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On the Typology of the Hacker in Japan

Volker Grassmuck
Presentation given at the "Interstanding",
Tallinn, Estonia, November 23-25, 1995
"Switch Thrower for the World,
Fuze Tester, Maker of Routes"
(Peter Samson's Hacker Poem, in Levy, 24)

The term "hacker" as it came to be used in the late 1950s at MIT, refers to a culture, a life-style, a way of cooperating and sharing among a peer group, in many accounts a nerdish, otaku psychological disposition, but most of all a certain relationship towards technology.

In advancing technology, the hacker follows the project of industrial society in general. What sets him apart from corporate, military and governmental logic is that he does not accept extra-technological constraints on access and on the free flow of information. He is disrespectful of arbitrary rules and authorities, most of all the authority coagulated in technology itself, and he strives to creatively extend the range of possibilities, a range that might be restricted by technical, economic or legal means, or by the simple fact that nobody had yet thought of exploring these possibilities.

Out of this culture came a wealth of software and - as hacker historian Steven Levy puts it - "... a common philosophy which seemed tied to the elegantly flowing logic of the computer itself. It was a philosophy of sharing, openness, decentralization, and getting your hands on machines at any cost - to improve the machines, and to improve the world." [Levy, 7]

Today, we witness how a technological and communicational oasis that grew in protected mode over thirty years is redeveloped into a market place. The open, sharing hacker's spirit and the demands of proprietary, saleable know-how of the market are mutually exclusive. Therefore the open structure of the Matrix (in Quarterman's definition, the Matrix comprises the Internet and all the "outernets" like bulletin boards, CompuServe, and UUCP that have at least an email gateway to the Internet) is threatened by closure.

The challenge today is to not only inherit the material and immaterial structures created by generations of hackers, but most of all to inherit the spirit that brought them about. The legacy of the pioneers is this: a collaborative structure of free access and a free flow of information, and a mode of innovation and problem-solving through selforganization: letting solutions to complex problems evolve rather than legislating them into existence.


Networks are wires and waves, relays and switches. More important, networks are people. The various media configurations link people in characteristic ways. Broadcast media connect virtually all to the messages emanating from one center. The telephone connects people one-to-one. Amateur radio was the first to allow many-to-many communications, and thereby communities could form solely inside the medium.

In the 1910s and 20s, there were some 50,000 HAM radio amateurs active in Japan. Imported off-the-shelve radios were still extremely expensive - twice the price of a house - so most of them built their own receivers and transmitters. It is the first time that we encounter the prototypical image of the "nerd" or "otaku" later associated with computer hackers.

The medium is object of exploration and at the same time means of communicating about it with fellow hackers. Not providing a storage medium, radio had to be complemented by magazines like "Shônen to Musen" in which much of the techno-hackerist knowledge of the time circulated.

The times and technology, of course, were quite different. Still, elements of borderless person-to-person communications and community forming are comparable enough to lead Mizukoshi Shin, assistant professor at Tokyo University's Institute of Socio- Information and Communications Studies, to call amateur radio the "Internet of the early 20th century." We find the same equality of voices that allows for processes of selforganization, and a pooling of knowledge and ideas that is more than the sum of its parts.

During the early days of the new medium, radio was basically a free-for-all, an opening in the strict Imperial control structure, a Temporary Autonomous Zone [Hakim Bey] on the airwaves. As the liberal period of Taishô drew to a close, this TAZ was gagged and regulated away. In 1925, the public broadcast monopoly of NHK (Nippon Hôsô Kyôkai) was established, and international regulations on HAM radio made it illegal to transmit anything meaningful other than technical data.

The hackerist spirit, once out of the bottle, could be contained in niches but it could not be made to go away. The HAM amateur circles passed it on to the following generations. After the war, it blossomed in Tokyo's electronic district Akihabara, today the Mekka of hardware and software hackerdom from all over the world. The HAM radio scene was also important at the time of the birth of personal computers in he mid-1970s when you still had to solder and wire them yourself. BASIC listings of games for TK-80s (NEC's "Training Kit") first appeared in radio magazines. A publication like "Radio Life", currently with a monthly print run of 200,000, gives an indication of the size of one segment of media hacker culture. Still today, many of the UNIX hackers you meet in Japan are at the same time licenced radio amateurs.


