Arriving at Tokyo’s Narita airport ahead of schedule, I waited two hours for my bus into town. After an hour on the bus, we were still wending our way through the Tokyo suburbs, passing Disneyland, the docks, and threading through ever larger mazes of freeways.

Looking down, I realized the freeway was built on top of a river. Next to us, only a few feet away, were rows and rows of office buildings. Looking inside each, I could see rooms and rooms filled with row after row of desks all crowded together. Below us, but above the river, ran the railway tracks, above us another freeway.

The next morning, I ventured forth on the subway system to find the University of Tokyo, known as Todai. There, I met Professor Haruhisa Ishida, a professor at the Computer Centre. Professor Ishida proceeded to give me an excellent introduction to networks in Japan.

Japan, like the U.S., has many different networks. BITNET, as in most countries, was initially funded by IBM, but is now member supported. What membership fees don’t cover is provided by the main sponsor, the Science University of Tokyo. Japan’s BITNET has a 56 kbps link to CUNY and provides tail links to Korea and Taiwan.

N-1net is an older, proprietary network to tie together mainframe systems with services like remote job entry and remote login. N-1net was managed by the National Center for Science Information Systems (NACSIS). NACSIS, a research institute funded by the Ministry of Education, also maintains a link to FIX-West, with two other links continuing on to NSF and in Washington and the British Library.

NSF uses a portion of the line to search several large databases maintained by NACSIS. A small part of the line is available for BIT NET and TCP transfers and is used mostly for mail exchange from their X.400 messaging system. NACSIS plans to upgrade the U.S. link to 192 kbps in 1992, at which time it will become one of the key international links for Japan.

A third network is the Todai International Science Network (TISN, pronounced “Tyson”). TISN uses the DECnet protocol suite and is used by physicists and chemists. TISN maintains a 128 kbps link between Todai and the University of Hawaii. Due to political walls between organizational fiefdoms, Japan also maintains HEP net connectivity at the High Energy Physics Laboratorv (KEK) to the Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory in California.

One last network is JAIN, a TCP/IP-based university network that links the university LANs together. This whole plethora of networks is tied together by JUNET, based on UUCP, and WIDE (Widely Integrated Distributed Environment), the Japanese Internet.

There are two paths between the Japanese Internet and the rest of the Internet. WIDE maintains a 192 kbps link from Keio University in Fujisawa to the University of Hawaii. In addition, the 128 kbps link between Todai and Hawaii used primarily for DECnet traffic, acts as an automatic backup in case the 192 kbps link has problems.

WIDE is an interesting network in the Japanese system. All the other networks are funded by the Ministry of Education or another group. Officially, WIDE doesn’t exist. Even more amazing, in the tightly segmented world of Japanese politics, commercial and educational users are all mixed together.

I asked Professor Ishida how such a situation could come to be. His answer was quite simple.

“Jun Murai.”

Image Jun Murai used to be a research associate at Todai, working with Ishida, but recently moved south to his alma mater, Keio University. In the staid world of academics, Jun is a fairly remarkable character.

Just for starters, he wears blue jeans. Failing to dress in the regulation dark blue suit has caused no small amount of comment among senior faculty members. Jun gets away with it because he really knows what he is doing. He commands a loyal following among students, has the respect of all his peers, and has even won the grudging respect of his seniors.

The WIDE network is based on donations of money from corporations and labor from graduate students. The network lives almost hand to mouth. Money is funneled into Murai’s “research programme” and is used to pay for the network. It was not unusual at times to have the coffers get down to 1 or 2 months of operating costs, forcing Murai into perpetual fundraising.

After this introduction to Japanese networks, Professor Ishida gave me a tour of the Todai facilities. The main campus is wired with three FDDI backbones, one for TCP/IP, one for DECnet, and a third for administrative computing. A fourth 400 Mbps backbone is used for video. Fanning out from each of the backbones are UTP based Ethernets. These local networks form the point of connection for terminal clusters, workstations, and even the supercomputers.

Professor Ishida led me past a peopleless room stuffed with Hitachi mainframes and supercomputers into a terminal cluster. The cluster was divided up into cubicles and was dead quiet. At the entrance was a color video display with a map of the cluster. The occupied cubicles had red dots inside and the empty cubicles were marked in green, allowing people to find an available workstation or terminal without disturbing the people already working.

