Japan: calm, but alert as 2000 dawns

"We believe that big disruptions will not occur," says Prime Minister Keizo Obuchi, turning to the camera with a serious but soothing air. He continues: "However, it is important for us to prepare for an emergency." Thus begins a short spot airing on Japanese television that is aimed at calming fears and preparing for the worst as the New Year dawns.

A narrator advises viewers to store a few days' supply of water and food and to be careful of unscrupulous businesses trying to take advantage of people's worries. Overseas travelers are encouraged to be up-to-date about conditions at their destinations.

Japan is used to girding for disasters - local governments, for instance, sponsor earthquake-preparedness classes - so this televised Y2K alert doesn't seem to have alarmed anyone. But media reports say the government and corporations are keeping approximately 1 million workers at their posts as the clocks roll over. The government has also stockpiled oil and extra bank notes and Mr. Obuchi is planning a nationally televised news briefing at 12:50 a.m. on Jan. 1.

All this preparation contrasts somewhat with Japan's image as a Y2K laggard. In general, major companies here have not spent as much on Y2K preparedness as those in other industrialized countries, and early surveys indicated a relative lack of Y2K anxiety in the private sector. This slow start troubles some experts, because Japan is one of the most technologically dense countries on earth - everything from parking meters to rice cookers is computerized.

At the same time, Japanese analysts have argued that preparation has been easier and less time consuming for a variety of reasons. One of them is that many computers here are already programmed to handle both the Western way of counting years and Japan's imperial-era calendar - a versatility that makes it easier to avoid Y2K glitches.

If you're interested in seeing how Japan fares as it enters 2000 - which it will do 14 hours ahead of the East Coast of the US - check out this private Web site (www.y2k-tokyo.org) and one run by the Japanese government (www.mofa.go.jp/policy/ economy/y2k).

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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