Japan and technology: a nation looks to the future. Tim Onosko.
Sometimes, in Tokyo, it is difficult to understand how Japan can have the reputation for being a technologically innovative nation.
For one thing, everyone in the city gets lost. Lifelong residents still stare at maps in subway stations trying to find their way home. Ask a cab driver directions to a certain place and he may scratch his head or consult, at length, an encyclopedia-sized book of detailed maps. No small wonder. Tokyo, one of the largest cities in the world with over 12 million people, has almost no street signs. And, to add the confusion, buildings are numbered in chronological order.
Looking at Tokyo's mass media, one wonders what happened. The number of television stations is comparatively few, with the public NHK network (Japan's version of the BBC) dominant. There is no cable television, except from a recently formed company which services primarily hotels. As for radio, the capital of the country which makes the vast majority of FM radios for the world has only two FM stations, itself.
But these examples only confuse an already muddied picture. Japan is a nation looking to the future and actively planning for it. It is a skyrocket with the fuse lit, waiting for ignition. Sometimes, to us in the West, only the sparks of that fuse are visible, obscured my misunderstanding and lack of information.
We can learn only as much about Japan by reading as would be possible to learn about the United States from Time or Newsweek. That is to sat, little or nothings. But we can begin to understand the direction that Japan is taking by looking at rapidly emerging trends and observing the nation's attitudes toward technology.
Japan has a population of 117 million people, or about half that of the United States. Because of the bombings during
World War II, much of it has been rebuilt. (It is still difficult to come grips with the fact that Japan is
the only place on earth which has had a nuclear weapon used against it.) As one would expect, much of Japan is ancient and traditional. Much less expected, however, is the modernism of contemporary Japan, and especially Tokyo.
Tokyo is nothing shor of an eye-opener for Americans. It is a city that "works," unbelievably clean and functional. It is as manic as, say, New York City, but there seems to be a keener sense of direction and purpose among the populace. As any world capital, it attracts visitors from around the globe, and the best of world culture is on display. Unfortunately, for all of its reputation as a cosmopolitan city, there is little cultural or ethnic diversity in Tokyo. This is not the "melting pot" of New York, with its immigrants of many different ways. Of Tokyo's millions, only a tiny percentage are not Japanese.
Because all of Japan is, in so many ways, a cultural monolith, the national characteristic most often cited by Westners is the great unity and force with which Japan approaches the world market. Much has been written about the samurai style of business, for example, and Americans sometimes tend to think of industrial Japan, not as a group of industries that are as competitive with each other as they are with the rest of the world, but as some sort of army. Blue suited executives at the rear, directing hordes of uniformed workers, marching, marching in time.
Less attention, however, has been paid to another aspect of Japan's unity-its plans for the future. Japan is already bursting with people and lacks space. It is almost completely dependent on foreign sources for its energy requirements and had few natural resources other than the sea that surrounds it. Yet, in the last two decades it has become so heavily industrialized that practices Americans only talk about-careful resource management and long-term planning-- have become a necessity. Japan is, at least, attempting to establish national policies with regard to technology and its increasing impact. Government has taken the strongest lead in their formulation, but industry and labor unions are also involved.
An important policy concerns the effect of automation on the labor markect. Auto maker Nissan says that none of its workers will be displaced as it continues to automate its factories. But, with Japan's lifetime employment practices, an aging workforce and new workers entering the market daily, it will be interesting to see how well the policy works. More important, though, is not whether these attempts will be successful, but that they are being made.
Among other plans for Japan's future are its much-touted Fifth Generation computer project, an infant but active space program, the designation of new town as research centers and production hubs for new technologies (so-called "Technopolises") and places for the application of new communication techniques ("Teletopias").
While it is possible to discuss Japan's attitude toward technology and the future by talking about national policies and programs, it is much more difficult to convey the feeling of the nation. New technology is pervasive in Tokyo and has integrated itself in a new style on display in design (from industrial design to women's fashion), architecture, and marketing.
Little things tell the visitor about the Japanese fascination with mechanization. Most of the doors in commercial Tokyo are automatic sliding doors. Not that Amercians haven't seen them (try finding a supermarket without one), but the automatic door is the rule, more than the exception, in Tokyo. Visitors often look foolish, constantly pushing at glass doors which suddenly slide left. Conversely, said one young Japanese woman: "When we go to America, we stand in front of doors, waiting for them to open."