There are hackers for every operating system, but the ultimate hacker's stomping ground is UNIX. Developed originally in 1969 as an in-house tool for Bell Labs programmers, it was designed to facilitate their cooperation over networks. Communications was therefore an essential part of UNIX from the start. Antitrust regulations made it difficult for A&T to market UNIX. However, from 1976, educational institutions were allowed to license it for a minimal fee. One passage in the licence agreement stated that all changes and additions by users would have to be shared with the whole UNIX community. This was not unusual. Much of the early mainframe software was, in fact, written by hackers who were proud when e.g. DEC would include their works - without any compensation - in their distribution. And vice versa: if you needed a certain algorithm which you knew DEC had, you would simply call them, and they would send it over. "Information should be free" was one of the core beliefs of the hacker's ethic. [Levy, 40 f.]

It was from this non-commercial, sharing, cooperative environment that networking protocols like UUCP and the Internet protocol TCP/IP grew on top of UNIX.

Japan, Inc.

In Japan, Prof. Ishida Haruhisa, a researcher at Tokyo University was the first to start experimenting with UNIX around 1981. 1984, which turned out to be a rather un-Orwellian year for the country, saw the beginning of Japanese-language computing, and the start of BBSs and UNIX networks. The bulletin boards TWICS in Tokyo and COARA on the southern main island of Kyushu, both described by Rheingold in his "Virtual Communities," were founded at that time. [Rheingold, 205 & 215]

Computer networking in Japan has a history of institutional disablement and individual initiative. A centralistic approach focused on institutional users, rather than on individuals. The Ministry of International Trade and Industry, in charge of everything relating to computers before data networks came to be seen as a form of telecommunications, favored proprietary protocols developed by the major mainframe makers Fujitsu, Hitachi, NEC, IBM, and DEC - a landscape of isolated islands that would supposedly prevent customers from sailing away to other vendor's products. Non-transparent and unfair funding policies of the Ministry of Education were and still are today another major obstacle to a lively, creative networking environment.

A one-man power center was Prof. Inose Hiroshi, a former Tokyo University researcher with high-level connections in politics. He established for himself the National Center for Science Information Systems (NACSIS) under the Ministry of Education. For years, NACSIS managed to block academic networks other than its own, and monopolized funds from the Ministry of Education for network research. NACSIS favored OSI, and it applied pressure on MITI to strongly propose it to the government. The power of NACSIS can be seen from the fact that the Japanese cabinet actually decided twice that OSI should be the standard protocol, and ruled that all computers have to speak it.

Nippon Telegraph and Telephone (NTT) which until 1984 held the network monopoly, prohibited "alien devices" such as modems on the telephone lines. Even in the existing dedicated data networks, regulations prohibited mail and news exchanges. Japan lacks a sense of an abstract "general," and a concept of "public," even at government level where one might suppose to find it. Instead, an inflexible territoriality protected by pacts and alliances is paired with a structural inertia waterproofing a centerless bureaucracy against openings and change.

The Other Japan

Enter the hackers. BBSs and Internet arose entirely from individual initiatives, in case of BBSs from enthusiastic amateur circles, in case of the Internet from the work of Murai Jun and a few other academic hackers. Murai started JUNET in 1984 while he was at Tokyo Institute of Technology. But he soon reached the limits of what was possible there. Whenever he wanted to do something new, the administration and his colleagues were looking to the University of Tokyo for precedence, and if nothing happened there they would not dare to do it, either. So he decided that if he wanted to change the situation he had to be in the belly of that top elite university. OSI architectures were at the center of debates in the commissions. To Murai, in the account of Carl Malamud,
"this was a waste of time. As he puts it, 'I was young and that was boring.' He took two modems, scammed a phone line from university administrators (no easy feat), and started running UUCP transfers. That was the start of JUNET... Meanwhile, the powers that be continued to debate OSI. When they finally looked up from their deliberations, Jun already had several hundred nodes on his network. As in much of the world, while committees waited for OSI, a few people turned TCP/IP networks into a reality. Japan, like other countries, had many people trying to legislate networks into existence while a few people rolled up their sleeves and installed cable." [Malamud 1993: 45f.]
A truly hackerist attitude. One could say that again a Temporary Autonomous Zone had opened up, a "zone" that consisted of individuals and wire, politics and algorithms. To be a network hacker, you have to hack the system as well, just to get you started.

At Todai, Murai reached the limits again when he wanted to upgrade JUNET to the TCP/IP-based WIDE. At national universities there is no mechanism for researchers to acquisition and manage their own funds needed for an expensive leased-line, for employing programmers, and paying students. All the rules for national universities, the special ones for the University of Tokyo, and those for government employees make these things very difficult. So he had to escape to Keio, a private university, where researchers have much more freedom.

