy a notebook PC in Akihabara and surf the net from my living room on the same day. Young office workers can afford to buy computing environments out of their wages. It is really an astonishing change.

Computer network access will surely become cheaper and easier. Access will become a question of want or want not, not have or have not. People will decide whether they want to buy a PC instead of buying a motorcycle or going on a trip abroad. Here there is a freedom of choice. Even for people in developing countries network access is likely to become affordable, depending on how they wish to allocate their own income. This will be true at least in capitol cities and major metropolitan areas, although a social dichotomy issue still exists as Detwattananun properly stated. If the digital divide problem relates to turning not want into want, then it is a marketing problem that is best left to the business sector. Before this sort of situation occurs, the public sector should play an important role in developing efficient infrastructure and creating competitive business environments through deregulation and re-regulation.

Teruyasu Murakami


Thank you, Mr. Murakami, for your insightful conclusion. Your contribution to this whole debate is greatly appreciated. I think we have just opened up an important discussion on the digital divide issue, and will continue asking ourselves a question as to how to overcome this serious problem in the IT era. I would like to thank Mr Murakami, Prof. Kokuryo, and other participants who have made this debate a very productive and successful one.

Takahiro Miyao

CONCLUSION 4 (Kokuryo)

Thank you for the opportunity to join the discussion. It is a pleasure to learn that many people are dedicated to overcoming the digital divide. At the same time, the discussion also strengthened my belief that this problem may not be something that can be easily solved. At least not simply by pouring money without adequate attention to the local situation, including politics. Nevertheless, let us confirm that the Internet is for everyone, and gather our wisdom and energy to make it so.

Jiro Kokuryo


Let me conclude by thanking Prof. Kokuryo, Mr. Murakami and all the other participants again for their invaluable contributions to the debate.

Good by for now.

Takahiro Miyao

Copyright © Japanese Institute of Global Communications