September 22, 2006

Interview: NIIBE Yutaka, Chairman, Free Software Initiative of Japan

Author: Mayank Sharma

NIIBE Yutaka is the chairman of the Free Software Initiative of Japan (FSIJ), a long-time Debian developer, and a hacker to the core. After his talk at the Fourth International Conference on GPLv3 in Bangalore, India, last month, I spent some time with Yutaka to learn about the degree of acceptance of Free Software in Japan and his efforts to nurture its growth.

NewsForge: How did you got involved with computers in general and free software in particular? What do you do when not working with computers?

NIIBE Yutaka: It was 1979 or 1980 when I first touched a Z80-based computer. I was a junior high student at that time. In 1985, following the design published by the Japanese magazine Transistor Gijutsu, I built my own computer using a 68000 CPU. I ran the FIG Forth compiler on that machine.

Then, around 1989, at the University of Electro-Communications (UEC), Chofu, Tokyo, I experienced Unix, the shared culture of software, and software by the GNU Project. On Sony NEWS, an excellent Japanese workstation at that time, I installed TeX, Wnn (Japanese conversion engine), and many GNU software, such as Bison, GNU Emacs, GDB, and GCC. Around 1990, the first version of GNU Emacs Lisp Reference Manual had been published. We got the Texinfo file, and the guys at UEC produced books of that manual.

When not on a computer, I enjoy digging wells. Four year ago I dug the deepest one at about 6 meters. The photos are available through Google cache.

NF: What is FSIJ and what does it do?

NY: FSIJ is the Free Software Initiative of Japan, a non-profit organization, registered with Tokyo-metropolitan Government. It is run by individual members (about 40 members) along with the help of cooperate members. Although it is a legal entity, there are no employees, and all activities are by volunteers.

FSIJ promotes the Free Software movement in Japan and Asia. FSIJ activities include organizing CodeFest, a 24-hour hacker gathering event, playing the role of mentor organization to Google Summer of Code, hosting monthly meetings, etc.

Talking about CodeFest, sponsored by CICC, we have had international CodeFests three times: CodeFest Asia 1st at Beijing (March 2005), 2nd at Colombo (September 2005), and 3rd at Kuala Lumpur (March 2006).

FSIJ usually has two CodeFests a year in Japan, at Tokyo and Kyoto. Next is scheduled on October 14 to 15 at Kyoto University.

NF: Is CodeFest like a hackathon where people actually get together and code?

NY: Yes, exactly. In 2004, we planned to do a hackathon in Beijing sometime in 2005. But there was (and still is) a possibility of the name being misunderstood, as if it was an evil activity against the government or something. Since Korean guys had a nice experience in calling it CodeFest, we too called it CodeFest.

NF: What is Japan's government's stand on Free Software?

NY: Japanese government understands the usefulness of Free Software. It is unfortunate that they speak about "open source software," not Free Software.

Let me talk again about my history.

In December 2000, I joined the research organization under Ministry of International Trade and Industry (MITI). There, I began to promote and to develop Free Software under the Japanese Government. MITI changed its name in 2001 to Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry, and adopted our proposal to develop software under Free Software licenses. Until that time, it was not officially allowed to use the budget to develop software and release it under Free Software licenses. The logic was that the product should earn profit when tax was used.

Although originally my proposal was clearly named "Free Software," when the project went under a different organization, IPA, the project was called "Open Software" Project. Currently, its called "OSS (Open-Source Software)" Project, which has a budget of about $9 million (US) per year. IPA does research and development of software, deploy open source desktops for schools and local governments.

It is a good thing that we have a budget for Free Software, but I failed with the name.

Then, I formed my own group at National Institute of Advanced Industrial Science and Technology in April 2005. It is named Free Software Initiative Group. Our task is to do research and development of Free Software. So, there is at least one official recognition for Free Software.

NF: Is this FSIJ or some other group?

NY: Free Software Initiative Group is my group at National Institute of AIST, my day job. I am the group leader at AIST. After I failed to name the project at IPA, I formed the group at AIST.

While AIST is a research organization, IPA is an organization which distributes funds for research and development.

It is allowed to do Free Software research and development at AIST, but its mission is not [promotion of the] Free Software movement itself. FSIJ's mission is the Free Software movement.

Basically, I have struggled to find a niche or two for Free Software movement in Japan.

NF: You say "...the logic was that the product should earn profit when tax was used." What tax is this? Tax collected from the public?

NY: Yes, income tax, sales tax, and others. I meant that the income of Japanese government (or any government) is tax by people. There were some people who said that the result of (software) research and development projects by government cannot be freely distributed, but should be used to make profits. It makes some sense, but things are not that easy; we have had many dead stocks of "intellectual property." Sometimes it is better for industry or for society to distribute the result as Free Software.

NF: How is the technical population looking at Free Software? Is it popular with technology students?

NY: Most people know the importance of Free Software in many industries, but the use of Free Software is not that huge except for the server market and embedded market. I mean, most people use Microsoft operating systems for their desktop.

In the server market, I think that Free Software is popular enough. Major systems integrators, such as NEC, Fujitsu, and Hitachi, all support GNU/Linux systems, while most major ISPs are heavy users of FreeBSD or GNU/Linux. According to a survey on Netcraft, Apache is more popular in Japan than the international average.