Off to the side was a glass-lined room with 9-track tape and cartridge drives. Each drive had a terminal in front of it with a menu system to help users do their own tape work.

Another room was filled with printers. When a user prints a job at Todai, it automatically spools to disk. Each printer has a card reader attached to it (magnetic card, not punch card, that is). A user walks up to the reader, slides an ID card through, and the job is retrieved from disk and printed. A terminal in front of each printer indicates how long the current queue is.

Leaving the cluster, we went down to the first floor where Professor Ishida pointed to a large electronic signboard on the wall. The board displayed the current status of the mainframes, including the number of jobs and the expected delay before a new job would begin processing. No need to walk upstairs and log in if the system is slow.

Walking outside, I felt a little whir under my feet as the automatic brushes on the doormat came to life, cleaning my shoes. I headed down to the subway.

Coming off the subway, I ducked into a tiny, dark noodle shop where a line of salary men all sat hunched over the counter slurping noodles. Hoping my neighbor hadn’t chosen chicken lips, I pointed to his dish and was promptly handed a steaming bowl of delicious miso soup.

Feeling refreshed and refurbished, I went back to my hotel, entering at the same time as LaToya Jackson and a very large entourage. I fell in with the entourage and smiled graciously at the hotel reception committee.

On the way to the elevators, we were waylaid by a group of six American tourists all bearing labels to identify their tour group and all armed with cameras. Figuring LaToya could handle this one alone, I slipped into the elevator that three hotel staff members had been guarding for her. Before they could say anything, I punched my floor number and the startled attendants went jumping out in search of another elevator.

I spent the afternoon in the Pub Misamu, waiting for an evening dinner engagement with Tomoo Okada, general manager of Fujitsu’s Value Added Group. My appointment with Tomoo Okada was at 7 P.M. At precisely 7:01, my phone rang. I descended to the lobby to meet what was obviously a very senior manager, a distinguished-looking executive in his early 50s. Okada supervised more than 700 people, including Fujitsu’s Value Added Network division, two wholly owned subsidiaries, and a collection of divisions of other subsidiaries. His main responsibility was running a network used by both Fujitsu and its customers.

The network is essentially an X.25 network with 144 local access nodes spread throughout Japan. Over 250 leased lines running at speeds from 128 kbps to 6 Mbps form the network backbone. Running on the network are classic protocols for asynchronous terminals, such as X.28 and X.29, and synchronous protocols for 3270 and Fujitsu terminals. As a general rule, full protocol stacks aren’t run on the network, although an insurance company has begun deploying an OSI CONS-based service over X.25. International links include 64 kbps lines to Sydney, Singapore, Korea, Hong Kong, and Malaysia. Higher-speed links are available to the U.K., the U.S., and Germany.

Perhaps the most interesting project Okada supervised is NiftyServe, a wholly owned subsidiary that acts as the licensee to the U.S. CompuServe. NiftyServe preserves the famous CompuServe user interface, but the software was entirely rewritten to run on a UNIX platform and to support Kanji characters.

To make NiftyServe start off with a bang, 32,000 Fujitsu employees were given accounts. Over 70 percent of those accounts are active users. The reason for this high utilization is quite simple: important meetings, such as promotion reviews, are posted there.

Some of the most devoted users are overseas Japanese employees. In addition to providing things like daily Japanese language news, the service has proved important in another respect. In Japan, when family or friends die, it is considered very important to immediately express condolences. With Fujitsu or any large corporation, of course, fellow employees are family. Before the bulletin board service started, it could take days for the postal service to deliver the news overseas, forcing Fujitsu employees into the unwilling position of appearing impolite.

NiftyServe has added a few other interesting twists to the classic bulletin board. For example, you can instruct the system to redirect your mail to a fax machine. You can even go to a pay phone and have your mail read to you.

All this information about Fujitsu was imparted to me with rapid-fire delivery over a seemingly infinite parade of dishes in a dim sum restaurant. After polishing off a half-dozen large bottles of beer, Okada suggested we switch to a Chinese aged wine, similar to sake, but darker in color (and at least as potent).

Even with all these drinks, Tomoo Okada kept up a steady delivery of information on Fujitsu. With my head swimming and my stomach stuffed, I stumbled back to my hotel to await the next day’s pilgrimage to Fujisawa to visit Jun Murai, the Internet Samurai.