At a Japanese government press conference last year, called to mark the unveiling of the plans for an "info-communications infrastructure", the telecommunications minister was asked by a foreign journalist for his e-mail address. Not only did he not have one, but he did not know what an electronic mailbox was.
Japan is generally thought of as being a world leader in computer technology, but when it comes to the Internet it is lagging behind. The United States, the UK and Germany are all far ahead of Japan. Indeed, a ranking of the number of Net hosts correlated with GNP placed Japan between Slovenia and Ecuador. The Internet Society's 1995 figures show that Japan has 96,632 hosts, compared with 241,191 in the UK, 207,717 in Germany, and more than 2 million in the United States.
This gap between Japan and its industrial competitors is becoming a big issue in Japan. Newspapers and magazines are full of articles on the "crisis", and books with titles like The Threat of the Superhighway: The Danger of Annihilation facing the Japanese Information Industry are being rushed out by publishers. The obvious reason why the Japanese have not taken to the Net is the English language. More than 90 per cent of communication over the Net is in English. The Japanese find English a difficult language to learn and their own language is not easy to use on the Net.
The Japanese are also not as computer-literate as you might assume. Fewer than 10 per cent of offices are computerised, compared with 42 per cent in the US. In the US, 52 per cent of personal computers are hooked into a network of some kind, in contrast to fewer than than 9 per cent in Japan. At home, the Japanese use dedicated word processors and games consoles, but these cannot be connected to the Net.
Yoshikazu Kurita, first secretary of the economic section at the Japanese Embassy in London, believes the problems of language and computer literacy will be solved by the younger generation. "In Japan, the older generation cannot speak English and has very little experience of computers," he says. "However, the young have been taught English and know how to use computers. They will be able to lead Japan on to the Internet. In five to seven years we will have caught up with America."
This approach is seen by some as ignoring the nature of the problems the Japanese have with the Net. Darrell Berry, a multimedia designer responsible for the Outrageous Tokyo web site, has worked in Japan for three years. "I have worked in organisations in Tokyo where the management has said, 'If we have e-mail, we can't control who is sending and receiving information'," he says.
Mr Berry's outsider's view on Japan is partially supported by Murota Masaki, the head of NTT Data in London. …