Japanese executive talks up US-Japan ties in high-tech. He cites benefits of `hot debate' in research

The United States and Japan are fierce competitors in high technology, but there is still room for cooperation between them. This is the view of Michiyuki Uyenohara, executive vice-president of NEC Corporation.

In what he calls the ``pre-competitive phase of research,'' cooperation benefits both parties and ultimately the consumer, Dr. Uyenohara believes.

Short and chunky, this NEC executive in charge of research and development is a ball of energy. After getting his Ph.D. at Ohio State University, he spent 10 years at Bell Labs in New Jersey before being persuaded to return to Japan and join NEC, a leading maker of computers and communications equipment that reported sales of $3.8 billion last year.

What did he think of the old saw that the Japanese are good imitators and adapters, while the US is strong in creativity and innovation?

``I don't like the word `imitators,''' Uyenohara replied in a recent Monitor interview.

``I'd rather say that the Japanese are good students. We've learned and adapted so much new knowledge and technology from the United States since World War II,'' he added.

``That's because we were so far behind in those days. But over time, we learned, and now we are beginning to create,'' he said.

We were sitting in NEC's gleaming opto-electronic laboratory outside Tokyo, where this correspondent had just been shown experiments in laser beams and in optical switching devices -- areas in which NEC is pushing out the frontiers of knowledge.

Recalling his own days both as student and as researcher in the US, Uyenohara said he particularly appreciated the atmosphere of ``hot debate'' wherein anyone with new ideas was not afraid to express them and to hold his ground even under fierce attack.

``This is how new concepts are rapidly developed,'' Uyenohara said.

But the Japanese are still weak in basic research, ``in creating basic concepts.'' Why? ``It's a cultural thing. The Japanese are rather shy. They don't express freely what they think until they're quite sure that others will accept what they say.

``The social environment is changing, however, and people are beginning to develop and to explain very virgin concepts. I hope that in 10 years such activity will become quite visible to those outside Japan. But at this moment, we are still behind the US in basic research,'' the NEC executive said.

``Hitherto, the great strength of the Japanese has been in taking a partially developed idea or technology and turning it into a product usable by everyone -- not just by specialists. Obviously there is a large market for such products -- transistor radios 20 years ago, video tape recorders today.''

The US, by contrast, has been weak in what Uyenohara calls the ``popularization of technology.'' In his view, this is a major reason why the United States has been overtaken by Japan in market after market.

``So, if you take American strengths and weaknesses, and Japanese strengths and weaknesses, add them up and divide by two, you will have the perfect mix.''

Japanese have one enormous cultural handicap compared to countries with alphabetic languages, and that is their writing system, which despite simplification still requires about 2,000 ideographs, or Chinese characters.

The cumbersome Japanese typewriter invented many years ago used just one key roving across a trayful of characters and could barely keep pace with handwriting.

``That forced us to invent a word processor with a kind of artificial intelligence,'' said Uyenohara.

The operator types a syllable or two phonetically and the word processor will come up with a choice of characters, and frequently even with the correct word or phrase.

``Because of our handicap, we have also been studying voice recognition technology so that the machine can understand words and behave like a keyboard.''

The technology has not been perfected, but the research is at an advanced stage, according to Uyenohara.

Finally, what did Uyenohara mean when he talked about the ``pre-competitive phase of research?''

``It takes 10 to 15 years for the fruits of basic research to appear on the market as a specific product. That's the period I call the pre-competitive phase,'' the NEC executive said.

``Once the product appears, we are in competition with each other. Before that, though, there can be all kinds of international cooperation. We send about 20 NEC engineers to study in foreign universities every year. And we have about 15 to 20 scientists from abroad working with us in our labs right now.

``We need a variety of researchers -- those who are very cooperative, those who are very individualistic. Although most of our engineers are physicists, we hire people from a variety of disciplines.''

Japanese education tends to emphasize the group -- everyone advancing together from one academic year to the next. That approach makes for good workers turning out top-quality products. It does not encourage creative activity by people of outstanding talent.

That is why Uyenohara likes to mix Japanese and non-Japanese, individual creativity and teamwork.

``Frictions between Japan and the United States will be eliminated when both countries become equally strong,'' he said with a short laugh.

``Let us cooperate freely in basic science and technology,'' he said, ``and when we have developed our competing products, then let us compete fairly and to the hilt.''

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