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Top>Opinion>Japan: An Information-Poor Country


Hisamichi Yamazaki

Hisamichi Yamazaki [profile]

Japan: An Information-Poor Country

Hisamichi Yamazaki
Professor, Faculty of Letters, Chuo University
Area of Specialization: Library and Information Science

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Japan Relies on the “Import” of Information

Japan has achieved substantial economic success by developing excellent products in areas like automobiles and electronics and selling them on the global market. It has boasted a massive export surplus in manufacturing. However, Japan is as big an “importer” of information—especially advanced, cutting-edge information—as it is of food and energy resources. Cutting-edge information in the area of science and technology is currently one of our “imported goods,” purchased through foreign databases and electronic journals.

For example, advanced medical care at Japanese hospitals requires the use of medical and drug databases from the U.S. and other foreign countries. The same goes for the development of new drugs. In addition, American chemical databases are used on a daily basis by manufacturers of chemicals, drugs and cosmetics throughout Japan. Recently, most academic journals based in the natural sciences have been digitized by powerful foreign publishers. Researchers at Japanese universities and other institutions pay to access these journals online. The access fees rise sharply every year, putting a lot of pressure on the library budgets and overall research costs of Japanese universities.

Why Aren’t Databases Being Developed in Japan?

You may be thinking, well in that case, Japan just needs to build powerful databases like these. The U.S.’s chemical databases, however, were started during Japan’s Meiji period (1868-1912) , and the medical database MEDLINE is equipped with MeSH, a sophisticated controlled vocabulary system, which can be used to quickly search applicable information by symptom, treatment, drug efficacy, and so on. Databases like these cannot be developed overnight. They are the result of experts racking their brains for many years as they build each database, and cannot be created easily by merely mimicking their “form”—the computing power, funding, etc.

To begin with, the act or work of “organizing information for later use” has met with a completely cold response in Japan. Databases are devices used for this purpose, so they are not developed with any enthusiasm in this environment. The police do not input investigation records in databases, so information on suspicious people cannot be accessed even when they are suspects in investigations, which has sometimes led to serious consequences. Making records and accumulating them must be superfluous or trivial in comparison to the main job in the first place. In this climate, databases have been viewed with disdain and left without a budget, with the person responsible for them waging a lonely uphill battle.

“Paying Twice” for Expensive Electronic Journals

There is another problem. In Japan, the government and different foundations give large amounts of research funding to researchers at universities and other institutions in the form of grants, etc. Researchers carry out studies and summarize the results in papers using these funds. The problem is what happens next. These researchers, especially those in the natural sciences, try whenever possible to submit their papers to influential journals abroad. Why? Because these journals are widely read and quoted, and have a lot of influence (a “big impact factor”) in academic circles. Publishing papers in them is very advantageous to the career of a researcher. In fact, having published papers in these “brand journals” is said to positively affect your evaluation when universities are considering you for a teaching position, etc.

Thus, the results of research conducted with Japanese funds (taken from taxes!) are published in foreign journals, digitized into electronic journals, and sold back to the Japanese people. Of course, this may be the most convenient avenue since these publishers have a bit of a head start in terms of know-how and database design concepts for organizing information…

Information Is a Valuable Asset

These days, we are inundated with all kinds of information on the Internet. Some of this information only has transient value. However, there are an increasing number of documents that are only published online. Physical books are preserved in places like libraries, but the electronic information on the Internet is not being preserved in a comprehensive way. It eventually disappears like a bubble floating on the water. At this rate, people in the future may have no idea what kinds of thoughts or lives Japanese people had in the 21st century. To prevent this from happening, we need large-scale expansion of our digital archives. Japan’s progress on this front, however, has been extremely slow due in part to the limitations of copyright laws and available funds.

Meanwhile, internal information in companies and other organizations is increasingly being reassessed, using terms like “intangibles,” as something that enhances the value of the company. In the U.S., companies are considering treating this information as an asset in their accounting practices. In Japan, parallel trends have appeared based on calls for knowledge management, the promotion of information sharing, and the conversion of “tacit knowledge into explicit knowledge.” However, as I mentioned previously, there is no consensus as yet at the fundamental level of “finding value in the organization of information,” so these only amount to superficial, transient fads. What a contrast with the daily efforts of the information giant Google to “organize the world’s information”!

Urgent Need for Information Maintenance Strategy

Japan must immediately formulate a national strategy to organize and accumulate information, deploy this strategy in public and business administration, and spread these ideas in schools and training programs as needed. This is not a simple problem in the application of information technology, like a problem with computer or Internet maintenance; it is a fundamental problem that is a key factor in determining the future development of Japanese society and industry.

In Japan, however, information has mainly been integrated with people and things, existing as a part of them in the form of skills and virtuosity. The Western European model of stocking information in libraries, archives and databases has been thought of as a mechanism for detaching this information from people and things and distributing it independently. For the future of Japan, we need to improve our Western European devices for stocking information and quickly develop mechanisms that will allow information currently integrated with people and things—or “information with context”—to be accumulated and accessed.

Hisamichi Yamazaki
Professor, Faculty of Letters, Chuo University
Area of Specialization: Library and Information Science
Professor Yamazaki is from Tokyo. He was born in 1946. He graduated from the Faculty of Economics, University of Tokyo in 1969 and received his PhD in Information Sciences from Tohoku University. He is an information processing engineer and systems analyst.
He worked as a research consultant on database development, etc. for Mitsubishi Research Institute, Inc. He also served as a manager over the internal data center at the company. He guided the introduction of commercial databases and internet connection services while there. In 1997, he became a professor at the School of Project Design at the newly established Miyagi University. He served simultaneously as the director of the Library at the university. He assumed his current position in April 2001. He served as the Director of the Center for Information Technology and Computing Services, Chuo University from 2003 to 2007. He then served as the President of the Records Management Society of Japan. He is currently the Chairman of the Library Support Forum.
His publications include Theories on the Management of Special Libraries: From the Perspective of Information and Business [Senmon Toshokan Keiei Ron: Jōhō to Kigyō no Shiten kara] (Nichigai Associates, 1999) and Theories on Information Services [Jōhō Sābisu Ron] (Editor and author; Jusonbo, 2012).