A Pc Boom In Japan's Classrooms

For a technologically advanced country, Japan is remarkably backward when it comes to computers. Even today, personal computers remain a mystery to many Japanese managers. And in Japan's classrooms, there are just 250,000 computers for 20 million pupils. That's one computer for every 80 students, compared with one for every 20 in the U.S., according to market researcher Quality Education Data Inc.

Worried that computer phobia will become a competitive liability, Japan is going on a school-computer buying spree. Under a five-year program begun in 1991, the Education Ministry is spending more than $200 million to help local school districts install 400,000 PCs in rural and suburban schools. Local governments will cough up twice that sum, and major cities such as Tokyo and Osaka have their own ambitious plans. The total tab for computers and software could top $1.7 billion, estimates NEC Corp. "This will be good for Japan," declares Hiroshi Fukugawa, chief curriculum supervisor for the Tokyo Metropolitan Board of Education. "We're already advanced in science, and computers will reinforce it."

BIG SPENDERS. While Americans have made progress in the Japanese PC market--both Apple Computer Inc. and IBM claim a 7% market share--the school market is shaping up mainly as a contest for Japanese suppliers. The front-runner is NEC, which had 53% of Japan's PC market last year, according to Dataquest Inc. To keep a similar share in education, NEC has opened a training school for teachers and offers them weekly software seminars.

NEC's sole serious challenger so far is Fujitsu Ltd. It has only 6% of the PC market but is spending heavily to build a following for FM TOWNS, a PC that uses CD-ROM optical disks to present a lively mix of data, text, sound, and images. CD-ROM-based electronic encyclopedias of ornithology, botany, and astronomy, which list for $60 to $227, helped Fujitsu sell 20,000 FM TOWNS machines to schools last year. That, and 7,000 conventional PCs, gave Fujitsu 42% of the school market, says Fujitsu educational sales manager Yukitada Usuku. The plan is a direct copy of Apple's strategy for Apple II in the U.S. "If you can get PCs into the schools," says Usuku, "you can get them into the homes."

American PC makers say they would like a piece of the action, too, but seem unlikely to get much. The U.S. suppliers say the government guidelines treat non-Japanese suppliers fairly. But conservative teachers and school boards instinctively go with the market leaders, who happen to be Japanese.

So far, the biggest hang-up for Americans has been price. The Japanese are willing to cut prices--even more drastically than the Americans have at home--to win deals. For a recent bid in Osaka, the winner lopped 74% off the retail price. Apple wouldn't go that low. "There are limits," says Tatsuo Goto, Apple Japan's education marketing manager. Goto is trying to persuade Apple headquarters to take extraordinary measures, including donating computers, to get a foot in the door.

Long term, the big hurdle for the Americans may be their anemic distribution. Apple has only 48 dealers in Japan, plus 1,700 resellers, compared with 9,000 NEC outlets--including 300 stores that sell only computers. Fujitsu has 92 branch offices with education specialists.

GET 'EM EARLY. IBM's tack has been to use software as an entree to schools. Last December, it released low-priced math and data-base packages for secondary schools that run on either IBM PCs or the incompatible NEC hardware. It was the first time IBM tailored PC software to a rival's system. Since 1990, IBM has also donated dozens of PCs to test programs in schools.

For all the suppliers, Japan's education market has less to do with fattening today's bottom line than with creating future customers. Consider the scene at Tokyo's Nishi Rokugo public elementary school, near Kawasaki. With 20 Fujitsu FM TOWNS lined up in front of him, 38-year-old Kenkichi Mochizuki teaches his third-grade class to write and edit simple compositions and illustrate them with an electronic painting program. "These children feel tremendous satisfaction," he says. "They approach the whole thing as a game. If they can keep that spirit, they won't ever grow to dislike the technology." And, Fujitsu is betting, if they keep that spirit, they'll get their parents--and one day their bosses--to buy Fujitsu computers.

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