There are new embellisments to the sliding doors, as well: Digitized female voices greet customers to business establishments with a variety of salutations, then thank them politely as they leave. The voices add to the alreday cacophonous Tokyo business scene and
will undoubtedly find their way into the
tens of thousands of streetside vending machines which offer whisky, cold beer, and hot sake, in addition to more conventional fare like cigarettes and coffee. Automatic bank teller machines, not uncommon in the U.S., have been restyled for Japan. On tiny color video monitors, many of the bank machines display a computer grahic image of a woman who bows to thank the user for his transaction.
Since so much of daily life is mechanized in Tokyo, it shouldn't be surprising that the robot has become a powerful symbol for the future. Robots can be found everywhere, from children's television programs and toys-the intriguing, modular warrior robots now catching on in this country-to subway station advertisements for department stores and special events. The robot, of course, is a major force behind the increased industrial productivity of Japan and symbolic of automation in all work areas. It has also, however, become a friend and the mascot of the 1980s.
Namco, Japan's leading video game company, which introduced Pac-Man to the world, is very much interested in robots. It is already producing a line of entertainment robots which show up in shopping malls and other public places. These function simply, from demonstrating a machine's ability to learn its environment and maneuver a maze, to vending souvenir stamps and eliciting howls of delight from children with their mechanincal comedy. Current favorites include a robot circus, cartoonish characters from Namco video games ("Mappy"), and "Cosmo Hoshimaru," the mascot character of the 1985 world's fair.
The Namco robots are not yet autonomous; they must be preprogrammed or controlled via radio. The company holds hope for their lastes joint venture, however, a working agreement with Dainichi Kikko, said to be one of the brightest and most innovaive manufacturers of industrial robotics. The mind reels when considering the possibilities of combining state-of-the-art robotic techniques and principles of artificial intelligence with Namco's knack for high tech entertainment.
Robotics are going home with the Japanese, as well. Several lines of small robot hobby kits are widely available in toystores and hobby shops. "movits" demonstrate ideas of numeric control and feedback in tiny turtles and walkers constructed from hundreds of plexiglass and metal parts. Bandai, a leading toy manufacturer, has its own line of "Tectron Sensor Robos" which, while not as smart as the Movits, feauture incredible mechanics. One of the Sensor Robos is named "Monohopper," and is a clever demonstration of a one-legged, inertial movement system.
Tomy, Japan's other toy giant, discovered just how popular robots were when introduced "Ki-Ku-Zo," a 13" tall android last December. Supplies vanished literally as fast as they could hit the stores. The reason? The $50 Ki-Ko-Zo is a voice recogniton robotic pet which can be trained by the owner's voice to walk around, pick up and deposit small objects. It was developed by Tomy's research and development staff in conjunction with Matsushita Electric, the nation's largest electronics conglomerate. (Another voice-response toy, an LCD hand-held game called "KO Boxing" from Gakken, is enjoying similar success in the Japanese market.) Tomy plans to follow its success with Ki-Ku-Zo by introducing a robot "butler" this year, and both devices are destined for the American Christmas market.
It may be difficult, in the near future, to distinguish between toys and tools. Already, Dainichi Kikko's industrial robots have been displayed at the Seibu department store in the Ikebukuro district of Tokyo. Not quite something you's come home from a shopping trip with, but this demonstrates how technology is being marketed in Japan.
The traditional method of marketing technology is typified by the mania of Akihabara, the electronics and electrical district of Tokyo. Here stores range from modern, multi-story consumer electronics emporia to a labyrith of tiny stalls where merchants hawk their wares (including the most advanced microchips, coveted 256K RAMs). Most storefronts are open to the street, merchandise spilling out onto the sideqalk. Almost all are loud, garish places which offer price and value over elegant settings.
Akihabara is the very best place to get a feeling for the range of products spewing forth from the high technology industries. Americans are often stunned at how few of these are exported to the U.S. Some products are developed for relatively small market segments. Akio Morita, the legendary president of Sony, personally instigated the development of a Trinitron television set which can flip its picture to a mirror image. The intended customers? Proprietors of Japan's 300,000 barber shops, whose patrons watch TV reflected in mirrors.
Akihabara is the old way. Tokyo also has two of the best examples in the world of new stores for technology and electronic media. The first is Wave, a stylish "media store" in the fashionable Roppongi district. Wave is owned by Seibu, a large corporation specializing in leisure and fashion businesses, including hotels (the Prince chain), department stores (Parco, the most chic retail development in Tokyo), golf courses, driving ranges, amusement parks, resorts, a baseball team (the Seibu Lions, 1983 Nippon Champs), and a subway line. Seibu is also an arbiter of taste, importing foreign (i.e., American) films to its art cinemas and promoting concerts and shows.
