`Dream machine'. The author of `Future Shock' looks at how Japan prepares for `a radically changed future'
In a 400-year-old hamlet surrounded by cedar trees stands a large, thatched-roof hut. Near it, rough-hewn wooden stalls line the village street. A strange, yellow-robed creature with a featureless mask for a face approaches passers-by, poking an odd, pencil-thin device at them. I push aside the coarse fabric entry mats to enter the hut, and strange sounds seem to emanate from them. Inside, bizarre things are happening. Books on a shelf lean over and then right themselves for no apparent reason. The pieces on a Japanese chessboard move by themselves. I am in a medieval ``goblin village'' - surrounded by a crowd of distinctly nonmedieval Japanese children and their parents.Skip to next paragraph
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The sounds I hear on entering the hut are not a product of my imagination. For the swinging fabric mats I push aside are, in fact, electronic loudspeakers, samples of the most advanced audio technology. And the pencil-like device wielded by the spooky, yellow-robed creature is a tiny TV camera. It is, even as I watch, transmitting images to a remote television monitor.
Youngsters sitting in each of the stalls lining the village street are happily playing with the technologies of tomorrow - video-response systems, voice-mail machines, color picture-phones, satellite cameras, supermagnets, advanced PBX devices (for business telephone exchanges), telephones that transmit handwritten messages, etc. - all in an authentically re-created medieval village, complete with ``ghosts'' and ``goblins'' and mysteriously moving objects.
This is Nippon Telephone & Telegraph's exhibit in the giant, $100 million ``dream machine'' carnival - a Mardi Gras with technology - conceived by the Fuji Sankei Communication Group and mounted simultaneously in Tokyo and Osaka, Japan. It is opening day last July and I, along with Yoko Ono and other celebrities, am here to help inaugurate the show. Already 1.5 million tickets have been sold. (By closing day at the end of August, 5.5 million tickets will have been sold.)
High-definition television, 3-D visuals, and banks of PCs (personal computers) compete for attention with booths selling carnival tack, T-shirts, and the like. Children are everywhere - and not just Japanese. There are a scattering of French, German, and Indian children, and a contingent of blonds, blacks, and other American youngsters from a nearby US Air Force base.
The climax of the opening ceremony - after appearances by comedians and big-screen shots of helicopters circling the pavilions, after parades, balloons, and all sorts of music, from Beethoven's ``Ode to Joy'' to ``Wish Upon a Star'' - comes when four children mount the stage. An American nine-year-old declaims, ``Give me love!'' A French child says, ``Give me happiness!'' A German child says, ``Give me peace!'' And a Japanese child sums it up with ``Give me a beautiful 21st century!''
To top it off, their voices are instantly transmitted to the United States, up-linked via satellite, bounced off the moon, and sent back to Japan, as appropriate music booms from the speakers and pictures of the moon's surface appear on the big screen in front of the crowd.
In this way - combining high-tech with allusions to history, education with show biz, a touch of religion with plenty of commercial glitz - Japan's private sector, without government funds, helps prepare young people for a radically changed future.
THE rest of the world has attributed Japan's astonishing economic success to everything from superior management to stolen technology, from unfair competition to low defense budgets. Overlooked in all this analysis is Japan's longstanding cultural infatuation with the future.