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Features A Pivotal Year: Japan in 1995
The Birth and Evolution of the Internet in Japan

Murai Jun [Profile]


A leading figure of computer science, often called the father of Japan’s Internet, elucidates the development and spread of the Internet in Japan and discusses what the future might hold.

The Internet originated as an experimental computer network in academia. Its initial purpose was to enable universities and research institutions to communicate and exchange documents and research data on a non-profit basis. With the launch of Windows 95, what began as a grassroots researcher network gained rapid and widespread acceptance. In this article I discuss the development of the Internet in Japan and the social setting for its evolution.

JUNET, Japan’s First Research Computer Network

Frequently mentioned as the technological roots of the Internet are ARPANET, developed by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency of the US Department of Defense, and the UNIX operating system, developed by AT&T Bell Labs in 1969.

Despite the many representations to the contrary, ARPANET was not created to serve a military purpose. Rather, the initial aim was to connect a few of ARPA’s very expensive computers in a highly reliable manner so as to share computing resources and research results. The idea of connecting all the computers in the world did not initially exist at the Department of Defense. This aspiration was held in the hearts of a few young researchers, of which I was one.

In 1984 as a researcher at the Tokyo Institute of Technology I used modems I had brought back from the United States to connect the computers of the Tokyo Institute of Technology, Keiō University, and the University of Tokyo to launch Japan’s first academic computer network, which I named JUNET (Japan University Network). This was before connecting modems to telephone lines was officially allowed.

A significant event for computer networks in Japan the following year was the Telecommunications Business Act going into effect. The new act liberalized the telecommunications business, which was a duopoly of Nippon Telegraph and Telephone Public Corporation and the Kokusai Denshin Denwa Company. Many people hoped that this change would lead to the diversification of telecommunications services.

The new law finally opened the way for the use of modems. However, there was great concern that exchanging emails between organizations might put pressure on postal services. Another issue was whether it was appropriate to use the Internet Protocol for communications between organizations rather than the Open Systems Interconnection protocol promoted by the Japanese government.

This was a time when many experimental academic networks similar to Japan’s JUNET were being established. Centering for the most part on the United States, each network utilized its own protocol. Starting from around the end of the 1980s, a movement developed to connect all academic networks.

I took the lead in Japan establishing the Widely Integrated Distributed Environment (WIDE Project) in 1988, a consortium of companies, universities, and public institutions with the aim of achieving wide-area communications using TCP/IP.

In the US academic community, a group managing the Computer Science Network project for the US National Science Foundation led by Lawrence Landweber at the University of Wisconsin took leadership in the selection of TCP/IP. The CSNET project planned from the start to use electronic mail to speed up information exchange between researchers. Launched in 1981, CSNET succeeded in connecting more than 180 universities around the world through TCP/IP before the end of the decade. CSNET was the forerunner to what eventually became the backbone of the Internet for the entire United States. WIDE was connected to this network in 1989.

Grassroots Networks and PC Communications

Communications via personal computer was another important development in the early stages of the Internet. PC-VAN, ASCII-NET, and NIFTY-Serve were online service providers that appeared in Japan at the start of the 1990s. These networks sought to exchange email over the Internet, but regulations stood in the way. As noted above, data exchange between telecommunications companies were required to follow the international standard of OSI.

While the Internet was a grassroots network, PC communications were the domain of large providers that were obliged to conform to international standards. OSI, however, was not in fact operational, meaning that the users of Japan’s three online service providers were unable to exchange email with the users of other providers.

In 1990 I relocated to the Shōnan Fujisawa Campus of Keiō University. There I laid communications lines to the three online service providers and established a framework for exchanging email over the Internet. While PC-VAN, ASCII-NET, and NIFTY-Serve needed to be connected through OSI, I connected these providers individually to the Internet to enable the exchange of email.

Finally, by routing email through Internet mailing lists, it became possible for users of these three online service providers to exchange email. This turned out to be an important development leading to the Internet’s acceptance in Japan.

An Earthquake Spreads Social Awareness of the Internet

The Great Hanshin-Awaji Earthquake turned 1995 into an important milestone for the spread of the Internet in Japan when it rocked Kobe and surrounding areas on January 17. It was already possible to exchange emails over the Internet using different online service providers, and volunteers in Japan used PC communications to combine their efforts with overseas supporters to great effect.

The events produced a strong social awareness of how computer networks and email can contribute to building communities and facilitating communication.

It was in this environment of growing Internet awareness that Windows 95 was launched in Japan in November 1995 (Windows 95 went on sale in August in the United States). Windows 95 made it easy for anyone to access the Internet, and the number of Internet users rapidly increased. In December 1995, “Internet” was named one of the top 10 words in an annual award for new and trendy terms.

People now access the Internet through social networking services, smart phones, and cell phones. Such Internet use has come to be a central part of society, a reality which was brought home during the Great East Japan Earthquake of March 11, 2011. In Japan, events like earthquakes have greatly expanded awareness of the Internet’s social use.

  • [2015.10.09]

Professor of the Faculty of Environment and Information Studies, Keiō University, where he also earned a degree in engineering in 1979 and PhD in Computer Science in 1987. Born in 1955.  Founded JUNET, Japan’s first inter-university computer network in 1984. Founded the WIDE Project, a Japanese Internet research consortium in 1988, and promoted the establishment and the spread of the Internet. Guided the early Internet toward a Japanese and multilingual environment.  Publications include Intānetto (The Internet), Intānetto shinsedai (The New Internet Generation), and Intānetto no kiso (Internet Fundamentals).

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