Wave is the store of the future, selling mass media-the printed word, recorded sound, and electronic and video software-in a design-conscious setting. As expected, there are racks and shelves filled with merchandise, but scattered amid its grey interior are dozens of video and computer monitors. Some of these play abstract video art and film. Others, in kiosks, are for previewing rock videos. (The sound is furnish via Walkman--style phones.) Still others play interviews with authors, filmmakers, and musicians filmed especially for the store. Computer terminals are linked to a database for searching Wave's stock of sound recordings. The top two floors of the building, ap.propriately, are occupied by the offices
and studios of a computer graphi cs
Wave is more than a fashionable book and record shop, however. It is an information store, perhaps the first in the world.
Hile Wave deals in software, Tokyu Hands, in Tokyo's Shibuya district is the model for the hardware store of the 1980's. Dubbed a "creative life store," it is a modern version of the American general store, a 23-level emporium which showcases literally thousands of examples of the best and most innovative of consumer goods.
What's inside? Hat isn't?
A complete electrical and electronics department/computer store; a hobby shop and toy store with an emphasis on technical items; a fabric division which sells everything from traditional Japanese indigo cloth to industrial materials; advanced bicycle and automotive departments; art and stationery supplies. Customers in Tokyu Hands know that they are seeing the most functional and best-designed merchandise in the nation. The designation "creative life" says it all. Tokyu Hands is about technology's direct stimulation of the human imagination.
The effect of technology on the consumer marketplace is more than putting new items on store shelves, too. The Walkman is responsible for one unusual new application of radio. A chain of department stores called 0101 now features miniature FM radio stations that entertain and offer new product information to shoppers in the stores. Various departments have their own stations, which, instead of call letters, are identified by vegetable names: Potato for information about technical goods, Broccoli for fashion, and Pumpkin for sports equipment.
Design, in Japan, is equally important in marketing consumer technology. Industrial designers seem to have been heavily influenced by the Italians, but a "Tokyo Style" is also becoming evident. Contemporary styling, especially in consumer electronics, is still primarily functional, and miniaturization continues as a trend. But there has been a burst of color, bet typified by the simple and playful designs of so many radios, televisions, Walkman-type players, and even computers. It is not uncommon to fall in love with one of the new TV sets from Sony, Matsushita, or Hitachi which are housed in elegant metal cabinets in primary colors, red, blue, or yellow. Even NEC's 8201 notebook computer is available in a fire-engine red model, as are many home computers.
Furthermore, the use of very non-traditional colors such as pale pinks and greens as settings for consumer technology is on display in the mammoth Sony showroom in the Ginza district. This may be a youthful fad, but the staid greys, beiges, silvers, and blacks generally associated with these items may well spread across the Pacific.
Shapes, as well as colors, are changing. Sony's Flamingo record turntable is the best example. It is a white 10" tower which plays records vertically with a linear--tracking tone arm. And while miniaturization continues, there seems to be a new approach, a kind of down-sizinf that recognizes the dimensions of the human hand. Many new designs in consumer audio gear fit into the new "midi," not mini or micro category.
Westerns should remeber, however, that the Japanese began making things smaller for a rason. Space is very, very precious in this crowded nation. One way to conserve it is to combine the functions of several instruments, and some new consumer products are integrating monitors and computers, and television sets with video recorders. Most notably, home video-cassette recorders have been built into small stelevisions by National and Toshiba, turnign the end result into a practical new information appliance. (Video recorders have long lost their luxury status in Japan, and it is not unreasonable to assume, when meeting any young Japanese, that he ahs one at home.)
Likewise, the Paxon PCT-50 is a combination home computer, RGB video monitor, and television set. Its separate keyboard connects, via cable, to the front of the set, which also has a ROM cartridge slot. The machine is stunning, especially in red metal. More importanlty, it is part of the growing number of computers using the MSX standard operating system and Basic.
Pioneer's recently introduced PX-7 computer (another MSX machine) is matched to the company's newest video Laser Disc player. It not only manipulate the player functions under program control, but can overlay computer-generated text and graphics, in color, onto full video from the videodisc. Digital information-programs and data-can also be dumped from the audio tracks of the videodisc into the computer RAM memory. The PX-7, which sells for about $400 in Japan, makes interactive video programs, visual databases, and laser arcade games practical for the home market. It is one, if not the most significant consumer electronics product of the year.