Today, WIDE is a kind of academic freenet connecting research institutes and universities, 120 organizations in all, free of charge. The company running and maintaining the infrastructure is financed solely by industry donations. "I don't know," says Murai, "how long I can continue this situation, but I've got the feeling that if I keep opening up new services, companies will be willing to pay."


Despite the averse conditions, there is quite a bit of high- quality public domain software created by the Japanese community - only that it can not be called "public domain." In Japan, the idea is still deeply rooted that "public" and "government" are synonymous. Software or databases developed at public universities or research institutes may legally only be used by government employees. A large set of high-quality databases on the Inter-Ministry Network connecting the national research labs may therefore not be made accessible on the Internet. Enforcement of the rule is softening somewhat. Even NACSIS, by now, grants public access to their databases.

Among important freeware Murai mentions the example of mobile protocol software that allows you to move computers from network to network. The software is freely available and ported to multi-platforms which is evidence that the authors have been thinking very strongly about public use. Another example is the compression software LHA which in terms of numbers of users is probably the most popular freeware from Japan. Another area of continuous strong public effort is Japanese character handling software, including text editors, terminal emulators, and kanji fonts. Those are not very fancy, not very visible efforts, but very important in a script culture that only entered the digital era in 1979.

A recent freeware success story from Japan is Delegate. It was originally developed by Satô Yutaka at the Electro-Technical Lab in Tsukuba (ETL). Delegate is an Internet proxy server that solves the standards problem of Japanese language encoding. In Japan three different formats are widely used. Surfing the Net, one had to find out by trial-and-error whether a site uses JIS (Japanese Industrial Standard), Shift-JIS, or EUC. Delegate detects and converts them automatically into the format its user prefers. Even for systems that do not handle Japanese characters Delegate has a solution. It turns the Kanji into bitmaps.

Since it was an instant success among networkers in Japan, the support Satô receives is accordingly enthusiastic. He gets a flood of bugreports, improvements, add-on modules, and general feedback. A very active mailinglist was started. In this way Delegate is constantly evolving. At busy times there was one update of the software per day. Much functionality was added. By now it does not only solve the code chaos, but also caches www, ftp, wais, and gopher traffic, and it even works as a firewall.

This process of constant input, use, and tuning is turning Delegate into a truly hackerist patchwork, a smoothly running piece of software, a useful tool for the whole community. A freeware like Delegate is clearly not the product of one individual but rather of a synergistic field, a network of brains connected in something like Teilhard de Chardin's Noosphere. As early as the 1940s, the Jesuit envisioned a planetary layer of thinking substance above the biosphere, an ethereal collective consciousness, that would emerge out of these "marvelous new machines," the computers.

Satô is not a leader, but a crystallization point for something that was in the air. Negroponte gives an example from Resnick against the idea of a "centralized mind-set": "We commonly assume, for example, that the frontmost bird in a V- shaped flock is the one in charge and the others are playing follow-the-leader. Not so. The orderly formation is the result of a highly responsive collection of processors behaving individually and following simple harmonious rules without a conductor." [Negroponte, 157] Little do we understand, he writes, about the "emergence of coherence from the activity of independent agents."

It is precisely this network of independent agents from which solutions evolve that is the most important legacy of the hacker's culture to the public Matrix at large, an unrivalled morphogenetic creativity, a flexibility and strength not found in any corporate or bureaucratic setting.

From Here

The Internet arrived in Japan in a big way through the "Gore Shock." When the US vice-president, in September 1993, declared networks to be not only a multi-billion dollar industry in itself, but the basic infrastructure for economy, education, arts, and sciences, the Japan that had deemed itself finally Number One, realized it was still behind. By five years, estimated commissions sent out to survey the installed base of computers and networks and the human resources in the US. Eversince, there has been an Internet boom, if not in actual usage, then at least in media hype.

Today, ten years after divestiture and market entrance of new common carriers, the Japanese telecommunications landscape is still dominated by NTT - the largest company in the world, in fact - and by the guiding hand of the Ministry of Post and Telecommunications (MPT). The former state monopoly, like all deregulating telcos, is a hybrid of regular competitive enterprise and - by legal obligation - universal service provider. Incongruous demands that lead to higher prices and fewer services.

