Interview: Takashi Tachibana

Back to Contents of Issue: March 2000

Icon-Journalist Takashi Tachibana on the Future of the Net in Japan

Takashi Tachibana first won fame as an investigative journalist. He and a colleague, dubbed by some as the Bernstein and Woodward of Japan, led a team that dug deeply into the business dealings of Prime Minister Kakuei Tanaka in the 1970s, and produced in the monthly magazine Bungei Shunju a detailed and scathing account of the extent to which "money politics" gripped the country. Soon the mop-haired Tachibana found himself vaulted into the exalted status of "critic," his political commentary a fixture on TV and in the press. It was an eminent niche, but this latter-day Renaissance man possessed a restless and searching mind and wasn't satisfied. A few years ago, he made a quantum leap into writing and teaching about science and technology, and today the 59-year-old is at the pinnacle of that field as well. Among the many books he has published, two are about the Internet. (The Japanese titles translate as "Exploring the Internet World" and "The Internet is the Global Brain.") Recently he sat down with contributing editor Bradley Martin in Tokyo's downtown Bunkyo Ward, where Tachibana lives and works, to discuss the Japanese Net and the resulting New Economy. Excerpts follow.

On his own use of the Net:
In 1995, when I started using the Net, there weren't many users in Japan. I was in the first group of frequent users. There were hardly any Japanese-language sites then. If you wanted to see what was happening on the Net, you had to access English sites. In those days the Internet world was an English world.

For some time, until last year, I was teaching at Tokyo University and I trained my students how to use the Net. My weekly lecture was posted on the Internet -- the students created the webpages and they were very good; those pages are all now viewable at Tokyo University's Digital Museum, which is, of course, online. I think my class was Japan's first Internet "open university" situation. Those Todai students and I produced three books using the Internet. Every draft was posted on the Net so everyone involved could read and critique it. Not long ago, I hosted a four-hour television program for TBS, about the 20th and 21st centuries, mainly covering scientific and technological developments and trends. The students helped me with that, too. The television network employees who were involved weren't equipped, in most cases, to use the Internet in English. The students used search engines to gather information on astronomy, computers, robotics, et cetera, and then used the Internet to contact people and make interview appointments. Without the Internet, we couldn't have made that program.

On the limited, "special" nature of the Japanese Net:
For one of my books I interviewed professor Murai of Keio University, who, with his group, set up the Japanese Internet. Maybe a decade ago, while at Tokyo University, he organized students and young professors. They linked up many computers at the university's main campus in Hongo. Next he connected that network to another university. It began to expand.

But the Japanese Internet is different from the international Internet scene. The Japanese Net is confined to Japanese circles. It's very special. To make full use of the Internet you must use English; some Japanese do, but they are very few. Only an elite of maybe 5 to 10 percent of the population has the skills to tap into world intellectual circles via the Net. So most Japanese don't know how vast the global Internet is, and they think that's all right. "It's none of my business," they say. They enjoy their lives in the Japanese-speaking world, using only Japanese search engines and reading Japanese pages. It's all inside Japan. So changes to their lives won't be profound. Overall, I don't think the development of a separate Japanese-language Net is a good thing.

On government, politics, and the Net:
Bureaucrats are among the 5 to 10 percent who can use the Net in English, and they tend to be brilliant people. For a while they didn't get caught up in the Internet, but starting a couple of years ago, all the bureaucrats suddenly became eager to establish websites and use the Internet to publicize their policies. Now you can get a lot of information from government sites. The Bank of Japan, for example, has a very good site. The Ministry of Education -- with the cooperation of several companies -- is encouraging schools to connect to the Net. There are also many young politicians who have been eager to put up their own sites.

On the expansion expected in the next two years:
The insular nature of the Japanese Net limits its business applications somewhat. But even in Japan the Internet will be a revolution. One of my friends is a publisher who has published three of my books. He's young but a very good publisher. From last year, he's been crazy about the Internet. He thinks maybe in two years' time business on Japan's Net will take off -- including the business of selling books online and delivering them by takkyubin (courier) delivery services.

The main reason why Japan's Internet use has not developed faster is telephone fees. Also, with respect to e-commerce, most people don't think online payment is secure. But in two years there will be a cheap, secure way to pay. And phone charges are coming down. The Tokyo Electric Power Company has a plan to use its existing grid to provide Internet access. CATV in Japan is underdeveloped, but there is one large cable company, Tokyu CATV, that's using its network to offer Internet access in areas close to the Tokyu railway lines in Tokyo. Who knows? Maybe in two years the CATV network here in Bunkyo Ward will serve as an ISP. Maybe in two years access will be very cheap. When conditions are right, the Internet will explode.

Daniel Scuka is managing editor of Japan Inc.

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