The microcomputer, or "micom" as it has come to be known in Japan, is only beginning to capture the pbulic interest. Advertisements for office automation systems (widely abbreviated as OA) are common in subway and train stations, with well-known public figures, movie stars, and even champion sumo wrestlers endorsing various brands. Their growing popularity was reflected when the first of Tokyo's many kessaten (coffee shops), Cafe Zero, installed micoms for its customers. During the day, women reportedly use the machines to learn about "wordpro" (word processing) in hope of making extra money from in-home work. On weekens, men take to the machines to figure their sports betting odds.
Five or six years ago, when American microcomputers were imported into Japan for the first time, only English characters could be displayed on the screen. Today, Japanese computers for the home market also use katakana, a limited character set used primarily in business applications. But written Japanese-and many, if not most, communications are still handwritten-uses kanji, or pictographs. Since there are thousands of these, it is doubtful there will ever be a keyboard to accommodate the well-written Japanese word.
Basic, in the U.S. is to touted as English-like, which presents another barrier to the use of computers in Japan. While English is taught in Japanese schools, and writing is emphasized over speaking, ththe similarity between English and Basic is really only a vaguely associative one. And, the standard QWERTY key-board, with which Westerners have some familiarity through the use of typewriters, is a completely foreign object to many Japanese people.
Despite these obstacles, there is an enthusiasm over micoms. The national Japan Microcomputer Club has nearly 10,000 members, a computing center in Tokyo's Ginza district, adn 28 branches throughout the country. Extremely well organized, it holds classes in programmer camps for children and parents, publishes the Micom Circular newsletter (and an English language supplement), and sponsors national competitions among its members.
According to the group's survey, personal computers are owned mainly by (45,1) between 20 and 34 years old (57) who use them for academic study and in associated electronic applications (52,5). As in the United States, users seem to be searching for serious professional uses to justify their ownership. While many contend they are already using them in their work (26,1), fully one-third of the club's members say they use their machines for games and hobbies. The organization does, however, require a statement of a "life work target" on its applications for membership.
Innovation and dedication to learning about microcomputers is reflected in the prizewinning projects entered into annual competitions. Among these: A color and soudn sensing robot, designed by Naotka Yokoyama, which "walks and talks with synthetic voices." The robot responds to the presence of people and can differentiate red, green, and blue traffic signals. A robor arm, the Mitsubishi Move Master was programmed by Tadashi Hino to catch wooden blocks, recognized thier shapes, and put them into their respective holes in a board.
Akihiro Yamashita won a prize for designing a flight simulator which puts users in the cockpit of an American F-15 fighter. He wrote the prgoram on a 6809-based computer of hos own design.
Among the other activities of the club are international tours (a group usually visits the annual West Coast Computer Faire in San Fracisco) and shows held all across Japan. Besides their annual convetnion, the group recently sponsored a fari spotlighting what are termed "cute computers" like the NEC 8201 and other portables and hand-helds.
Computers figure heavily in communications plans for the future, as well. Although Japan readily admits that much of the technology for which it is now highly regarded, including micro-electronics, was imported from other nations, and acknowledges the lead of other (particularly th U.S.) in these fields, it claims fiber optic technology as its own. Fiber optics, with thier ability to carry extremely large volumes of information at high speeds, are central to the nation's plan to turn communities into Teletpias. These will "cities for the future, linked with advanced communications networks."
The Teletopia plan calls for commnunications satellutes and optical fibers to link homes, community facilities, offices, and information repositories. Two different networks, CAPTAIN (Character and Pattern Telephone Access Information Network) will feed the system from large cities. Each of ten model cities will also establish itw own local INS (Information Network System) to aid local industries, farming, forestry, and fishing, and to enhance education, public information, and medicine. Residents will take advantage of the network to shop and bank at home, and to extend schooling to un-home tutoring. Businesses will use the systems for transmitting data and graphics (including elecronic facsimile, which is far more widely used in Japan than in the U.S.), and for videoconferencing.
While there is no single element of the Teletopia plan that hasn't been talked about or already introduced in the United States, it is significant that the Japanese are taking thier unified, standardized approach to building such a system. this is being done under the direction of the government Ministry of Post and Telecommunications, and with the cooperation of NTT, Nippon Telegraph and Telephone.
No doubt these advanced communications techniques fit nicely into the national Technopolis plan, as well. In 1980, the Ministry of International Trade and Industry (MITI) announced a scheme to create two or three areas that would serve high technology industry and research. Instantly, all but a few of the nation's 47 prefectures (regional divisions) applied to be included in the program. MITI rethought and asked 20 prefectures to develop master plans to integrate factories and business facilities with university and other public research institutions and housing developments. Each was required to be constructed near a "mother city" of at least 200,000 people and near air or rail stations so that "technopolitans" can go back and forth between the main cities of Tokyo, Osaka, and Nagoya within a single day. Of the 20 sites now targeted as Technopolises, six are on the southernmost island of Japan, Kyushu, nicknamed "Silicon Island" because of the concentration of microelectronic businesses.
