TOKYO Cynics are calling it a case of “classic overkill,” but Japanese Prime Minister Keizo Obuchi is taking no chances when Tokyo becomes the first of the world’s megacities to tackle the year-2000 computer glitch.
Unlike President Clinton, who plans to welcome the New Year by setting the Washington Monument ablaze with pyrotechnics, Mr. Obuchi will hunker down in a command bunker at his residence in the capital.
Tokyo, the world’s biggest city with about 27 million people, will face the year-2000 computer bug 14 hours ahead of Washington and New York.
“The day when Tokyo saves the world,” is how one commentator describes it.
“If anything does happen,” said Toshiaki Kanda, 38, a Kobe-based video journalist and former wine maker, “the rest of the world will want to know the degree of damage in Japan and act consequently to prevent it.”
The glitch, commonly known as “Y2K,” refers to the risk that computer systems will mistake the year 2000 for 1900 and then crash or churn out erroneous data that could cripple supplies of food, water, power, cash, credit and other daily necessities.
In recent days, a rash of small fires deliberately set on commuter trains and exploding bombs in train-station lockers have shifted worries away from computer-generated mischief to fears of holiday terrorism.
To respond to any crisis, as many as 50 people will be working side by side with Mr. Obuchi when the clock strikes midnight, one official told the Agence France-Presse news service.
More than 1 million Japanese workers, including 10,000 central government officials, and 106,000 police officers will be on duty.
At 1 a.m. New Year’s morning, Mr. Obuchi plans to emerge from the bunker and step before a wall of reporters and television cameras to report on the first hour of battle.
“We’re all going to look pretty silly come Jan. 1 [if] nothing has happened,” said John Bosnitch, a Canadian-born desk editor at the English-language Nikkei Weekly newspaper.
“Classic overkill,” said Fred Worthy, a computer software technician from Los Angeles who has been working in Japan for five years.
“The main bottleneck will come from people making unnecessary calls to find out if everything is OK,” Mr. Worthy said. “Actually, I expect outages from Y2K will be less than glitches on a normal working day in heavily wired Tokyo.”
Following the Japanese tradition of organizing an association to combat every problem, Mr. Kanda has formed a voluntary organization called “Y2K-TOKYO.”
The group will broadcast live on the Internet at www.y2k-tokyo.org.
Programming, consisting of news about what’s gone right or wrong worldwide, will begin Dec. 31 at 7 p.m. Japan time (5 a.m. Dec. 31 in Washington).
Japan’s government has already warned people to stock up on food, water and kerosene, the fuel commonly used in home heaters.
None of the preparations should be particularly burdensome. The Japanese typically greet the New Year by stocking up since most of the country typically shuts down from Jan. 1 to 3 for one of the world’s more festive New Year’s holidays.
As an added precaution, the government says it will temporarily abandon the use of e-mail in communicating among key ministries, relying instead on old-fashioned fax machines and telephones.
The government had considered e-mail as a means to speed up the circulation of damage reports. But recent tests by local governments showed that bureaucrats had difficulties using e-mail.
Tokyo will be the world’s first city with a population of more than 10 million to welcome the year 2000.
A private organization called JHelp says it will provide information in English for the expatriate community using information from CNN, the BBC and NHK, which is Japan’s national broadcasting service.
The Ministry of Foreign Affairs says it will provide telephone, fax and Internet information services in English as well as Korean, Portuguese (for Japanese-Brazilian workers), and Mandarin Chinese.
Kaoru Nakamura, head of the millennium-bug task force office at the Cabinet Councilors’ Office on Internal Affairs, said the first reports would likely deal with major power outages and the condition of railways, telecommunications and other infrastructure.
He said he intends to use a Web site at the prime minister’s residence (www.kantei.go.jp) to post detailed reports.
Meanwhile, the government, with its notoriously bad record of crisis management, is calling on the public to remain calm.
Few have forgotten that former Prime Minister Tomiichi Murayama first heard of the devastating 1995 Kobe earthquake by listening to news on a local radio station.