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Will Japan learn to make big leaps into the unknown?

By Geoffrey MurraySpecial correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor / June 10, 1983


According to the current official timetable, Japan will: * Have a practical methold of managing low-level radioactive waste by 1994 - and for high-level waste by 1995.

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* Have homes with three-dimensional television in 1997.

* Be breeding animals and plants throuh cell-nuclei fusion in 1998.

* Have conquered cancer by 2001.

* Be able to give a month's advance notice of big earthquakes, starting in 2006.

* Have hydrogen-powered cars running on its roads and solar power plants operating in space by 2008.

These projections have been culled from the latest ''Technological Forecast for Japan to the Year 2010'' by the Science and Technology Agency.

This is the third time the agency has looked into its crystal ball since 1970 , drawing on the wisdom of some 2,000 academic, business, and government leaders.

If nothing else, the forecast demonstrates the meticulousness with which the Japanese like to approach each problem.

There is a perceived need to shift from ordinary manufacturing into information-intensive, high-technology sectors. High wages are making labor-intensive industries industries unprofitable, Japan's aging population has fewer workers, and the younger generation wants less work and more leisure.

Therefore, the government has drawn up a blueprint, a vision of this future industrial structure. It is only a slight exaggeration to say this blueprint charts the day-to-day progress toward the final goal and each participant's role.

If this was all there was to it - if it was only a matter of determination or even money - then one might have no doubts. But there are a number of intangibles stemming from the Japanese character and from the way the Japanese have achieved economic success so far that make these goals a little less than certain to be met.

Whatever happens, the key role undoubtedly will be played, as before, by the powerful Ministry of International Trade and Industry (MITI), which three years ago produced its own vision of the future.

The MITI document says: ''The essential task (for MITI) is to set up guidelines the people, the business sector, and the government can follow in their concerted efforts to overcome present difficulties and open the way for a new age.''

A MITI spokesman explains that Japan will have to strive to develop creative capacity as an innovator, and not be content to remain merely an improver of others' ideas.

This requires a quantum leap into the unknown toward epochmaking technologies of the next century. And the Japanese to date have not demonstrated the ability to make the big leaps Americans and Europeans sometimes make.

The Japanese are now seeking bold initiatives in the life sciences, in medicine, genetic manipulation, biotechnology, and photosynthesis for food production. They are also pursuing developments in energy - in nuclear fusion, magnetohydrodynamic power generation, and fuel cells. And they are forging ahead with communications and data processing developments, such as new materials and technologies for ''thinking'' computers and robots, optical communications, laser technology, and the like.

Says a MITI official: ''This must be promoted through a long-term vision, identifying priority goals as well as systems for development and funding. In pressing areas requiring large fund injections, the government must take the initiative in launching projects.''

It sounds a bit like ''Japan Inc.,'' that mystical symbiosis of government and industry long credited by foreign businessmen as the driving force behind Japan''s success.

But the suggestion that MITI is a kind of industrial dictator is vigorously denied by Naohiro Amaya, a special adviser to the ministry. He prefers the analogy of a traffic policeman, keeping everything running smoothly - untangling traffic jams caused by excessive competition, overproduction, and lack of capital - by directing everything in the proper direction.