The Big Five
Posted on July 8, 2017
Through the 1960s, ’70s and ’80s, Japan’s Ministry of International Trade and Industry (MITI) set themselves the task of bolstering Japan’s technical capabilities in computer hardware and software.¹
In 1962, they established the Electronic Computer Technology Research Association (ECTRA), which comprised three of Japan’s major computer makers, Fujitsu, NEC and Oki Electric.
Working with MITI’s in-house Electro-Technical Laboratory (ETL) and the laboratories of the government-owned Nippon Telephone and Telegraph Corporation (NTT), ECTRA developed Japan’s first home-grown general-purpose computer, the FONTAC, in 1964 …
In 1966, MITI began a five-year program which would transform Japan’s electric machinery manufacturers into global computer manufacturers and/or electronics giants.
In 1972, MITI organised its R&D efforts across three teams, with each team aiming to launch a computer series that could compete with IBM’s System/370 series of mainframe computers:
- Fujitsu and Hitachi (M Series)
- NEC and Toshiba (ACOS Series)
- Mitsubishi Electric and Oki (COSMO Series)
In 1976 MITI regrouped its members into two teams (it seems Oki took a leave of absence):
- Fujitsu, Hitachi, Mitsubishi
- NEC, Toshiba
“The Big Five”, as they became known, were tasked with the development of Very Large Scale Integrated circuits — a three-year long VLSI project which led to a vast improvement in semiconductor technology, and which gave Japan a dominant position in the 64K Dynamic RAM (DRAM) market.
1979 saw the development of next-generation computer terminals and peripherals, and the number of participant manufacturers was expanded to 8. Oki Electric returned to the fold and were joined by:
- Matsushita Communication Industrial Co.
- Sharp Corporation
- Computer Development Laboratories (CDL) Ltd
Individual members NEC and Toshiba also contributed jointly as NEC-Toshiba Information Systems (NTIS) a spin-off from the VLSI project:
Diagram from page 18 of:
While Exxon and Olivetti were scrambling to release the world’s first electronic daisy wheel typewriter, The Big Five (make that Six, Seven, Eight) were developing technology that could best accommodate the demands of the Japanese language:
- May 1977 —Sharp develop the industry’s first Japanese language word processor prototype
- September 1978 —Toshiba are the first to release a Japanese word processor, the JW-10 …
- May 1979 —Oki Electric announce their OKI WORD EDITOR-200 Japanese electronic typewriter (dot matrix) …
- September 1979 —Sharp announce the Shoin WD-3000, the industry’s first electronic tablet …
- May 1980 —Fujitsu announce the Oasys 100 word processor …
- May 1980 —NEC announce their NWP-20 Japanese word processor …
- May 1981 —Hitachi announce their BW-20 (WordPal 20) Japanese word processor …
Before mobile phones, phonecards were a lucrative sideline for NTT …
Fujitsu PC and Oasys Lite word processor
(endorsed by Writer Kouzaburou Arashiyama).
NEC N5200 PCs
(endorsed by actor and singer Tetsuya Takeda).
¹ In 1987, Matsushita Electric Industrial, Hitachi, Toshiba, NEC, Mitsubishi Electric, and Fujitsu, took 3rd, 5th, 6th, 8th, 10th, and 13th place respectively in a list of the 200 largest industrial firms in Japan.
Other honourable mentions: Sony (21st) Sanyo (26th) IBM Japan (28th) Sharp (29th) Canon (45th) Oki Electric Industry (70th) Brother Industries (181st).
- Three big hardware projects underway in Japan by The Japan Insider/Nahum Stiskin, InfoWorld, 28th March 1983
- Divided Sun: MITI and the Breakdown of Japanese High-tech Industrial Policy, Scott Callon, Stanford University Press, 1995
- Word processor/computer information and images from the IPSJ Computer Museum
- Back to the Future: Japan’s NII Plans (PDF), Center for Research on Information Technology and Organizations, University of California, Irvine, June 1996