Pork-Barrel Infotech

Back to Contents of Issue: December 2000

For overspending government ministries, 'the IT revolution' offers a cool new way to surf for taxpayer money.

by Chiaki Kitada

IT FEVER IS FINALLY spreading among Japan's bureaucrats and politicians. After idly watching the United States and Asian neighbors like South Korea zoom ahead in terms of high-tech infrastructure, the various government ministries are rallying to Prime Minister Mori's e-Japan initiative, which purports to make Japan the world's top IT country within five years. Full details are still being hammered out, but the plan reportedly contains some of these key elements:

  • Provide more than 100,000 public Net terminals nationwide.
  • Provide high-speed networks at 8,000 schools by 2002, and connect over 4,000 schools to fiber networks.
  • Provide basic IT training to 7 million.
  • Complete the "e-government" project by 2003, to include electronic tendering.
  • Set up rules to liberate the optical fiber networks owned by NTT.

Many of these sound like great ideas whose time has come, but not everyone sees the logic. "I don't understand why the government needs this IT legislation," says Kiyoshi Nakano, a professor at the Global Information and Telecommunication Institute at Waseda University. "IT is just a tool, unlike education or labor. It's not something the government has to get involved with."

But the government is getting involved, and the timing couldn't be better for public works ministries under criticism for loose spending habits. "It seems that Japan has been driven by vested interests deeply rooted in the construction industry for a long time, and now IT is getting attention as a hotbed for vested interests," says Kazuo Mizuno, chief economist of Kokusai Securities. "The government has promised to restructure its size and operation. But it looks like it's using IT to expand its tentacles. And the IT goal is one nobody can object to."

The Construction Ministry, which has fallen under especially heavy criticism for its political influencing and overspending, is asking for a ´yen;450.3 billion budget to install fiber optics along roads, rivers, and sewage pipelines. Pundits speculate this is merely a new way to get additional budget allocations and take the lead role in the nationwide FTTH -- "fiber to the home" -- project.

The Home Affairs Ministry, for its part, is asking for a ´yen;57 billion supplementary budget for training 5 million people. According to Video Research Net-com, however, the percentage of Japan's households going online jumped from 19.1 in September 1999 to 30.5 12 months later, with no government help. Kiyoshi Sugawa, a senior staff member of the Democratic Party of Japan says, "More people will go online even without training, as long as the cost comes down and the speed goes up."

Shin Yasunobe, an executive director of the Stanford Japan Center research division -- and a former top IT policy expert at MITI -- says he worries about the possibility of pork barrel politics creeping into IT. "Recent reports give me the impression that budget requests from so-called public works project ministries, such as construction and agriculture, are expanding more than those from MITI and MPT. This might be an indication of a turf war that could lead to pork-barrel politics taking root in the IT arena. If that's what's happening, Japan's so-called IT revolution is doomed."

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