Kobo Inamura

Back to Contents of Issue: April 2000

Deputy Director General, Communication Policy Bureau, the Ministry of Posts and Telecommunications

Kobo Inamura
Kobo Inamura is like an 1880s Meiji Era bureaucrat -- well trained, international in perspective, and tough-minded. Born in a one-room post office on remote Tokunoshima Island in the Ryukyus, Inamura became determined early on to follow in the footsteps of his grandfather, the governor of Taiwan Prefecture. He powered his way into Japan's elite schools, eventually entering the prestigious Tokyo University in 1967. Last year he became deputy director general of the MPT Communications Policy Bureau, and now he's spearheading the charge to get Japan fully onto the information super-highway. He is not alone in pushing this agenda. He and his generation of promarket technocrats now hold many key positions at the MPT (Ministry of Posts and Telecommunications), and in major embassies abroad. His priority for now is to get some strategic vision about the telecom revolution into the heads of the bricks-and-mortar political dinosaurs who won't pour money into anything but failed banks.

Inamura's first assignment at the MPT was in the Radio Regulatory Bureau in 1972. He later went on to hone his negotiating skills at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University in the late 70s. He then volunteered for a stint at the Japanese embassy in Bangkok before Asia was considered a good posting, and eventually returned in 1996 to Okinawa as the first native-born MPT regional director. He designed and headed up the prime minister's telecom initiative in Okinawa before moving to his current position.

A history buff, Inamura translated a biography on Alexander Graham Bell (inventor of the phone) into Japanese and taught international relations part-time at Saitama University for seven years. Professor Ronald A. Morse of Reitaku University in Tokyo visited Inamura at the MPT.

What distinguishes this new breed of MPT technocrat?
We all speak English well; we have studied communications policy abroad; and because of our close ties to the nationwide postal service, we know what is needed to restore some degree of balance between the needs of the rural areas and the big cities.

The only way to do this is to deregulate the market and introduce global competition. As long as the MPT budget remains small, deregulation and legal change will remain our primary weapons for introducing change. We have been struggling to deregulate since the mid-1980s and are confident that Japan can be competitive. We are also well prepared for tough bureaucratic in-fighting.

Don't forget that the MPT, with its postal savings operations, has been the only bureaucratic rival to the dominant financial role of the Ministry of Finance (MOF). And in telecom, we serve as a check on the Ministry of International Trade and Industry (MITI). MITI reflects the interests of big industry and urban areas. MPT deputy-level technocrats like me may not be completely in charge yet, but we are well positioned to shape Japan's communications agenda in a major way.

What is holding the MPT back?
The MPT is caught in a squeeze play. On the one hand, we are not given adequate budget resources for research and technology applications and, on the other hand, with the privatization of the Nippon Telegraph and Telephone Corporation (NTT), we have lost a key revenue stream and the development labs. NTT privatization was good for Japan in that it fired up competition and market growth, but it was bad for the MPT.

The information super-highway in the United States is supported by the White House and the Pentagon. There is no equivalent level of support for telecommunications policy in Japan. In the current budget, we have only ¥100 billion for communications policies, peanuts compared to what is poured into the financial sector and construction projects. Because the MPT has such a small budget, it has to rely on indirect policy strategies like tax reduction incentives to get anything done.

For example, in fiscal year 1998, we provided a ¥300 billion-a-year tax deduction plan -- up to ¥1 million yen per system -- to small and medium-sized companies and families to encourage Internet access. As a result, computer purchases in Japan are higher than ever.

How do you see NTT?
We can sympathize with them. NTT has been privatized and it is under severe pressure to streamline their operations and cut costs. For that reason, like the MPT, they can't put adequate resources into basic research, field operations, and education either.

Unfortunately, the fixed-line telephone system is in decline. Now, with stockholders watching every move, NTT can only invest in high-return activities. Like the MPT, NTT has its back to the wall and has to lobby hard to protect its interests. However, everyone knows there is no going back. We know that market forces now have the upper hand.

How is the MPT encouraging potential competitors to NTT?
We are doing several things. Cable operators can now get low-interest loans, funding is provided for new technology development, and rural counties are now eligible for direct subsidies. With regard to digital broadcasting, we will have our first satellite up this year and 11 digital terrestrial experimental projects are already under way. The digital broadcast program is scheduled for 2003, but by 2006, Japan will be completely covered by digital broadcasting. We also have a ¥25 billion supplement this year for the super high-speed, next-generation Internet "Millennium Project."

What is the Japanese government doing to encourage code division multiple access (CDMA) technology in Asia?
Japan and the Europeans are taking the lead. Unfortunately, America might lose ground because its policies aren't coordinated. Japan will probably be the first to start international mobile telecommunications (IMT-2000) standardization globally. It is looking carefully at the huge mobile market in China. Yoshio Utsumi, the new secretary general of the UN International Telecommunication Union, which provides support to developing nations, favors global standardization.

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