The World's Leading IT Nation
(Director of external affairs at George Washington University's Elliott School of International Affairs, an Abe Fellow, and visiting research fellow at GLOCOM)
In the months following U.S. President Bill Clinton's September 1993 proposal of a National Information Infrastructure, at least 14 countries adopted similar plans, including Japan and all of the other G7 nations. Over the years these plans have been refined. But it remained for Japan to declare, in December 2000, the bold goal of becoming the world's leading IT nation within five years.
What would it mean to be the world's leading IT nation? Clearly there would be several dimensions to world leadership. One might be hardware: powerful computers, secure high-speed networks, state-of-the-art IT research facilities. Another might be extent of Internet access: universal IT literacy and around-the-clock Internet access at desired bandwidth by desired means at affordable cost. Still another might be the ability to communicate and retrieve desired information and entertainment from across the entire Internet, assuming access: overcoming technical and language barriers to desired communication and content retrieval. Yet another might be the extent of e-commerce development. And, no doubt, there are more. It is also possible that the definition of the world's leading IT nation may be a moving target, redefined as new technologies emerge.
In pursuit of its goal, the Japanese government is moving on most of these dimensions. Its ambitious June 2001 implementation plan calls for sharp expansion of the high-speed and ultra-high-speed infrastructure and insuring their security and reliability. There will be Internet access in the schools, literacy programs for adults, and training programs for IT specialists. E-commerce – both business-to-business and business-to-consumer will be encouraged through legal and regulatory changes. There will be substantial progress toward paperless government offices. Courageously, the government has laid out concrete goals in each of these areas.
Interestingly, the Japanese government has chosen to define world IT leadership almost exclusively in terms of the Internet. The basis for their leadership will be a secure and reliable high-speed Internet infrastructure. There are Internet-related educational and social goals, to provide access for all students and interested adults – and to train the specialists needed to keep it all running. As global Internet markets emerge, both wholesale and retail, the government does not want Japan to fall behind. Citizens' Internet-access to government and government office use of the Internet may not directly relate to world leadership. But, if achieved, they may lead to a better image of government and greater government efficiency, worthy goals in themselves.
Surprisingly, there is only modest emphasis in the government's plans on the one area in which Japan enjoys a distinct advantage – wireless Internet access. Nearly two out of three Japanese now have mobile phones. Probably more than half of these – and a remarkable number of sub-laptop computers – have direct access to the Internet. Moreover, third-generation mobile phones, all with Internet connectivity, are being rolled out now. Although there are constraints on mobile-phone Internet access, their ubiquity suggests a central role in the Japanese IT strategy – for routine communication, for remote areas, for the many uncomfortable with computers, for access to government, for retail (B2C) e-commerce, etc. It is in this infrastructure area, perhaps, that the greatest danger of new technology superceding government planning exists.
Less surprisingly, there is no mention of one of the most difficult IT challenges of all – breaking out of the local language-based Internet. That is, creating the ability to access -- and comprehend -- websites in languages other than one's mother tongue. If the Internet is to truly move beyond the language-compartmented world of past, much more work must be done on artificial intelligence and machine translation. This is exceptionally difficult, and the Japanese government has been burned once in this area with its fifth-generation computer project. But for Japan, this could be its most important window on the world. And, it would clearly put it in the forefront of world IT.