Japan Inc. Meets The Digerati

Japan Inc. Meets The Digerati

Izumi Aizu [4.15.97]

"The Keidenren's Man in Kuala Lumpur" 

By John Brockman

The motto of this endeavor is "To arrive at the edge of the world's knowledge, seek out the most complex and sophisticated minds, put them in a room together, and have them ask each other the questions they are asking themselves." Last fall, precisely at 4:30 p.m., September 27, I had such an opportunity.

Izumi Aizu, who runs GLOCOM, Center for Global Communications, had called a week before from Tokyo to ask if I would meet and talk with a delegation he was bringing over from Japan for a whirlwind telecom and Internet "learning tour. "Why don't you invite some of the digerati who are in town to stop by and mingle?" he added. "These guys are keen to meet people who are making things happen."

"No problem," I replied. "But don't expect miracles. This is New York City, hardly the innovative capital of the world these days. I'll see who's around," I said off-handedly."

"Good, I'll email the list to you."

A week later, a bus pulled up in front of my office building and more than 30 Japanese businessmen (and one woman) filed out. "The Keidenren," better known in the West as "Japan, Inc.," was coming to visit. They were traveling together to Washington (The White House, the FCC); New York (Time-Warner NBC, IBM, and me); London (British Telecom, OFTEL, Department of Industry); and Bonn (Deutsche Telekom, Congress).

And who might be coming to visit? The leader of the delegation was Shigeo Sawada, Chairman, Nippon Telegraph and Telephone Corporation (NTT). Other members of the group included, among others, Toshio Miki, Representative Director and Executive Vice President, Nippon Steel Corporation; Hitoshi Ito, General Manager, Information Systems, The Tokyo Marine and Fire Insurance Co.; Masanori Watanabe, General Manager, Corporate Department, The Industrial Bank of Japan; Osamu Kinoshita, Senior Vice President and Head of Management Planning Office, The Dai-Ichi Kangyo Bank; Yuzo Shinkai, Director, Information Systems and Services Group, Mitsubishi Corporation; Kouya Mita, Vice President, Itochu Corporation; Minoru Yoshikawa; Director, The Tokyo Electric Power Co.; Hisaji Nakazono, Managing Director, The Nomura Securities Co.; Osamu Takenaka, Senior Managing Director, Kokusai Denshin Denwa Co.; and Masato Chiba, Senior Vice President, NEC Corporation.

As the obligatory formal introductions and toasts were taking place, my teenage son, Max Brockman, leaned over and asked, in a whisper, the very question I was asking myself: "Dad, why you??"

Fortunately, a number of digerati showed up on short notice. They included Greg Clark President of NewsCorp Technology; Jaron Lanier, virtual reality pioneer and musician; Steven Levy, author of Hackers; Jerry Michalski, editor of Release 1.0; Stewart McBride, founder of United Digital Artists' Stewart McBride; Kip Parent, founder of Pantheon-Interactive; Richard Shaffer, editor and publisher of The Computer Letter; and Frank Moretti and Rachel Packman of Columbia University's New Laboratory for Teaching and Learning, and The Dalton School.

Between the talks and the drinks, the two groups, initially standing apart from each other, warmed up and became engaged in animate conversation. By all accounts the visit was a great success.

Izumi has been the man to see in Tokyo about the Internet. He's also been a regular visitor to the States, often with a group of Japanese executives in tow. But no more. The Keidenren has dispatched him to Kuala Lumpur to help develop the Multimedia Super Corridor and to give Japanese business a major presence in Malaysia as well as in Asia.

Izumi's email signature slogan is WRITING the HISTORY of the FUTURE . Next time you're in KL, look him up at the Asia Network Research.

Izumi Aizu is "The Bridge."  


JB: What was that all about, Izumi, trying to figure out how to take over the Internet?

AIZU: How to follow the game, or how to catch up is a better description. The Japanese can play the game of catching up much better than everybody else. The problem is, it's usually very difficult for Japanese to be the front runner.

JB: Why is that?

AIZU: The Japanese tradition is importing the culture. Almost two or three thousand years ago we started importing from China. About 150 years ago we started importing the culture from the West. We not only swallowed this culture, but very often, almost always we changed it, or added, or modified, and thus it's become a very unique, original. The problem is it's sometimes very difficult to find where the real origin of Japanese culture is. That though doesn't mean the Japanese culture is not original. We at GLOCOM tend to make a clear difference between the culture and civilization. Civilization is more of the actual forms of life — life styles, the use of gadgets, etc., while culture is much more deep, and it's hard to change, even when you try consciously. In terms of civilization, Japan can export things, like cars and VCRs, but we never really exported the Japanese culture. Americans are now eating sushi as part of the California cuisine. But that doesn't mean they partake of Japanese culture.

