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Japan’s Information Grand Voyage Project


Western academics in Japan-related research often use the term “iron triangle” when referring to a nexus of power which they say comprises private business, the bureaucracy in this country and its mightiest political party LDP.

If the iron triangle really exists, the boldly titled “Information Grand Voyage Project” (情報大航海: Jouhou Daikoukai) must be one of its offsprings in the IT field. This is the English site provided by the initiator, the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry (unfortunately the link at the bottom of the page is dead). This ministry (aka METI) is by far the most influential political institution in Japan.

Information found in Non-Japanese media about the Information Grand Voyage Project is curt to say the least. In other words, almost no one outside Japan knows about this initiative although it is planned to last 3 years and involves the METI and major Japanese technology companies. Thus it makes sense to shed some light on this project in the scope of this blog.

Here is Hitachi Consulting’s more useful site on the project in English.

Key points and goals
– project began in 2007, lasts until the end of fiscal 2009 covering different phases from development, testing to deployment of innovative technologies
– parties involved: METI, Hitachi, JAL, NTT DoCoMo, Oki Electric, Blogwatcher and other companies
– main principles: user orientation, global contribution and use of open source technology

METI claims the goal of this project is to categorize the amount of information worldwide which exploded in recent years due to advancements in Information Technology and make it usable for human beings. The project partners aim at developing a new kind of search and analysis technology which helps filtering information specifically tailored to the individual in question.

However, the METI is not reluctant to say there is one more intention behind its initiative: proactively boosting Japan’s global competitiveness in the IT industry.

There have been LOTS of other projects comparable to the Information Grand Voyage Project in the past (many of them not rooted in the technology sector). Usually, these programs are established to improve infrastructure, enhance competitiveness or to pave the way for revitalization of selected regions or industries in Japan.

How is this abstract project plan turned into concrete activity?
The project covers a number of seperate “mini-projects”/experiments which in the end should lead to the “establishment of an innovative environment”. This would just mean bla-bla in a lof of other countries but as usual the Japanese mean it.

One example for such a “project within the big picture” is the “My Life Assist Service” jointly developed by NEC and NTT DoCoMo.

Testing by approximately 2,000 volunteers began last month. Testing sites include Tokyo, Kanagawa, Saitama and Chiba. The experiment is scheduled to stop at the end of next month.

Using the GPS function in mobile phones, the service provides users with filtered/useful information specific to their location.

This is not really sensational news but there is more to it. Based on inference technology developed by the University of Tokyo, the My Life Assist Service also takes into account the individual’s Web browsing behavior! By combining a user’s location with the analysis of (let’s say guessing of) his or her tastes and preferences based on web sites previously accessed, the service is presumably able to offer highly individualized information.

I read an interesting example here [j]. If a user listens to a particular song from a movie soundtrack (via his mobile phone-not unusual at all in Japan) very often, the service can recommend trips to sites where the corresponding movie was shot. Another example: If a person seems to browse through sites for vegetarians a lot, the system could display suitable restaurants in the user’s vicinity during lunch time.

Cool and bold ideas but some serious privacy issues have already been raised. The companies involved are working on solving the problem though. That may be one of the reasons the My Life Assist Service is still called an “experiment” [j] by DoCoMo itself.

The Japanese government will evaluate which systems (as said above, other companies are developing projects as well) turn out to be worth integrating into the big picture.

While some of the “experiments” sound promising the budget for the Information Grand Voyage Project as a whole is a mere 40 million USD.

Serkan Toto About Serkan Toto
I am the CEO & Founder of Kantan Games, Inc., a Tokyo-based game industry consultancy focused on the Japanese market. Please subscribe to updates on this site via RSS or Email.