Excoriating Japan on Internet Throughput

Steven J. Searle

Web Master, TRON Web

Certain westerners, in particular ethnocentric British and American Japan specialists, love to excoriate Japan. No matter what Japan does, whether it is successful or unsuccessful, it has to be excoriated. Accordingly, when there is a Japanese success, it has to be excoriated as cheating, a fluke, or a clever plot against western interests. When there is a Japanese failure, it has to be excoriated as proof that Japan's unique way of doing things--which is not to mention those hated "Asian values"--does not work. All this self-serving Anglo-American blather wouldn't be worthy of note, except that Japan's leaders foolishly take this nonsense to heart; and they do their damnedest to try to conform to the "mold" that elite western opinion carves out for them. However, as history has shown, whenever Japan tries acting like a western nation, it usually leads to disaster for the Japanese people. Japan's two biggest failures in the 20th century were when it tried to ape European and American imperialism in East Asia in the 1930s, and when it caved in to American political pressure and created its ruinous bubble economy in the latter half of the 1980s. [1]

In the field of information technology (IT) also, Japan has been excoriated. At one time Japan was called a "technological freeloader," because, in the eyes of Japan's critics, the country did not do enough basic technology research. However, shortly after the TRON Project--which includes both basic technology development and applied research--was launched, elite American opinion excoriated it for being both no big deal and a heinous plot against the U.S. software industry. (Yes, elite American opinion is usually highly schizophrenic when it comes to matters concerning Japan!) Now that we have entered the Internet era, Japan is once again being excoriated. Japan's sin this time around is charging high fees for low throughput 56 Kbps analog and 64-Kbps ISDN service. [2] Japan's American critics, in particular, believe that merely by installing high-speed lines, such as cable modem and Digital Subscriber Lines (DSL), more Japanese will use the Internet, and as a result the Japanese economy will miraculously be lifted from the doldrums of recession. Sadly, Japan's national leaders are listening to this view without even considering the facts about Internet throughput. [3]

So let's set the facts straight here for Japan's foreign critics and the Japanese leaders they target. First, more and more Japanese are signing up for Internet service. The most popular Internet service, which is growing by leaps and bounds, happens to be NTT DoCoMo's "i-mode," which can only manage a mere 9.6 Kbps of throughput in its present form. This is scheduled to jump to 64~384 Kbps next May when 3G services commence, but the fact of the matter is that throughput is a secondary consideration for many Japanese people when deciding to get on the Net. Convenience and ease of use are primary. Second, some high-speed lines such as cable modem are high-speed some of the time, but at peak use hours, i.e., lunch time and in the evening when everyone is at home, they are not much faster than a 64 Kbps ISDN line. [4] Third, as the freeway system in Los Angeles has shown in the physical world, increasing bandwidth (i.e., the number of traffic lanes) will only encourage more traffic. When bandwidth intensive services such as Video-On-Demand--especially in HDTV formats--are implemented, chances are that even high-speed lines such as DSL will not be able to cope.

And that brings me to my point. Instead of once again giving in to the excoriation of westerners and reflexively making decisions that cannot easily be undone, what Japan's leaders should be doing is discussing the Internet and asking the three most important questions about it: (1) what do we want to do on the Internet, (2) how much throughput do we need to do it, and (3) what do we have to do to guarantee that throughput? The third question is actually the most important, because it affects the overall design of networks in Japan, an issue that is never brought up by the westerners who excoriate Japan. Yes, if "the network is the computer" as Sun Microsystems likes to remind us, then the network has to be designed just as a standalone computer would be--as a "total system." However, the people excoriating Japan are only interested in what is going on at the client end, even though a bottleneck somewhere else on the Net, e.g., an undersea cable between Japan and the U.S., could slow throughput below the client's maximum reception rate.

I have already given my opinion on this issue (see "One Information Superhighway Is Not Enough"). That's one person's opinion. What's more important is other interested people in Japan developing their opinions. For that to happen there has to be intelligent, detailed discussion on a nationwide basis. So far, the only voices are those of western opinion leaders, who are little more than disinformation specialists pursuing narrow American commercial advantages under the guise of "helping Japanese consumers." Japan's leaders listened to these voices in the past, and the result has been 10 years of economic decline, the world's highest per capita national debt, a dramatic rise in unemployment and crime (including handgun crimes in a country where handguns cannot be legally purchased!), and, in the not too distant future, substantially higher taxes and deep cuts in government entitlement programs. With a track record like that, should the Japanese people once again listen to westerners who make a living from excoriating their country, or should they start to think for themselves? [5]


[1] Interestingly, some of the things Japan was excoriated for during the 1980s, such as high real estate prices and rents, are now a feature of America's "miracle economy." The most expensive real estate prices and rents are in Silicon Valley and vicinity, where they are so high that even some software engineers with jobs have to live in homeless shelters. Naturally, since this is a phenomenon in the U.S., it passes without criticism. However, if software engineers were living in homeless shelters in Japan, the USTR and America's Japan specialists would be harping on it as another indication of a "structural flaw" in the Japanese economy.

[2] I used a 56 Kbps modem for two years here in Tokyo, during which time I ran up huge telephone bills of $200 to $250 per month. When I tried to reduce these telephone bills by downloading a Web page and going off line, the Java applets on the Web page frequently reconnected to the Net. When I shut the modem off to prevent them from doing that, an error message panel informing me the server cannot be located appeared in the center of the screen, which prevented me both from reading the downloaded data or doing anything else. When I turned off Java to prevent the applets from loading, I got error messages from some Web pages telling me to upgrade my browser. As a result, I discovered that Web page design was just as responsible for my high telephone bills as the telephone company.

[3] A lot of people have accepted the story that America's economy has recovered as a result of the widespread use of IT. While the recovery of the American economy is in part due to the use of IT, there are other more important factors that are never mentioned. These include huge cutbacks in Federal government entitlement programs, a decline in real wages since 1973 for the majority of workers, the withdrawal of pension and other benefits for many salaried workers by employers, massive illegal immigration by workers willing to work at substandard wages, a significant drop in organized labor activities, and, most importantly, large inflows of investment capital from Europe and Japan.

[4] Although my employer paid my huge telephones bills when I used a 56 Kbps modem, I felt guilty about bringing them in every month. When I asked if there was an alternative, I was surprised to discover that cable modem service is available in my area. I am now one of Japan's 300,000 cable modem users, paying about $50 per month for unlimited access to the Internet. However, since cable modem is a shared medium, throughput varies greatly according to the number of people on the LAN simultaneously. When throughput is good, I seem to be getting twice--sometimes even three times--the speed of an ISDN line. However, when lots of people are using it, i.e., every evening, the service is no better than that delivered by a 56 Kbps modem or a 64 Kbps ISDN line. Accordingly, the main advantage of cable modem is low cost access to the Internet.

[5] Just as I am about to post this opinion piece, Japan's IT Strategy Council has released a draft calling for the installation of high-speed Internet connections (undoubtedly DSL) to 30 million Japanese households (i.e., 70 percent of households), and ultra high-speed Internet connections with throughput of 30 to 100 Mbps (i.e., optical fiber lines) to 10 million households within the next five years. This clearly seems to be a reaction to foreign criticism of Japan's existing Internet infrastructure, since there is very little explanation in the press about how all this throughput is going to be used--only some fuzzy ideas about increasing e-commerce 10-fold and establishing e-government services.