JB: Don't tell me that Japanese culture is sushi. The culture to me is unfathomable. You happen to be the rare exception, a Japanese technocrat who speaks perfect English. Almost all the people I work with in Japan understand English, and can read it, but they are not trained in school to speak it — and they don't.

AIZU: Or write it.

JB: Because they're not trained to speak, they don't want to be embarrassed, and you wind up in a situation where you're completely dependent on translators, and you have no idea what the translators are saying. Americans don't know what's going on and it's thus very difficult to read this culture, because what you hear may not even be what is being said.

AIZU: For the Japanese speaking and writing, expressing yourself, can be embarrassing. We have difficulty exporting internal ideas to the outer world. We have a history of not having to export ideas. We just take from the outside. So we can read, we can hear, and understand English, but we haven't really cultivated expressing, or communicating, or interacting in English.


  JB: How does this effect Japan's business relations with Western countries - for instance the recent Japan, Inc. tour you led to the U.S. and London and Germany?

AIZU: They absorbed, or learned, about what is going on out there, and digested it in such a manner that they can understand. I'm a little bit concerned that whether they made the right choices of places to visit, and talked to the right people —with the exception of the visit to this office.

In Washington we visited the White House, we went to the FCC and I took them to the Internet Society — then we came to New York. The day started at 8:30 a.m. at the hotel with the Time-Warner guys, and we went to NYNEX, and then we went to IBM headquarters, where 30 people were put in a conference room to listen to a bunch of brief presentations.

This is very different than talking and meeting the individuals that you brought in such as Steve Levy, author of Hackers, Kip Parent, of Pantheon Interactive, who had implemented Silicon Surf for SGI, and Jaron Lanier, a polymath, and musician, as well as a leading pioneer of virtual reality. These guys are really driving the revolution.

The large corporations like IBM, NYNEX, Time-Warner, etc., are the followers, I would say. The individuals in these big corporations are fine, on a personal level. In fact in some cases you will find great people, interesting, and fun people. But when it comes to meetings, things become very boring. It's rare to get to talk to people on an individual basis and in a very open atmosphere. And this is where the real intellectual encounter happens.

JB: But the encounter seems to be one-way. The people I brought to the party didn't have a clue as to what Japanese visitors wanted, or were thinking about.

AIZU: Right. That's the problem. Sometimes, they can, despite their bad English, express their interest and focus in a private conversation. Sometimes they can't. Part of the reason I asked you to organize that kind of meeting was that I wanted to show the other side of the world, where the large corporations don't matter, where individual people are the real source of creativity and are changing the times and history. They certainly appreciated that after we left here. They loved that different kind of atmosphere. Although I'm not too sure if they can take any productive business lessons from it.  

JB: This group is a delegation from a group called Keidenren. What's that?

AIZU: The Japanese companies or business societies often form delegations, or study groups, to the U.S. or Europe. It's not so much about interaction as trying to absorb what's going on there, take it back, and use what we can from the experience. This tour has a very unique, strange setup. Officially, for international consumption, it's the Keidenren Tour. Domestically it's a quiet tour — they cannot present it as Keidenren. I was asked to help them visit some of the places like the White House and the FCC. Usually, a government ministry or a large corporation such as NTT, would make the arrangements. But this time they were interested more informal meetings with some of my friends inside the White House and inside the FCC than in going through official diplomatic channels. It started two and a half years ago when a similar group, under a different banner but made up of almost exactly the same people, came to the U.S., in '94, to study what's going on in the U.S. when the Clinton administration began serious thinking about the Internet revolution.

At that time, most people were still focused on cable box and the possibility of 500 channels delivered over your tv set. So the group decided they wanted to visit Time-Warner in Orlando, Florida. Nevertheless, I wanted them to meet people who believed the Internet would be the central focus. In this regard, with few email exchanges I set up a White House meeting with a young guy named Mike Nelson who was interested in the Internet. Mike got some other higher ranking officials to also join the meeting.

