They may lead the world in computer technology, but the Japanese have been bypassed by the information superhighway. Richard Vadon explains
At a Japanese government press conference last year, called to mark the unveiling of the plans for an "info-communications infrastructure", the telecommunications minister was asked by a foreign journalist for his e-mail address. Not only did he not have one, but he did not know what an electronic mailbox was.

Japan is generally thought of as being a world leader in computer technology, but when it comes to the Internet it is lagging behind. The United States, the UK and Germany are all far ahead of Japan. Indeed, a ranking of the number of Net hosts correlated with GNP placed Japan between Slovenia and Ecuador. The Internet Society's 1995 figures show that Japan has 96,632 hosts, compared with 241,191 in the UK, 207,717 in Germany, and more than 2 million in the United States.

This gap between Japan and its industrial competitors is becoming a big issue in Japan. Newspapers and magazines are full of articles on the "crisis", and books with titles like The Threat of the Superhighway: The Danger of Annihilation facing the Japanese Information Industry are being rushed out by publishers. The obvious reason why the Japanese have not taken to the Net is the English language. More than 90 per cent of communication over the Net is in English. The Japanese find English a difficult language to learn and their own language is not easy to use on the Net.

The Japanese are also not as computer-literate as you might assume. Fewer than 10 per cent of offices are computerised, compared with 42 per cent in the US. In the US, 52 per cent of personal computers are hooked into a network of some kind, in contrast to fewer than than 9 per cent in Japan. At home, the Japanese use dedicated word processors and games consoles, but these cannot be connected to the Net.

Yoshikazu Kurita, first secretary of the economic section at the Japanese Embassy in London, believes the problems of language and computer literacy will be solved by the younger generation. "In Japan, the older generation cannot speak English and has very little experience of computers," he says. "However, the young have been taught English and know how to use computers. They will be able to lead Japan on to the Internet. In five to seven years we will have caught up with America."

This approach is seen by some as ignoring the nature of the problems the Japanese have with the Net. Darrell Berry, a multimedia designer responsible for the Outrageous Tokyo web site, has worked in Japan for three years. "I have worked in organisations in Tokyo where the management has said, 'If we have e-mail, we can't control who is sending and receiving information'," he says.

Mr Berry's outsider's view on Japan is partially supported by Murota Masaki, the head of NTT Data in London. He thinks that the way e-mail has taken off in the West, with companies such as Microsoft encouraging its employees to e-mail the managing director, could never happen in Japan. "Japanese companies are very hierarchical," he says. "The free opinion exchange that e-mail encourages conflicts with the hierarchy."

The issues of hierarchy and distribution of power are deeply rooted in Japanese culture. Mr Berry believes it is this culture that conflicts with the Net. "The language issue is secondary. The issue is control at all levels. Power in Japan is a matter of age and seniority, both socially and within the corporate world," he says. "The Internet, which disseminates power on the basis of knowledge rather than position, is seen as a threat and faces almost insurmountable barriers. Until recently it was almost impossible to set up commercial Internet services in Japan. All kinds of bureaucratic and more subtle barriers were put in the way of the commercial service providers."

Superball@Vision Network and Future Pirates are two Japanese projects that aim to make the Net more friendly to Japanese culture. Vision Network's Michael Frank believes it is not just a problem with Japanese but with Asian culture. "Asian group dynamics, communities and communication structures are not the same as those of the West," he says. "The Internet, especially e-mail, newsgroups and MUDS [role-playing games], is based on an American rationale, dialogue structure."

Asian communication is much harder to translate into plain text because of its reliance on physical expression, an understanding of the relative status of group members, ritualised language and so on. This is why the Superball project is closely tied to real spaces, real events and real people. One of these real spaces will be Japan's first cybercafe, while Superball is also organising a series of events that make use of the World Wide Web. It is affiliated with similar projects in Hong Kong, Thailand and Vietnam.

Future Pirates, a Japanese multimedia company, is creating an Net interface using a CD-rom called Franky Online. It incorporates game-style graphics, animation and sound - the Net repackaged for the Nintendo generation.

The company believes that a problem with the Net is that it is not entertaining enough. Franky Online is designed to look like a virtual reality cartoon town which the user walks through. It will offer its users the opportunity to chat to each other in "Franky Town" cafes and play a combat game, as well as offering e-mail and an Net gateway.