Japan looks for a way towards IT nation goal

It's been more than six months since Japan declared that it would become the world's most advanced IT nation by 2005. Since then, the "e-Japan" strategy, its plan to achieve this goal, has been the subject of speculation by experts who wonder whether the government can deliver the goods.

The plan also came under discussion at the recent Economist Business To Business Electronic Business Roundtable in Tokyo when panelists, including government officials, shared their views on the issue by analyzing Japan's e-business trends.

Koichi Suzuki, the president and chief executive officer of Internet Initiative Japan Inc., had a positive view on the future of e-business. The country is said to be behind in IT technology but that is not the case, he said. "(Japan is) a rather interesting country in terms of IT technology."

The networking of consumer electronics devices such as cell phones will start from Japan, he said.

Suzuki, whose company started one of Japan's first Internet services eight years ago, called this year "the turning point" for the Internet in Japan because, he said, corporations had recently started investing money in their IT infrastructure.

Private sector panelists such as Suzuki believe a taskforce driven by people from the private sector, rather than a government-driven strategy, should be in charge of leading the promotion of e-business. Rather than being pushed by the government, the companies should be free to drive it themselves.

A government delegate at the conference called for action.

"It is a time for implementation and adjustment," said Masahide Kasutani, the director for International Cooperation, Commerce and Information Policy Bureau, Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry.

Reforms of the government's regulatory methods, competition policy and administration are necessary, but the country doesn't have concrete ideas how to implement them, he said.

The need for better security on electronic commerce is always a focus at international level meetings on the topic, many of which are attended by Japan. But at home, nothing is done about the matter.

"The government tends to postpone it to work on something else," Kasutani said.

The difference between the attitudes of the private sector and of the government to e-commerce and the e-Japan strategy could be bridged by Minister of State for Economic and Fiscal Policy Heizo Takenaka, who gave a keynote speech at the conference.

Takenaka, an energetic 50-year-old, was advising the government on the economy and IT issues while teaching at Keio University, until he was singled out to be a Cabinet member by Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi in April.

"I think we will be the most advanced IT nation within five years," Takenaka said. And when asked the difference between the e-Japan strategy and similar failed attempts made by the government in the past, he stated, "The e-Japan strategy's most important body is to promote competition reform policy."

The issue of competitiveness in Japan's telecommunications industry has been a hot topic for years. Nippon Telegraph and Telephone Corp. (NTT), which effectively monopolizes the basic and broadband wireline infrastructure in Japan, is "an asset of our society," but the government must take active steps to reform competition, he said. The break up of NTT has been attempted a few times before, but the carrier and its powerful labor unions have always won the battle.

Skepticism still remains but the new leadership of Koizumi may be the real reforming force.

The government received a boost last month from Sony Corp. President and Chief Executive Officer Nobuyuki Idei, a member of the think-tank for the e-Japan strategy, when he said he believes Koizumi can achieve the goal of an advanced IT society in three years and not five. As a stepping stone towards the full five-year project goal an intermediate stage, the e-Japan 2002 program, was decided this month.

The reason for this milestone is Japan's concern over the upcoming soccer World Cup, being held jointly between South Korea and Japan in 2002. It will be the first time Japan has been thrust onto the world stage since the era of the Internet and cell phones started. Moreover, co-host South Korea is far more advanced in broadband infrastructure build-out at present.

It will be the first time Japan will be evaluated so closely by the rest of the world, Takenaka said.

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