(Train travel via Japan's famous Shinkansen bullet train already makes intercity travel possible. In the near future, the HSST-a magnetically-levitated high-speed surface transport-will further shorten travel times between cities.)
Some have criticized the Technopolis Construction Act, passed by the Japanese Diet, as faddish and trendy, and the word itself, has become something of a buzzword. The two-fold goal of the plan, though, is nothing short of lofty and inspiring. The first part involves "up-grading the nation's industrial structure that it will boast the creative and sophisticated advanced technologies welcomed by other countries." The second involves a kind of reunification of the nation and its families. By encouraging industry to be built outside of the major population centers, Technopolises will hasten the return of people who once migrated to big cities to find work, and help the smaller cities retain recent school graduates who would otherwise leave their provinces in search of jobs. In the future, these new town will also help distribute the population and alleviate the burden of the intensely crowded cities.
In addition to the building of Technopolises, a major center for academic and private research and development has already been established approximately 50 kilometers north of Tokyo. Tsukuba Science City encompasses four town and two villages. Although many of its research facilities were newly created, others have been relocated from Tokyo and other cities to benefit from the synergism it is hoped will result from the grouping.
Tsukuba is also the site for Japan's first real international celebration of science and technology, Expo '85. Beginning march 15, 1985, the nation's enthusiasm over the wonders of science and industry will swell. Tsukuba Expo is likely to be the biggest technology party ever thrown. The planners of this world's fair except it to attract four times the number of visitors who travel to Japan's biggest attraction, Tokyo Disneyland. (The numbers are amazing. Of the thirty million people who live within 90 minutes travel time of Tokyo Disneyland, more than ten million visited it in its first year. Twenty million are expected to come to Tsukuba during the six-month fair season.)
The theme of Expo '85 is "Dwelling and Surroundings-Science and Technology for Man at Home." An important sub-theme is the heavy ecmphasis on the role of children as the citizens of of the future. To this end, much of the Expo will be a technological wonderland of impressive high tech audio-visual presentations, applications of communications technology, and fantastic architecture. Cosmo Hoshimaru, the fair's cartoon character mascot, was, himself, created by a Japanese school child.
Naturally, there is much corporate involvement in the fair. The steel and auto industries will have pavilions, as will every major company dealing in technology. In addition to the rosy portraits of the future proffered by companies like Toshiba (electronics), there will be exhibits keyed to the natural sciences, health and biotechnology. Kodansha will sponsor a show entitled "The Brain: What a Fantastic World of Imagination!" The diversified Mitsui Group is behind "The Wonder of Man's Mind and Body." Matsushita will remind visitors of "The Roots of the Japanese and Their Culture," and Mitsubishi promises a pavilion about environmental concerns.
Not surprisingly, some of the corporate presentations will be produced by Americans. In Hitachi's "Interface--Free Conversation with Technology," the cetnerpiece will be stereoscopic images produced by filmmaker Murray Lerner (director of Epcot Center's 3-D movie at Walt Disney World) and computer graphics pioneer John Whitney Jr. Toshiba's pavillion will hub around a film by director and effects specialist Douglas Trumbull. It will use trumbull's Showscan process, which takes and projects motion picture film at 60 frames per second for extreme visual impact.
For most people, the Expo will provide the first look at new hardware, such as the HSST Mag-Lev train. But for those who cannot make it to Tsukuba, high-definition (1125 scan lines) video will bring the fair to remote "satellite station" viewing centers in Tokyo and elsewhere.
The goal of Tsukuba Expo is both to encourgae the nation's love of technology as well as to bring the world to Japan to experience it firsthand. It will be the first time that many American will have the opportunity to begin to understnad the nation, its people, and this extraordinary rush to the future.
Japan does not present a clear image in the mind of the average citizen of the United States. It is often perceived as a threat to American jobs and leadership. Ironically, we are also the largest and most eager market for so many of its manufactured goods. It is our nature to look skeptically on the culturual uniformity of the Japanese society, yet we admire its style and envy it sproductivity. So many of our impressions come from decades-old information, while the face of Japan has changed dramatically in just the last ten years.
It is only natural to fear that Japan hs the sole franchise on the future, but nothing could be further from the truth. We must, however, decide what the common goals of our two nations and the industrialized free world are, and as friends, cooperate to achieve them. We have so much to learn from each other.