December 14, 2022
Nonoda Takahiro, Researcher
International Research Institute of Controversial Histories (iRICH)
This paper presents the battle for the market share in Japan between operating systems (OSs) for personal computers (PCs), which broke out due to technologies of OSs for PCs and the budgeting for educational PCs, the trade friction between Japan and the US that occurred concurrently and the accompanying trends in the Japanese computer industry. Through the course of these events, I’ll discuss the protection and advancement of Japanese technologies.
TRON and MS-DOS
The TRON (The Real-time Operating system Nucleus) Project started in 1984 as a project for developing Japan’s home-grown OSs . The TRON Project produced various results and led to the development of OSs for home appliances control and PCs. Of these, ITRON, a product of the TRON Project, is still in use as an OS architecture for controlling home appliances . The specification of ITRON and its emphasis on stability and instancy are a factor of its adoption. In 1989, the TRON Project released BTRON as an OS architecture for PCs. BTRON provides OSs that use a graphical user interface, which allows operation with a mouse on a graphical screen, as with the current Windows and Mac OS.
Meanwhile, in the US, Microsoft released the first version of MS-DOS in 1981. MS-DOS is an OS that uses a command-line interface, which uses command (character)-based control for PCs. The first version of MS-DOS was developed by purchasing 86-DOS, which was developed and marketed by Seattle Computer Products . In the initial period after the establishment, Microsoft employed a method of purchasing existing products and modifying them to release as their own products.
In 1985, the Ad Hoc Council on Education of Japan formulated the Educational Method Development Special Equipment Grant five-year plan  and, for the first time, earmarked budget for introduction of computers into schools. In 1986, the Ministry of International Trade and Industry and the Ministry of Education established the Center for Educational Computing (CEC) (currently JAPET & CEC after merger with the Japan Association for Promotion of Educational Technology)  and started discussing BTRON as the standard OS architecture in Japan’s school education in order to standardize OSs for educational PCs of Japan . It was difficult for US companies to enter because the capability of using the Japanese language was required for using PCs in Japan. Against this backdrop, manufacturers with the capability of the Japanese language other than NEC had very small market shares of PCs. PC manufacturers that joined the CEC attempted to acquire the market for educational PCs, which was secured by government expenditure, by manufacturing PCs conforming to the specification formulated for encroaching on NEC’s market share. By September 1987, of the major home appliance manufacturers with a membership of the CEC, 11 companies except NEC supported the adoption of BTRON . For NEC, which had a considerable market share of PCs including educational ones, it was a period of transition from the PC8801 Series to PC 9801. PC-9801 employed Japanese language MS-DOS. For this reason, NEC was reluctant to adopt BTRON but, after negotiations for over a half year, decided to adopt a dual configuration of BTRON and MS-DOS .
Japan-US trade friction
What occurred between Japan and the US coincidentally with the period when the OS specification was beginning to be finalized in Japan was the Japan-US trade friction. Child as I was, I remember a scene aired on the TV where Japanese cars were being smashed.
In the National Trade Estimate Report on Foreign Trade Barriers released by the United States Trade Representative (USTR) in 1989 , TRON was listed in the Other Barriers section  and named as a candidate for sanctions under the amended section 1302 of the Omnibus Foreign Trade and Competitiveness Act (Super 301) . The TRON Association sent a letter of protest to the USTR, claiming that it was a “misunderstanding,” and the USTR cleared up the misunderstanding to exclude TRON from the items subject to Super 301 at that time .
However, NEC took this opportunity to put off the adoption of BTRON. As a result, CEC gave up the idea of standardization by the BTRON specification . Many manufacturers other than NEC had adopted OSs conforming to the BTRON specification but they were no match for NEC, which already had a wealth of data and programs, and ended up withdrawing one after the other. Through the course of these events, for OSs for PCs including educational PCs, the market share of MS-DOS, rather than BTRON, expanded.
