A Pivotal Year: Japan in 1995

The Birth and Evolution of the Internet in Japan

Economy Society

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.

Japan’s First ISP

Commercialization was the next stage in the Internet’s evolution. However, University volunteers were limited in what they could do to develop Internet businesses. In 1990 in the United States, Rick Adams, a systems manager at the US Center for Seismic Studies, launched AlterNet, the world’s first Internet service provider. While Adams encouraged me to start an Internet business, the idea of starting and growing a business was an alien concept amid the research being done at Japanese universities at that time.

I was, however, facing a practical problem. Organizations desiring to connect to the Internet were growing rapidly to the point of exceeding the capacity of WIDE, the academic research system. The situation called for starting an Internet business. In 1992, my colleagues and I helped pool the money of a number of contributors, raising ¥10 million in capital, the minimum amount needed then to start a company.

We submitted an application to the Ministry of Posts and Telecommunications to be approved as a telecommunications carrier, but the ministry was slow to act. The application form included a section for recording evidence that the telecommunications carrier business could be performed. Here I wrote passionately about my past experience in experimental computer networks and our capacities as a specialist organization. I learned later that what was sought was a balance statement for a bank deposit account. What the ministry wanted to see in the interest of protecting users was evidence that there were enough funds to maintain the business even if revenues were zero.

This was a time when the Ministry of Posts and Telecommunications imagined telecommunications carriers joining the market dominated by NTT to be large companies like DDI Corporation, which was founded by Toyota Motor and 24 other companies. The ministry took no interest in business ventures like ours. In overcoming this difficult period we founded the Internet Initiative Japan (IIJ) in 1992, Japan’s first commercial Internet service provider.

Internet Use Spreads Rapidly Through Windows 95

In the early 1990s, ISPs began providing Internet service in Japan and the United States. Companies could now gain Internet access by paying a suitable fee. Internet use then spread to individuals following the launch of Windows 95.

By the second half of the 1990s, nearly all university researchers in the United States involved in Internet development, such as software development at UC Berkeley, had started businesses. As a result, Japan began to assume a central role in basic and leading-edge research. For example, Japan took the lead in technological innovations related to the internationalization of browsers and email to facilitate the use of languages other than English as well as in the development of IPv6, the next-generation Internet protocol.

In 1999, at a moment when I was full of confidence that Japan would drive the development of Internet technology, Takenaka Heizō, a colleague and economist at the Shōnan Fujisawa Campus, asked me why Japan was so far behind in the Internet.

I wondered at first how little he must know about the situation. However, Takenaka explained: “Government services and companies do not use the Internet in Japan. This is impeding Japan’s economic competitiveness, and the nation is relinquishing its presence on the global stage.” Takenaka’s remarks reminded me that the United States already offered an incentive plan to file taxes through the Internet and that online banking was enabling US financial institutions to move faster and more efficiently.

While the commercialization of the Internet began nearly at the same time in Japan and the United States, Japan fell far behind in its application. Already from the time of PC communications, personal computers were being used in the United States to provide government services and to pursue business opportunities. In contrast, there was zero interest in Japan regarding the potential of the Internet other than among university researchers and computer-related companies. I even found the prevalence of an attitude of wanting to reject the Internet.

Promoting the Computerization of Government Services

When I became aware of this situation, I began to visit the prime minister’s official residence, politicians, and government offices to share my concerns. In 2000, an IT Strategic Headquarters was established by the Mori Yoshirō cabinet. I myself, Takenaka, and other experts participated as members (in 2001 Takenaka was appointed minister of state for economic and fiscal policy under Koizumi Junichirō to promote structural reform).

The deliberations of the IT Strategic Headquarters led to the establishment of an e-Japan strategy in September 2000, and the IT Basic Act was enacted in November, taking effect in January 2001. The objectives of this act included the establishment of a super high-speed network, the promotion of electronic commercial transactions, and the computerization of government services.

Despite having established IT policies, progress was slow in adopting information technology in government services. One reason was the prominent legal stipulation that procedures occur in person and use documents and seals. Another example was the requirement that teachers instruct students in person, meaning that distance learning was not possible.

To deal with this situation, all government agencies searched through the laws under their jurisdiction to identify those that required in-person procedures and the use of documents and seals. This process identified about 9,000 such locations. Each of these laws was revised to include a statement that equivalent electronic procedures would suffice. The revision of the Commercial Code yielded immediate results. The code had restricted the location of board of directors meetings. Now it became possible to participate in board meetings at a distance through electronic means. It also became possible for schools to provide distance learning.

To this day, however, government offices prefer paper-based procedures, and small- and medium-sized enterprises have been slow to adopt information technology. In short, although Japan has made great strides in Internet technology and although the required infrastructure is in place, the nation has lagged behind the United States by failing to make full use of the Internet.

Future Shape of Global Networks

What are the future issues that need addressing in relation to the Internet? In considering this question, it will be necessary to think about coexistence between a borderless global society created by the Internet and an international community divided by national borders. How will an international community separated by borders maintain and develop the global society of the Internet?

As highlighted by the way it is capitalized, there is only one Internet in the world. In other words, the Internet means a network connecting everything together in the world. The ideal is all people being able to access this network. Now the Internet of things is drawing attention where all objects are connected together.

With the Internet of things, all the world’s automobiles will be connected to the same network. What can be accomplished with such a network? Naturally, automobiles will be able to exchange data directly with each other to avoid collisions. Data on exhaust volume and other environmental impacts can be collected. There will be a need to carefully consider how to utilize a global network bringing access to such data.

Finally, an issue that has raised great concern of late is Internet security. This issue boils down to the question of how to provide reliable services. What is needed is quality control and reliability, which are areas where Japan should have something to offer. At the present moment, however, Japan is not exerting these strengths in relation to the Internet.

Sometime in the future, every service of global society will be made available in some form through the Internet. We will be moving toward an age where greater value is placed on quality control and highly reliable services. Japan has an important responsibility to fulfill. It should lead the way in enhancing the quality of services in these aspects.

(Banner photo: Windows 95 goes on sale in Japan on November 23, 1995. ©Fujifotos / Aflo)

IT Internet Koizumi Junichiro NTT TCP/IP Windows 95 UNIX provider AT&T Bell Labs