The Barriers to Software Development in Japan

This article is based on a paper that originally appeared (in Japanese) in the August 1997 Journal of IPSJ. Sections of that original paper have been adapted and translated for Computing Japan with the permission of Dr. Ohsuga.

by Setsuo Ohsuga

Take a look at store shelves in Akihabara, and you quickly realize that most of the recent software products available in the Japanese market have been developed by American companies. Only a few of the more popular software applications have been created by Japanese developers.

The reason behind Japan's weakness in software development, however, is not easy to ascertain. The development of software, unlike the development of some other technologies, involves a wide range of aspects: social, institutional, organizational, educational, and even cultural. Viewing the issue of software development as merely a technical issue misses the substance of the problem.

The US vs. Japan: a comparison

Let 's begin by comparing software development in the US and Japan. There are some clear differences between the software development environments of the two nations. First, the scope of software technology development is different. In the US, software development is broad in scope, encompassing operating systems (OSes) for mainframes, workstations, PCs, and networks; software languages; databases; packaged applications and customized industry applications; and graphics, image processing, and multimedia software. In most of these fields (except game software), the US has developed the world 's most advanced technologies.

In Japan, on the contrary, software development has been focused mainly on mainframes and industry applications. Other than game software, Japanese developers generally have not been active in consumer application software development. And while universities and public research organizations have been active in a broad range of software R&D, these have been separate from the fields of corporate interest.

Another difference is the relationship among large companies, venture companies, and universities, and their roles in sharing software technology development efforts. In the US, venture companies have played a key role in the development of new software technologies, and the venture capital system has become important in the support of such venture activities. Also, many venture companies have succeeded in commercializing concepts developed by universities.

American venture companies thus have been efficient entities for technological transfer, and the success of such venture companies has stimulated universities to widen their fields of research so as to foster the creation of unique and original ideas. This owes much to the freedom enjoyed by American universities, where fewer regulations are applied than in Japan, and where the allocation of budgets and researchers for software development are less encumbered by red tape.

In Japan, however, software development traditionally has taken place within conventional large corporations. The Japanese business environment has not been conducive to nurturing venture companies, and the venture capital system is not yet well established. If a venture company seems to be enjoying success in a certain field, larger companies will immediately enter the game and block the way.

Meanwhile, there are several tangible /intangible regulations imposed upon Japanese universities, such as restrictions on the number of researchers allowed. This has hindered the progress of university-based R&D and made it difficult for universities in Japan to nurture the necessary environment for developing new ideas and new software technologies. As a result, university researchers in Japan are generally isolated from the development of practical software technology.

Also, universities in the US have maintained close relationships with both conventional large corporations and venture companies. In Japan, on the other hand, universities have been largely isolated. In fact, several large Japanese companies have been seeking tie-ups not with Japanese universities, but with American universities or venture companies in hopes of catching up with the level of software development in the US.

There are, it is true, some software companies in Japan that are making a profit by taking advantage of the currently growing demand for distributed computing systems. Even these companies, however, lack a long-term business perspective; they seem content to simply survive in the current market. This embodies the true problem facing software development in Japan, and future prospects look dim.

The cultural aspect

To properly analyze Japan 's software development problem, several aspects -- including cultural, organizational, technical, social, and educational issues -- must be considered together. Software products, more than any other, realize individuals ' ideas, and are created under the influence of national culture.

In Christian cultures, for example, the basic ethos is based on the relationship between man and God rather than on relationships among individuals. This ethical basis has led to the creation of a spiritual climate championing personal rights, one in which individuals can express themselves freely without regard for the opinions of others. This has become a driving force for the development of new concepts in software, unhampered by traditional ways of thinking.

In Japan, however, the spiritual climate developed under a Confucian doctrine in which ethics are based on relationships between individuals. Sometimes called "the culture of shame," Japanese society stresses harmony among the individuals within social groups, and is reluctant to accept an individual who tries to stand out from the group by espousing a unique idea. This climate has hindered the display of personal individuality and the nurturing of creativity, both of which are essential traits for developing new software concepts.

The organizational aspect

A hierarchical organization with a top-down decision-making structure can work efficiently if the organization has a clear perspective of the future -- and if its top executives display good judgment and make the right decisions. An organization that does not have clear operational objectives and must rely to some extent on trial and error, however, may fail no matter how successfully it implements large-scale activities.

The potential scenario for such an organization is that of a decision maker who does not appreciate the situation, and who discourages the development of new ideas and concepts. This, unfortunately, is an apt description of many Japanese corporations, and an inherent reason that software development efforts are often less than satisfactory.

The technical aspect

A major problem with the technical aspect of software development in Japan lies not in the process itself (how the development work should proceed) but in the goal (just what should be developed). Researchers and engineers in Japanese corporations tend to introduce new software concepts that originated overseas, and then devote their efforts to refining those concepts. They seldom demonstrate the creativity to develop new, original concepts on their own.

This same tendency can be observed in the academic arena. In the judging of academic theses, for example, a paper that incorporates a cutting-edge foreign concept tends to be rated highly, while one that presents the researcher 's original ideas is evaluated harshly. This may be a remnant of the attitude developed in the Meiji Era, when Japan eagerly adopted the advanced scientific and technological concepts of Western nations in order to catch up.

A contributing factor, though, may be that Japanese science education has traditionally taken a substance-oriented approach -- one in which experimentation and observation are encouraged while conceptualization and abstraction are not. Software issues have not been highly evaluated within the technology field in Japan, which has hindered growth of the creativity needed for Japan to be successful in software development.

The social aspect

In Japan, the tendency to conform is quickly evident in almost any social group. Such a sense of conformity can only exist in a closed society like Japan (since it is difficult to judge with whom individuals should conform in an open society), in which people tend to be exclusive rather than inclusive and stick to traditional behaviors.

Such a society is maintained by regulations that tend to extend privilege to a select group of people. This, in part, is why deregulation is not easily advanced in Japan. In a social structure wherein bureaucracy serves mainly to protect the privileged few, society loses its vital power because people have few chances to create and implement new ideas. Japanese society still clings to such a traditional way of thinking, even in this era of internationalization. The result has been not only a delay in realizing true internationalization, but also a suppression of new software concepts such as are applicable to an open market environment.

The educational aspect

Theoretically, universities could play a key role in helping Japan form a new environment in which unique Japanese cultural aspects can be reconciled with the concept of internationalization. Few universities, however, have such an objective, and instead just mechanically turn their graduates out into society.

Many universities admit that they need to improve, but few can actually do so because of the excessive (even absurd) regulations under which they must operate. Restrictions on the number of software researchers allowed in university laboratories, for example, has encouraged a focus on academic development rather than practical research.

To solve the software development problem in Japan, developing the future role of universities and university laboratories is important. Japan must take the measures necessary for technological development with a long-term perspective, and organize an appropriate system to inspire creativity and encourage software development.

Setsuo Ohsuga is a graduate of the University of Tokyo, School of Engineering, Aeronautical Engineering. He became an associate professor at the University of Tokyo's Aerospace Laboratory in 1966, and a professor in the University of Tokyo's School of Engineering in 1988. Ohsuga became a professor at Waseda University's School of Science and Engineering, Information Department, in 1995. His specialties include knowledge processing, artificial intelligence, database, system design, CAD, and automatic programming.

-- Translated/adapted by Noriko Takezaki

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