In the embedded market, GNU/Linux is getting more popular. It is adopted for devices, such as network storage, mobile phones, hard disk video recorders, MP3 players, and so on.

With technology students, I think that it is not that popular. Only high skilled, enthusiastic students use Free Software.

NF: So what is popular with these students?

NY: Microsoft Windows. Mac OS X is somewhat popular. Mac OS X has market share around 8 to 10 percent, I guess.

NF: And who are the "high skilled, enthusiastic students" you talk about? Do you mean the top of the class students? Or do you mean students from a different stream?

NY: Hacker-ish, I meant. Perhaps from a different stream. Normal or usual students (or people in general) don't have an interest for the technology underneath. They don't care how it works, but want to control, just on surface, so that their task is accomplished. On the other hand, hackers want to know in detail, and want to control bit to bit.

NF: In our discussions you mentioned the popularity of manga in Japan. From your description it very much sounds like the Free Software culture.

NY: Yes, it is shared culture, something like a bazaar model. Getting inspired by someone's work, re-mixing characters, some person will produce another new work. It is the individual who produces the work. There is free exchange of ideas between hackers doing open development just as there is between manga writers.

We can find a huge growth in the market of manga and a very good relationship between individuals and the industry in manga. I hope, we could learn from manga's success in Japan to empower Free Software development.

NF: In your presentation at the Bangalore conference you mentioned that Japanese people misunderstood GPL as being read-only. Why was this? And has the perception changed?

NY: The Japanese Constitution has long been considered as being read-only. Until recently, it was considered evil or violent to discuss changing/modifying the Constitution.

I don't know why exactly, but that's Japan, where no change is considered good.

Well, some people misunderstand that software too cannot be changed or modified. Most proprietary software is like that. It is only the vendors who can change the software, since that's the model of proprietary software business.

In some countries or culture, such a hierarchy (flow is only from top to bottom) or role model is believed to be a good thing, or the usual thing. It is surprising for such a culture that we can "join" the process of the change.

I think that people perceive that the Free Software movement follows the proprietary model too. I try to change this perception of Japanese. It is our right to study, modify, share the software, and talk about the rules as well!

NF: If you were to suggest changes to make Free Software appeal better to the Japanese, what would they be?

NY: Seriously, we need some good mascot. Or a good story in manga. (laughs)

NF: Are you not happy with the GNU mascot?

NY: GNU mascot is good for me, especially RMS on GNU. I like this picture. However, it seems that it doesn't catch people's attention.

NF: Most Free Software isn't written in the Japanese language. What is being done to get a Japanese user who is not comfortable with English to use that software? Is importance being given to localization efforts? What problems do they face?

NY: Let me first talk about the tools we use.

For the translation of GNU Project, Francois Pinard established the Translation Project. He gave a presentation in Japan in 1999.

The tool we started with was gettext. It's a scheme of message catalog which can support many languages. It supports a character-oriented UI, as well as a GUI. Most F/OSS applications adopt gettext.

Supporting many languages is difficult in Free Software development. Currently, gettext requires some skills from translators. I mean, basic knowledge of gettext, using repository systems such as CVS and Subversion, and handling of PO files. There are issues around them.

I know of some efforts to lower the entry barrier for translators. Rosetta is one such effort, which takes advantage of collaboration through the Web. That's the technology we use now.

Support of Japanese language for GNOME, Firefox, OpenOffice.org, and other popular applications is not that bad, but it's not enough either. For example, about 2/3 of GNOME messages are translated into Japanese.

But these technologies (gettext and Rosetta) are not sufficient. I think that we need some technology for dictionary support for translators, ontology technology, or something like that to ensure quality of translation.

NF: And from what I understand, Japanese uses four different character sets: Kanji, Hiragana, Katakana, and Romaji.

NY: It doesn't matter these days. Fifteen years ago or so, it did matter, because of encoding and huge character set support. Thanks to Unicode, all character sets are supported quite well.

For Kanji, there is a neverending story, though. Most Kanji characters are supported in Unicode 4.0. But there are always some special Kanji characters. For example, Japanese Buddhists get their Holy Names when they die. We use some special Kanji for Holy Names. Those characters are rarely used. But Unicode's efforts are great, and perhaps these are included in Unicode 5.0. I haven't checked.

Lastly, let me explain translation and Free Software development in general.

In foreign countries, many developers start their efforts from translation and documentation. That's because translation/documentation is not supported at the initial development stage, and it's easier than understanding and modifying technical details in code.

For example, when GNU/Linux was introduced in Japan, it was started as a translation/documentation project. People started to translate documentation and messages in the programs, and formed groups. The JF project is one of the famous ones.

It is similar in Korea. F/OSS was started as KLDP (Korean Linux Documentation Project).

And then, it goes into the development stage, not only documentation, but also in code.

For Korean and Japanese, where we don't speak English as the official language, the native language support in software is important and crucial for the society. But in some countries where English is also spoken, it seems to me that their attitude or enthusiasm to support their own native languages is not that much.

I hope for new technology (such as translation assistant or dictionary support) that will enable more translation.

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