MPT's role is powerful but vague, as so often in Japan. The Information Technology and Communications Policy Forum of Japan, a kind of NGO think tank, characterized the MPT's approval procedure during these ten years thus: "the applicable standards for the administration of approval often lacked both transparency and openness. In some instances, the regulatory agency was thought to have stretched or shrunk the regulations on its own initiative without any hindrance." [GLOCOM]

In the US, AT&T is, right now, subject to further break-up, and also in Japan the telecommunications world talks about an imminent split-up of NTT. The former state monopolies have grown into dinosaurs that have outlived their historic purpose. The Policy Forum's critique of the style of discussion sounds familiar in Germany, as well: "Unfortunately, the current debate focused within the Telecommunications Council, which is the Ministry of Post and Telecommunications' leading deliberative body, has not been open and transparent, preventing most citizens from participating fully." [GLOCOM]

While, as usual, the powers are bargaining over the future of the market behind drawn curtains, the hackers are preparing their next move. Murai is currently working on high-speed networking and on new wireless technologies - the hottest toys for the boys at the moment - and he has taken up the task of providing software engineers with a good working environment. "If you're a software engineer, I think you should be connected to the Internet 24 hours a day by a pretty good quality cable. But it's not easy to get a good connection straight to your home, and NTT is charging a hundred times too much now. But I'm very positive on getting a drastic change in the near future."

He envisions this change to take place in two phases. The first is the laying of the technological groundwork, the second is the transition from the current system which will involve a break-up of NTT.

Murai discovered that NTT's multimedia division has an ATM switch that nobody is using, "an expensive piece of junk" that he wants to recycle. The advantage of ATM (Asynchronous Transfer Mode) is that large volumes of any kind of traffic, voice, fax, and data, can be mixed on the same network. Until the end of 1995, he will set up a system connecting regular copper wire to the ATM switch which he plans to open on an experimental basis by April 1996. It's cheap and shabby, not utilizing the transmission speed of 155 Mbps that ATM was designed for, but it will provide hundreds of 128 kbps "virtual channels" carried over a single twisted pair. This translates into very cheap leased-lines a power faster than today's analog modems on today's copper, rather than tomorrow's glass fiber. And if they are there for software engineers today, they will be for all of us tomorrow. An age where bandwidth is simply always there, like electricity and tap water today, is around the corner.

Once the technical feasibility has been shown, the next step will be the socio-economic implementation. The main stumbling blocks here are monopoly pricing and bureaucratic control. "Before NTT would be divided up," says Murai, "I'd like to achieve what we can, using their existing facilities. As soon as it's done I'd be very happy to see NTT split up."

As for social change, the power of the Matrix to link people regardless of social status will have an especially strong impact in Japan. Already companies like NEC experience how in-house LANs help circumvent middle-management, reduce hierarchies and centralism, and further globalization. A freer access to information, the disclosure of politically and socially relevant data, the emergence of a culture of debate in newsgroups and mailing lists can be expected to lead to major changes in Japan. The Japanese hackers first of all have to hack bureaucratism, authoritarianism, elitism - the overall control structure that Japanese critics call the Emperor System.

In different shapes, these are the issues everywhere. The hackers can teach us something about distributed, open systems, and about creating diversity and preventing closure and oligopolies in media. Wouldn't everyone benefit, asks Levy, "by approaching the world with the same inquisitive intensity, skepticism toward bureaucracy, openness to creativity, unselfishness in sharing accomplishments, urge to make improvements, and desire to build as those who followed the Hacker Ethic?" [Levy, 49]


- Fujimuro Mamoru, Japan Amateur Radio League, museum and archive
- Mizukoshi Shin, Tokyo University, Shakai-Jôhô- ken
- Dave Farber, visiting fellow at GLOCOM
- Murai Jun, Keio University
Big thanks to Ando Kôji of RACE, Tokyo University for invaluable insights.


- Steven Levy, Hackers. Heroes of the Computer Revolution, Delta, New York, 1994
- Anderson, Bart, Bryan Costales, Harry Henderson, WAIT Group's UNIX Communications, 2nd ed., Carmel, Ind. USA, Sams, 1991
- Malamud, Carl, Exploring the Internet. A Technical Travelogue, London, Sidney, Toronto et.al, Prentice Hall, 1993
- Negroponte, Nicholas, Being Digital, New York, Knopf, 1995
- Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, Die Zukunft des Menschen, Olten 1966
- Brian Kahin and James Keller, Public Access to the Internet, MIT Press 1995
- James Keller, Public Access Issues: An Introduction, in: Kahin, op.cit.
- Jeffrey K. MacKie-Mason and Hal R. Varian, Pricing the Internet, in: Kahin, op.cit.
- John S. Quarterman: The Matrix: Computer Networks and Conferencing Systems Worldwide, Bedford, Mass. 1990
- Rheingold, Howard, The Virtual Community. Homesteading on the Electronic Frontier, Reading, Mass. etc. 1993, Addison-Wesley