Three Challenges for Japanese ICT Professionalism

Kiyoshi Murata and Yohko Orito


Based on the recognition that information and communication technology (ICT) was becoming a key enabler of successful business systems as well as safe and affluent societies, in Japan, the Strategic Headquarters for the Promotion of an Advanced Information and Telecommunications Network Society (IT Strategic Headquarters) was established within the Cabinet in January 2001. They developed a policy called “e-Japan Strategy” which was aimed at adapting the nation to the rapid and drastic changes in socio-economic structure caused by the utilisation of ICT and at creating an advanced information and telecommunication network society. The promotion of e-Japan Strategy and its subsequent policies resulted in the highly advanced broadband network infrastructure throughout the nation. In order to contribute to the e-Japan strategies, in 2006, the Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications (MIC) adopted “u-Japan Policy” aimed at creating the ubiquitous network society where seamless network access would be realised by the integration of wired and wireless networks and people would enjoy high quality services provided by the ubiquitous network systems.

In the e-Japan strategies as well as u-Japan Policy, development of ICT professionals or nurturing of advanced ICT human resources such as software engineers, digital content creators, project managers, chief information officers, ICT mentors and ICT researchers has consistently been positioned as a top priority issue, mainly because a serious shortage of such human resources in the present and future information society has been expected. The Japanese business community has supported this governmental view; in December 2007 Nippon Keidanren (Japan Business Federation), for example, issued a policy proposal that recommended setting up the National Centre for cultivating advanced ICT human resources.

Considering that a number of people are going to be employed as advanced ICT human resources or ICT professionals and activities undertaken by them have and will have considerable influence over the information society, their development of a professional outlook and attitude is an urgent issue in order to create and maintain a safe and reliable society. However, there exist challenges for establishing ICT professionalism in Japan. They can be classified broadly into the following three categories: (a) working environments of ICT professionals, (b) business practices in Japanese ICT industry and (c) Japanese education systems.

(a) Working environments of ICT professionals

Since the bubble economy burst in the early 90’s, many Japanese companies have tried to reduce personnel cost and, accordingly, working environments, in general, have become worse in terms of labour conditions such as pay and labour time. The number of full time workers is decreasing and, in contrast, the number of dispatched workers and contract-based workers is increasing.

The working environments of ICT professionals in Japan are no exception; they are often described as 3Ks, which is the acronym for the Japanese words of Kitsui (hard work), Kyuryo ga yasui (low pay) and Kaere-nai (hard to go back home). Karoshi (fatigue death) has become a huge social issue; in March 2002, for example, a 28-year-old man who worked for Fujitsu died from overfatigue. His overtime work reached 159 hours in the last one month before his death.

ICT professionals’ bad labour conditions are so notorious that young Japanese people tend to hesitate to become ICT professionals. Thus, it is difficult for the Japanese ICT industry to secure good human resources. Japanese ICT professionals cannot be proud of their profession and, therefore, development of professionalism is hard for them.

(b) Business practices in Japanese ICT industry

Business practices in Japanese ICT industry aggravate the poor labour conditions of ICT professionals. “Man month” is still used as a usual measure to estimate development cost of information systems. This way of cost calculation was originally adopted in manufacturing industry and is not necessarily fit for estimating cost of products of human intellectual activities such as software. The unrealistic way of cost estimation often result in unreasonably set due date of implementation of information systems and turning ICT professionals into blue-collar workers. Terms and conditions of a contract for development and implementation of information systems are sometimes recognised as Tatemae (what is described for the sake of courteousness or respectability) in Japan and scope creep is nothing unusual.

Recently, “disguised contract for work” have become a serious social issue in Japan; contract-based workers are forced to work for their client companies as if they were workers dispatched to the companies. However, this sort of illegal employment has been commonplace in the Japanese ICT industry. Actually, many Japanese ICT professionals don’t recognise disguised contract for work is illegal and multiple contracts for work are also commonplace. This business practice tends to make ICT workers programming machines.

(c) Education system

The Japanese government as well as the Japanese business community has repeatedly emphasised the importance of developing ICT engineers of high moral character. In fact, a lot of engineering universities have launched a course of lectures on professional and engineering ethics. However, the fierce competition to pass entrance exams to topnotch universities has distorted the Japanese primary, secondary and advanced education and knowledge about philosophy as well as ethics has already been not necessary to enter the universities. Such knowledge is also unnecessary for students to graduate from their universities. Many people tend to consider that technology is not related to ethics. In these circumstances, it is very difficult to encourage students to study about engineering and professional ethics and to develop a professional outlook. It symbolises this Japanese situation that neither philosopher nor ethicist is a member of Study Group on ICT Human Resources, which is a panel in MIC to discuss development of ICT professionals.

In this paper, the authors will examine these challenges for developing ICT professionalism in Japan and propose basic ideas on how to resolve them. The notion of “eco-ethica” (Imamichi, 1990) will be added to our examination and proposal.