Will Japan learn to make big leaps into the unknown?

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.

* 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.

MITI officials in recent years have insisted that many Japanese firms have grown too big, too internationalized, to be controlled by the government as many outsiders imagine.

But as Japan moves into uncharted high-tech waters, many observers believe MITI will play a stronger controlling role, one more in keeping with past foreign perceptions.

In the past, Japan has benefited from intense competition among various manufacturers to bring down product prices in order to increase its share of markets.

In high technology, though, government officials want a tighter rein on things. A MITI spokesman explains: ''In the area of semiconductors and computers , for example, we have played a much more active role by subsidizing research and development or coordinating the R&D activities of various parties so as to avoid wasteful duplication of effort.''

Projects jointly undertaken by the government and private sector include one to develop a ''fifth generation'' computer to duplicate many functions of the human brain, as well as two R&D projects described as providing ''basic technology for future industries'' and ''flexible research systems for the promotion of creative science and technology.''

Keizai Doyukai (Committee for Economic Development), a prestigious business think tank, says the latter two projects will provide ''critical drive for Japan to overcome its dearth of experience in developing innovative technology.''

Three years ago, the government set itself a target of increasing its share of total national R&D spending from the present 28 percent to the 40 or 50 percent levels prevalent in the United States and Europe.

Keizai Doyukai agrees that government has a role in formulating the comprehensive, long-term vision and in allocating resources. The government should also take the lead in promoting major technologies requiring long incubation and more start-up money than the private sector can afford.

But it adds: ''R&D principally should continue to be through the independent, self-sustaining efforts of the private sector, whose vitality would be diminished by excessive government involvement.'' (Critics point out that only 1 .4 percent of government spending goes to private research institutes, where the incentives to come up with new ideas are greater than in hidebound government laboratories).

The question remains: Can the Japanese achieve their dreams? It would be easy to believe they can.

From a postwar starting point well behind the United States, the Japanese have advanced rapidly, particularly in the last decade or so, to match or even overtake Americans in a number of important fields: large-scale integrated circuits, fiber optics, robots with artificial intelligence, voice-recognition devices, carbon fibers, fine ceramics. Japan still imports more technology than it exports (the current ratio is estimated at 1.48 to 1), but the gap is narrowing rapidly.

Japan's forte up to now has been taking someone else's idea, often discarded by the inventor as commercially impractical, and making it work. The world's first videotape recorder was developed in the US, but it was Japanese genius that turned it into a mass-market product. The transistor is another American idea that found its true home in Japan.

Some observers believe this is one reason why Japan so far has produced so few Nobel Prize winners.

Japanese advances in computer and semiconductor technology have been extremely rapid, in part because they have involved refining an existing product - getting more circuits onto a microchip - and putting it into mass production fast.

In this regard, critic Masanori Moritani says: ''The Japanese national character is not relaxed. . . . The intensity of competition where idleness means having one's market share immediately snatched away by another company spurs swift planning and development.''

This is both Japan's strength and its weakness.

Adds Mr. Moritani: ''Looking at industrial sectors where Japan is weak, they all involve products with small, uncertain markets and technologies that cannot be put to practical use immediately but demand long-term research.

''In short, Japanese companies are concentrating their energies on fields in which major economic results can be expected within three to five years' time. Thus there is a real problem in the noneconomic domain of research that will become more troublesome as the years pass.''

Mr. Moritani says: ''The emphasis of society as a whole has to switch from technology closer to pure science.''

True creativity requires the temerity to think the unthinkable, and Japanese culture traditionally has not encouraged such radicalism. ''The exposed nail is beaten down,'' says a Japanese proverb.

Noboru Makino, vice-president of the Mitsubishi Research Institute, laments what he calls an ''allergic reaction of the Japanese masses directed toward the unknown. Pathological and often violent opposition has been raised against such projects as commercialization of synthetic proteins, the operation of the nuclear-powered ship Mutsu, biotechnological research programs, and nuclear fusion.'' Hence Japanese researchers opt for ''noncontroversial and innocuous subjects of study and experimentation,'' he says.

A strength of the Japanese economy has been the consensus achieved by the tightly knit homogeneous group. In the future this strength could be a drawback if, as often appears true, it is the maverick and not the committee that produces the really breathtaking scientific breakthroughs.

There is as yet little of the venture-capital approach seen in the US. Research goes on within the mighty corporate structure, where unusual ideas can easily get smothered.

A leading securities company, Yamaichi, recently set up a venture-capital subsidiary, but it has had a hard time giving its money away, due to lack of applicants.

Japan's schools have been geared to turning out students who ''fit into the system.'' There is little encouragement in the schools to give free rein to creativity.

The US gains immensely from the cosmopolitan makeup of its research laboratories and organizations. Homogeneous Japan misses out on this. Little encouragement has been given to non-Japanese scientists to work here.

Japanese wishing to gain experience overseas are often inhibited by the fact that someone else will step into their jobs while they are away (while their newly acquired internationalism will be looked on with great suspicion).

The two basic long-range, government-and-private-sector research projects mentioned earlier are revolutionary in guaranteeing participants a return to their original jobs, as well as making use of the research capacity of universities and individuals overseas.

To encourage the brightest people, the program will grant researchers joint ownership with the government of any inventions. Keizai Doyukai is now campaigning for this concept to be expanded to develop greater creativity.

The committee wants to see more stress on individualism and an active personnel exchange between industry and academia, something almost nonexistent now. It encourages universities to vitalize their research programs by throwing open their doors to outside talent at home and overseas.

The committee said recently, ''The United States has been the Mecca for researchers the world over seeking to carry out their activities freely. Japan sould seek to be the same in order to create a fertile base for original technology.''

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