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The Myth of Japan's Technological Superiority - PART 5: Anything Green (or Black) Can Be an Object of Veneration


It looks as though the American people are now in the firm grip of a cult.

Out of fear of a virtual ostracism, none of them have dared to come forwatd to say that one can't expect a losing poker player to stay cool-headed. In fact you've got to be a cultist yourself to deny the obvious things such as:
● Obama's multi-trillion dollar stimulus package is the surest way to a catastrophe.
● Coloring part of it green won't help a bit because these anti-environmental degradation measures are based on something that hasn't been substantiated scientifically.
● On the contrary, it will aggravate the hangover the Americans are to suffer in the end to blend such an unscientific belief into an economic stimulus package which, in itself, is based on an absurd assumption.

In the past the world's most oil-addicted American people have been lagging behind other peoples in terms of eco-craze. But now the U.S. is quickly overtaking other industrialized countries. Its people keep chanting Obama's gospel that his green stimulus plans will be paying off someday.

Basically the disease the American people are suffering is none of our business. Why don't we just let them further go downhill? But it's our problem if this trend is going to spill over to the rest of the world.

Japan has been one of the most environment-conscious countries, at least on the surface, since the 1992 Kyoto Protocol. But the government has now stepped up its eco-hype, taking a cue from Obama's move. It's becoming less and less like science and more and more like a cult, or just a gamble.

Any green technology falls on a disruptive technology as it is defined by Grant Norris because it is intended to dramatically "change the way people live their lives or the way businesses operate." That means that its development should entail an enormous amount of investment of human and financial resources at all levels. Therefore, it's insane to get started with a green project before carefully assessing its technological viability and financial feasibility. You've got to be a gambling addict to just conjecture that you can avoid misplacing funding priorities without strenuously working on a preparatory study.

Given the magnitude of the investment to be involved in such a project, you can't afford to fail and start over. Along the way, you may be able to produce an intended hardware and software, just by chance. But as we have already seen in this series, you can't achieve good enough a tradeoff to justify the massive investment if you don't address the challenge at hand in a very methodical way. In fact, though, the Japanese people are just beating the bushes.

Take super fuel-efficient cars being developed in Toyota Motor for example. One of the technologies being pursued to this end is the hydrogen-powered vehicle. As you may already know, the most sticking point entailed in this endeavor is the fact that the manufacturing process of hydrogen consumes more fossil fuel than hydrogen-powered cars can save.

The same thing can be said of the ultralight aircraft Kawasaki Heavy Industries has been eyeing in the last several years. Kawasaki is going to leverage its proprietary Carbon Fiber Reinforced Plastic technology, but nobody can tell for sure that someday the ultralight plane can reduce more greenhouse gas emissions than the CFRP manufacturing process will increase them.

Without having a clear answer to these questions, they are blindly seeking this end just because the government is now saying it will subsidize the makers, dealers and buyers of these "eco-friendly" vehicles.

Let me take up a topic more closely associated with our everyday life as another case in point.

The earthquake that hit Niigata Prefecture in July 2007 revealed that Japan's shift toward nuclear power generation since the 1960s has been fatally ill-conceived. For one thing, the world-class nuclear power plant was found to sit right on the epicenter of the quake of magnitude 6.8. This indicated that when constructing the power plant there, they politicized the project more than they heeded the result of the seismological survey. The Japanese government initially declined an offer by the IAEA to send its inspectors. Although it had to accept the offer later, the result of the on-site investigation was by and large hushed up.

In the meantime the power plant had to be shut down perhaps for good. At that time Japan's media organizations simultaneously launched a nationwide campaign to cut back on power consumption by 10% to absorb the shortage of electricity resulting from the earthquake. Like any other newspaper, the Daily Yomiuri, the English daily published by the Yomiuri media enterprise, printed dozens of letters from its readers in its full-page letters-to-the-editor column. Needless to say, no senders of these letters were any brighter than to suggest something like "Let's not watch the TV any longer than absolutely necessary," etc.

The point I want to make about the energy saving campaign is that these newspapers were consuming tons of paper to solicit laymen's ideas. The Yomiuri Shimbun, the flagship organization of the Yomiuri media group and parent paper of the Daily Yomiuri, for one, boasts a ridiculously huge circulation of more than 10 million. Obviously it has never crossed the editor's mind that by consuming 10 million sheets of paper to print stupid suggestions from the readership, he was just contributing to the acceleration of the deforestation process in pulp-exporting countries such as Indonesia. As a matter of fact, the Japanese are importing a per-capita 250 kg of pulp every year, 4 times the world average.

This all indicates that the Japanese people are constantly misguided to underestimate, or just ignore, the fact any developmental project should be prioritized according solely to the tradeoff between the expected benefits and costs to be entailed in them, and that the allocation of human and financial resources can only be optimized that way. In short, policymakers, technologists and users are just seeking faddish technologies in their obsessive veneration for hardware and software. I don't believe that the Japan can live up to its reputation as a technological powerhouse until its people acquire down-to-earth attitudes toward technologies through a serious soul-searching.

In concluding The Myth of Japan's Technological Superiority series, I want to reiterate this: you can't stress it too much that the human element alway outweighs hardware and software. From the development to the implementation phase, feedback from the project owner and the users is always the main driving force. I am not parroting the banal notion about "user-friendliness" of these products. The only thing the developers have to learn from them is where to improve the usefulness (not usability) of the product as the enabler of change. Without this type of feedback, the technological prowess that was once there will quickly runs dry.

The Chinese dumb by the name of Mao Zedong is famously quoted as having said this in 1946:

"In appearance [America] is very powerful but in reality it is nothing to be afraid of; it's a paper tiger (紙老虎.) Outwardly a tiger, it is made of paper, unable to withstand the wind and the rain."

Of course he was wrong as far as the United States in 1946 was concerned. But he would have been damn right if he had been talking about his prediction for the "Obama Nation." Or, he might as well have said this of the People's Republic of China which was soon to be brought into existence by none other than himself.

Mao's paper tiger analogy would have been even truer of Japan - technologically or otherwise. This nation has followed the same old policy line represented by the buzzword "Wealthy Nation and Strong Army" (富国強兵) since the 1860s. In the last 140-plus years this nation has fallen apart at least twice - in 1945 and in 1990. Yet it has learned no lessons from these failures. It still clings to the same old gimmick of "Japanese Spirit and Western Learning" (和魂洋才) not giving a damn to the ever-widening gap between technologies and socio-political systems.

Kim Jong-il is now following suit by solemnly promulgating that his Democratic People's Republic of Korea seeks to grow into a mighty and prosperous statehood (強盛大国) by 2012, the year that falls on the 100th anniversary of his father's birth. Some say that Kim's kingdom is collapsing anytime soon, though. Some others predict China will also crumble before long. But these pundits are invariably saying any scenario of Japan's failure, such as mine, is totally counterintuitive. I want them to tell exactly where to see the difference among the two ailing giants and one failing dwarf in Northeast Asia. That's been long overdue by now.

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