Japan helps knit the global net

Back to Contents of Issue: November 2001

Bureaucrats, policy wonks, and corporate captains rarely agree. Maybe Japan can sort everyone out?

by Michael Thuresson

Japan would appear to be an unlikely hub for global Net policy. Conventional wisdom has it that this country is miles behind, say, America in developing corporate IT infrastructure; national leaders continue to struggle to define the government's e-Japan initiative; and most important business here is still conducted through face-to-face meetings, with nary an email exchanged. Besides, Japan has plenty of bureaucrats of its own, thank you very much, and doesn't need hoards of international policy wonks snapping up all the best rooms at the New Otani.

But despite this, Japan is emerging as an unlikely participant in several international IT and e-business development programs. The Global Business Dialogue on Electronic Commerce (GBDe) is one such initiative well-manned by captains of corporate Japan. The GBDe, formed in 1999, brings together senior executives from blue-chip global corporations to develop policies promoting global electronic commerce.

The GBDe focuses on consumer confidence, convergence, security, e-government, Net payments, intellectual property rights, and taxation, among other issues. The roster of GBDe members reads like a Who's Who of the world's Internet and technology giants, including AOL Time Warner's Steve Case, Hewlett-Packard's Carleton Fiorina, Michael Eisner of Disney, Louis Gerstner of IBM, and Jorma Ollila of Nokia.

The organization is split into three regional groupings centered on Europe/Africa, the Americas, and Asia/Oceania, with each region headed by two co-chairmen. The lack of a single individual or team sitting at the top appears to indicate that the GBDe is more of an advocacy and policy cheerleading effort rather than a hard-and-fast working-level organization intended to produce detailed action plans.

Sure enough, the draft recommendations from the September Tokyo meeting provide guidelines, safeguards, and definitions as opposed to detailed specifications for implementing e-business. Nonetheless, with such big-name support, these should prove invaluable as local and national governments, organizations, and companies attempt to create working, cross-border e-commerce systems.

The recommendations include guidelines on personal data privacy protection, implementation of business-to-consumer alternative dispute resolution mechanisms, an endorsement of trustmark programs, ways to identify and eliminate barriers to digital convergence, and the promotion of transnational solutions against the spread of racist, xenophobic, or child pornographic content.

Japan is one country demonstrating significant support for the GBDe. Michio Naruto, chairman of the Fujitsu Research Institute, presently serves as co-chair of the GBDe's Asia-Oceania region group, where 11 of 17 seats are held by representatives from the heavyweights of Japan Inc., including the Bank of Tokyo-Mitsubishi, Hitachi, Matsushita Electric Industrial, Mitsui, NEC, NTT, and Toshiba.

This high level of support comes as no surprise considering the extent to which Japan has already adopted e-commerce methods. Even before the Internet, it was common here to make all manner of consumer payments by automatic or ATM-initiated bank transfers, while many North Americans are still writing checks (see Eamonn Fingleton interview, page 6). Further, there are several hundred EDI (electronic data interchange) standards here, and many large companies are long used to conducting B2B transactions electronically, if not actually on the Web.

But it's a different story when it comes to SMEs, or small and medium enterprises -- the workhorses of Japan's economy. "The larger businesses and more established companies are almost at the same level of IT expertise as their US counterparts," says Frank G. Carrico, commercial attache for IT at the US embassy in Tokyo and attendee at the September GBDe conference. "But there is a big gap when you go from the larger companies to the smaller companies in Japan -- there you see big differences between the SMEs in the US and the SMEs in Japan."

At the GBDe conference, Carrico was assisting the US Department of Commerce's Office of Electronic Commerce (OEC), which helps push companies worldwide to adopt US IT expertise. Japan is one place the OEC is very active, and Carrico says the US government is active in the e-Japan program, a central-government led initiative to boost IT usage at Japanese corporations, among other aims (see "Pork-Barrel Infotech," page 7, December 2000). "Early next year, we will organize an e-Japan seminar where American businesses can come in and show [their] products and services. This will help accelerate the process so the Japanese government can achieve its e-Japan goal by the year 2005."

Carrico says Japan shows particular promise for advanced e-commerce deployments in the financial securities business, banking services, and entertainment industry. Also, the medical field is growing very quickly. "A certain amount of government cooperation is going to be necessary in this sector. There's huge potential here, whether you're talking about forms processing, bioinfomatics, or accelerating information exchange and patient information," he says.

But it isn't only the GBDe, captains of corporate Japan, and the US government that are trying to encourage early adoption of e-commerce. In July 2000, at the Kyushu-Okinawa Summit, no less a body than the Group of Eight (G8) major industrialized democracies addressed the growing risks of a global "digital divide" based on IT haves and have-nots. The G8 issued a charter calling for the creation of a Digital Opportunity Task Force (DOT Force). Like the GBDe, DOT Force appears to be enjoying significant support among bureaucrats in the US, Canada, Japan, and elsewhere. Maybe Japan's over-abundance of paper-pushers will prove to be an advantage when global partners seek this country's input and support for DOT Force, GBDe, and other initiatives.

Ironically, Japan may already be the pace setter for at least one version of e-commerce, namely m-commerce -- or e-commerce conducted via mobile networks. The embassy's Carrico tacitly admits that Japan's m-commerce leads the world, including America's. "Mobile commerce is already important in Japan," he says, adding, "It will become more important as the US catches up to Japan in cellular phone use." @

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