Talking Point
Bugtown UK

The Japanese government is warning people to prepare for the millennium bug by stocking up on two to three days supplies of food and water, though it says it does not expect serious disruption.

The public is also being warned to keep records of financial transactions and receipts and to check home appliances. These are said to be precautions only.

Despite the warnings, Japan appears to have made good progress in its preparations after a late start. In September, the US State Department described Japan as "generally well prepared".

A UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office report has also given Japan a fairly glowing reference.

The Japanese Prime Minister Keizo Obuchi has been personally heading a national crisis management headquarters.

By the end of September all major banks and regional banks said they had completed Y2K work and carried out dry-run tests.

Gas and electricity suppliers do not expect problems because they are not dependent on Y2k-related technology. But they have set up contingency plans to deal with any unexpected problems, including natural disasters. Tests have been completed on large city gas suppliers and tests on electricity systems are nearly 100% complete. The gas and electricity companies are legally required to provide a continuous supply of power.

But there are still some concerns about the health sector.

Only half of Japan's major medical facilities had finished Y2K testing by the end of September. The remaining 1,140 medical facilities are due to complete testing by the end of November.

In addition, 501 items of medical equipment that contain microchips still have not been corrected. But 94.2% of equipment has been fully tested is not expected to have any problems.

This follows a survey carried out by the health and welfare ministry in June when almost a quarter of companies quizzed said they had no intention of making contingency plans, despite government warnings.

On 31 December the train company Japan Rail (East) will stop all train services for 10 minutes at midnight as a precaution. However all 37 major railway companies say they are Y2K compliant and have carried out dry-run tests.

Potential manufacturing problems

In July, a report from HSBC Securities Japan had named several companies that were facing a high risk of disruption. The report was based on an analysis of 298 Japanese companies and discovered many of them had started Y2K work worryingly late.

Leading manufacturers like Sony and Mitsubishi are not expected to have problems, but smaller companies, which make up 80% of Japan's manufacturing industry, have been slow to act.

The FCO September report contained similar conclusions - noting that in June, 21% of small or medium businesses were either still considering the issue or had decided not to act.

Japanese advantages

Japan is, in some ways, reported to be in a stronger position than Britain and the US.

Japanese banks use mainly large mainframe computers that are cheaper to survey and repair than US computers. Many computer systems were overhauled in the early 1990s and switched to four-digit dates as a matter of routine.

Japan does have a shortage of programmers who can deal with Year 2000 problems, but on the plus side, IT workers tend to be more loyal to their employers than the West.

Programmers who stay in the same job know how to maintain systems quickly, while programmers in, for example, the US move on more frequently and perhaps do not properly document their work.

The 'emperor' solution

Japan has the added advantage of being able to write dates differently to western countries and so avoid the '00' date change that is causing so much concern. Japan sometimes uses the 'emperor' date system, where 1998 is Heisei 10.

Problems can be caused when it is not clear which system is being used - but smaller firms are finding the Y2K problem can be solved by switching to the emperor system.

 Compliances Rate 67% (Gartner)
 Gartner Infastructure Problem
 Distribution  Impact
 Power  Isolated  Moderate
 Phones  Isolated  Minor
 Gas  Isolated  Moderate
 Air  Isolated  Moderate
 Oil  Isolated  Moderate
 Food  Isolated  Minor
 Water  Isolated  Minor
 Govt  Moderate  Moderate
 Banks  Isolated  Minor
 Unrest  Isolated  Minor
 Trade  Isolated  Severe
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