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Shedding the abacus, Japan sprints into the information age

In the good old days, the Tokyo Stock Exchange was chaos. Traders on the huge exchange floor handled countless transactions by flashing hand signals to overworked clerks who somehow kept track of everything with pencil and abacus. It was that way for a hundred years. But then the future arrived. A computer system was installed which, as of this month, takes care of all but 250 of the most actively traded stocks. Now most of the traders here quietly gaze into video screens.

``I miss the old days,'' says Nobuyoki Osuga, who has spent the past 15 years at a trader at the exchange, ``but this is happening everywhere now.''

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The imposition of the computer on time-honored tradition is an old story in the United States. Not in Japan, though. For all its skill in producing advanced computer and telecommunications equipment, the automation of the workplace is still a novelty. But it is a novelty that promises to disappear soon and, as a result, boost the international competitiveness of Japanese industry.

In short, Japan is sprinting into the information age.

Until recently, an assortment of cultural obstacles and regulatory barriers caused the country to lag in the development of computer networks taken for granted in the US and Western Europe. Now, with this month's deregulation of the telephone market, many of those regulatory barriers have been torn down. And the cultural obstacles -- especially a lingering unfamiliarity with typewriter-style keyboards -- are rapidly evapor-ating as the automation of the Japanese work-place continues its inexorable advance.

The number of computer data bases in the country has nearly doubled in the last three years. Private companies are greeting the newly deregulated telecommunications market with plans for vast fiber-optic cable networks with which to link the corners of the nation. Already, Japan has laid more of the high-capacity cables than any other country.

Banks, whose position in the international financial services industry has been hurt by their lack of automation, are racing to install large-scale computerized systems to handle their transactions. The government is pushing ahead with plans to develop a home-grown satellite technology to meet the growing demand for high-speed data transmission. ``New media,'' a buzz phrase for the linking of video, audio, and computer data that will supposedly become ubiquitous in the future, has become a fixture in the Japanese lexicon.

All the activity is seen here as a matter of economic survival. ``We need to establish these systems to stay competitive with the rest of the world,'' says Akira Maeda, director of the recently privatized Nippon Telegraph & Telephone Corporation (NTT).

Japan's traditional heavy industries -- such as steel and autos -- which propelled the country's meteoric economic growth in the 1960s and early '70s, are said to have peaked. As a result, Japanese policymakers say the development of information technology is vital for the nation's economic survival.

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Such efforts will prove important for the development of computer and communications industries, but they could turn out to be more vital for the prosperity of the service industries, which now employ more than those in manufacturing. The governmental Ministry of International Trade and Industry (MITI) figures that nearly 58 percent of the national work force is employed in the service sector. Yet in contrast to its huge trade surplus in manufactured items, Japan experiences a sizable deficit in services.

Japan is also making strides in the establishment of computer-to-computer networks known as value-added networks, or VANs. Since plans to deregulate the telephone market were announced in December, at least a dozen companies have announced plans for large-scale VANs, which could provide wide-ranging benefits to the companies that decide to use them.

Toyota, for example, is building one to connect it to several thousand suppliers so that their computers, rather than their office clerks, can place orders. Okamura Corporation, a manufacturer of steel office furniture, has linked all its factories, sales offices, and employees with a nationwide system. With all the automation, five clerks now do the work once required of 30 accountants.

And this is just the beginning. Two products now under way, one sponsored by NTT, the other by the Ministry of Posts and Telecommunications (MOPT) -- put Japan on the crest of emerging information-age technologies.

NTT's Information Network System (INS), which began a five-year test run in a Tokyo suburb last November, is part of a 15-year project that aims to make Japan the world's first ``advanced electronic society.'' Ultimately, 80 to 90 percent of NTT's annual investment could be applied to this goal. The INS idea is to blanket Japan with a network of optical-fiber hookups and computerized technology, thus bringing data, video, and facsimile equipment -- not to mention voice -- where the humble telephone once sat.

No less ambitious is MOPT's ``teletopia'' project, which aims to dub selected cities as ``teletopias'' and outfit them with the latest telecommunications gear, linking businesses, homes, and government offices. The ministry has already chosen 10 sites, from a field of 100 applicants, and will continue to select 10 more each year until the entire nation has been peppered with these outposts of the information age.

Both projects have their critics. Already, several constituencies are bridling at the thought of a nationwide INS. Merchants, for instance, reportedly see INS-style teleshopping as a threat to their business.

Others think INS represents wasted effort. Hiroshi Inose, a University of Tokyo telecommunications specialist, thinks the enormous sums NTT will have to spend to digitalize its entire network would be better spent elsewhere. He says digital systems should replace older analog networks only as regular maintenance and replacement schedules warrant. His own surveys show that the electronic gadgets people want most in their homes are security systems -- something that does not require digital fiber-optics networks.

Some observers have snickered at the teletopia project -- one official at the government's national land agency called it ``comical'' as an underfinanced attempt to accomplish what should be left to the private sector.

And purveyors of information services in Japan have more than skeptiscm to overcome. The lack of a keyboard tradition has given rise to a relatively high level of computer anxiety, so may people here are simply avoiding the contraptions for as long as they can. The aversion to computers may be too strong even for the Japanese lovers of gadgets to overcome: Kyodo News Service reports that half of the personal computers sold in Japan are never actually used. cho Efforts to extend the hours of automated teller machine lines have been stymied by labor concerns and by smaller banks that fear being overrun by the technical sophistication of the larger ones. Labor has reportedly had a hand in slowing the automation of the stock exchange: Exchange officials estimate 400 or 500 people will lose their jobs to computerization.

The ripening of the information age has had its darker side as well: Statistics from the state's police agency indicate that computer crime is on the rise.

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