Japanese government’s trade and diplomacy succumbed to pressure from overseas
The TRON Project submitted a letter of rebuttal to the USTR . In response, the USTR withdrew the application of Super 301 to TRON. However, to the letter of rebuttal, it gave a response along the lines that “concerning educational PCs in the education market of Japan, it is unfair for the CEC, a Japanese government agency, and not the market itself, to choose the OS to use (thereby virtually keeping out OSs other than BTRON such as MS-DOS)” . The fact that it is specified as an item subject to Super 301, regardless of the comment that the market itself should choose the OS, clearly indicates that a behind-the-scenes framework of protective trade of the US was in place in reality. The TRON Project again expressed its view to the response from the USTR , where neither the Japanese government nor the CEC rebutted again. Re-rebuttal by the government, in particular, seems to have been necessary. As a result, BTRON was brought back onto the list in the 1990 National Trade Estimate Report on Foreign Trade Barriers . In the background of this is assumed to be the threat that the US felt of the degree of completion of the executed specification of BTRON, not to mention the OSs released. BTRON had technological superiority as compared with MS-DOS but virtually standardized OS, rather than the OS with superiority, would secure the market share. The project explored the technical ideal of computers and did not lend itself to use of the data assets of NEC PCs, which had been accumulated in abundance. BTRON never saw the light of day because, while the OS architecture boasted technological quality high enough to give threat to the US, MS-DOS became widespread as the de facto standard.
From the political aspect, on the other hand, I think that the cause was lack of the governments’ attitude of protecting and developing engineering technology of the industry and academia.
Poor treatment of engineers in Japan is another problem. One typical example is Nakamura Shuji, who is the first in the world to succeed in the development of the blue light-emitting diode, which has digitally enabled white color for the first time . However, Nakamura, who was dissatisfied with his treatment by the company he belonged to at the time of the development  and seeking sufficient research funds, obtained US citizenship and moved out to get US research funding . In addition, emerging nations keeping an eye on the high technological capabilities of Japan are also headhunting Japanese engineers , which has led to deterioration of the technological capabilities of Japan and overtaking by emerging nations.
How support is given to researchers must also be pointed out as a problem. Considering Grants-in-Aid for Scientific Research, which are part of support for researchers, the amounts of Grants awarded for engineering research are small. While some humanities studies are awarded Grants of a few hundred million yen, Grants on that scale are rarely awarded for engineering studies. The screening system of the Japan Society for the Promotion of Science is also assumed to have a problem.
This paper has mentioned the history of OSs in terms of technology and the Japan-US trade friction in terms of politics and discussed how one superior Japanese-made technology deteriorated as a result. It has shown that Japan’s intrinsic technological capabilities are very high but they are not leveraged due to inadequate treatment and support.
After the Great East Asia War, the relationship between Japan and the US seems to be one where Japan particularly tries to avoid displeasing the US and suit the convenience of the US in various ways. Examples include inequality arising from the Japan-US Status-of-Forces Agreement and cases in which Japan implement policies according to what the Annual Reform Recommendations say. In the background is Japan’s dependence on the US for security. In the 1980s, the US made an enemy of Japan in terms of economy in response to Japan’s economic and technological rise and attacked Japan. TRON discussed in this paper is the most conspicuous of the examples. For Japan to be a nation with sovereign independence, change of the mindset of the Japanese people and tenacious negotiations for demanding revision of the Status-of-Forces Agreement are required. For the Annual Reform Recommendations, it is important to show Japan’s decisive intentions in view of Japan’s national interest.
Sometimes specific industries got the raw end of the deal in exchange for political issues, as in the Japan-US Textile Negotiations . The Japanese government is apparently continuing diplomacy that does not use the lesson learned from this experience. We should never let situations occur where the high technological capabilities of Japan flow out to hinder development in Japan. It is necessary to build an environment where technologies are evaluated from a long-term perspective and investments are made in technological development to allow playing in a free market.
One trade issue regarding new computer technologies is the Japan-US Semiconductor Agreement . The second Semiconductor Agreement requires Japan to open up more than 20% of the domestic market share to overseas manufacturers. This caused an increase in the market share in Japan of semiconductors manufactured overseas, leading to the deteriorated production capabilities of Japan. This condition further accelerated and semiconductor production bases moved from Japan to overseas, which does not only pose an issue of outflow of manufacturing technologies but also has led to the present condition where semiconductors can no longer be manufactured in Japan. This impact is now decisive to whether Japan can maintain the design technology for semiconductors used exclusively for the supercomputer field, where Japan currently has an advantage. If technology like this flows out overseas, it is not exaggeration to say that Japanese computer technology has completely deteriorated. To prevent dropping out of the advancement of computer technologies, the Japanese government should give support anew to the development of technologies that provide competitiveness in a free market and improve the ability of diplomatic negotiations.
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