It was the first time the White House had made a high-level meeting of this nature without exchanging any formal paper. It was all done through email. Without the informal nature of the contact through this means of communication, the meeting never would have taken place. At that time, your President and our Prime Minister couldn't agree on trade issues. In fact, In February '94, our Prime Minister had said No to the U.S. side. All the diplomatic talks were temporarily stopped. Your ministries couldn't talk to our ministries without higher level of approval by the Clinton administration, which didn't happen. That's part of the reason why my group, GLOCOM, was brought in - we were able to make contact very informally by the use of email.

JB: Wouldn't it seem reasonable to imagine that a visit to the White House by a group that included the Chairman of NTT, perhaps the largest corporation in the world, the Managing Director of Mitsubishi, the heads of the five largest banks of Japan, would get an audience with President Clinton or the Vice-President Gore? Why did they wind up meeting with the White House techies?

AIZU: Very simple. The younger guys like Mike Nelson and Tom Kalil, know much more about technology, even though they may not have a big influence on policy.

JB: But you didn't bring your younger guys; you brought the bosses. Why wouldn't the Secretary of Commerce be there, or the U.S. Trade Negotiator?

AIZU: I didn't try that, because in my perception these big names and big guys don't produce much. They give us diplomatic, official talk, but we don't find out what's actually going on inside the administration. I love something more informal, casual and young. That's how we learn things.

JB: What did you learn?

AIZU: We had expected that big competition would emerge here out of the new communications act passed in Congress, and related FCC rulings. It seemed to us that the telephone companies were going to emerge as leaders of the communications revolution. But we left being very skeptical about the role of the telcos. They are not up to speed on the Internet, or, say, on Intranets. What they may be able to offer cheaper, faster pipes, and that's fine. But that's not where the action is.

The morning after we visited you in New York, we went to London and met with the Chairman of British Telcom, then to Bonn and met with the Chairman of the Deutsche Telekom. Those talks were boring. Really boring. Along with their U.S. counterparts, the European telcos are ready for competition but they are in the wrong arena. They are not really living in the digital age.

After Bonn I flew to Singapore for a twelve hours visit as a side trip, separate from the group. I had a question for myself: how I could explore setting up an operation in Kuala Lumpur to help develop a Multimedia Super Corridor and to have a major presence in not only Malaysia, but rather vast areas in Asia, from Mongolia to India, let's say. The visit was successful and I am about to move there.  

 JB: Does Malaysia really need your help?

AIZU: No. But I hope that main result of my efforts will be to help the other Asian countries, like Vietnam, or Laos, or Cambodia. These are very politically difficult countries, more so perhaps than Singapore. I hope to work with Nepal, Bangladesh, the Philippines — Asia-wide. Looking at it from the Japanese side, my job is to help Japanese business to open these markets.

JB: Let's talk about the Internet and the World Wide Web. Is anyone in Japan asking what the end users want?

AIZU: How about Kareoke? Personal home pages are a global kareoke. Does Kareoke produce anything? I'm not too sure how popular the Kareokes are amongst intellectuals.

JB: So you come over here, visit the White House, and go back and write reports for the people who pay your rent. What do you tell them?

AIZU: I'm due to make the report a few months from now, but before that I will also go to Malaysia, Singapore and Philippines. What I meant is I really need to create a more global perspective than just the U.S., Europe and Japan, but also excluding Africa, and Latin America. The report will say that the information revolution, or digital revolution, is not driven by the large corporations, large money, large government. More important are tiny companies or the energy of highly creative individuals. To fully understand these dynamics you have to make yourself very close to such people, and you're working for the large corporations there is a lower chance of this happening.

I don't know how my corporate clients take this advice, but at least I was able to take executives of Toyota to the West Coast and showed them what's going on. I brought them to meet Howard Rheingold at his small start-up, Electric Minds, also to meet your Web team — Kip Parent, Jake McGowan, and the group at Pantheon Interactive in Mountain View. I also brought them to Sun Microsystems, Cisco, and Netscape. To me, the latter have already become large giant companies. But two years ago Netscape had just barely started. We need to see and understand these kind of dynamics. Because these are the kind of companies that are creating the rules of the game.

The Japanese need to learn the skills to distinguish what kind of technology will take off and what kind of technology won't. For example, the people running the major software companies on the West Coast have networks of many personal friends who are also working in the technology areas; they know how to scan for information, for trends. Sending me with a delegation once a year, or something like that is totally inadequate.