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Scenes of Heisei: Expansion, dangers of technology reflected in Tokyo's Akihabara

Takuya Kitamura, who completed the government-funded National Institute of Information and Technology "SecHack365" program to develop Japanese cyber security experts, stands in the middle of the Akihabara district, in Tokyo's Chiyoda Ward, on Sept. 9, 2018. (Mainichi/Naoki Watanabe)

When looking back on the last 30 years of Japan's Heisei era, there are certain locations that remain in the collective memory of the people and tell the story of the time. From the events that took place in these areas and through the people who gathered there, the Mainichi Shimbun seeks to answer the question of just how the Heisei era should be remembered.

The first of these locations is the changing face of the "electric town" Akihabara. From the onetime home of a computer shop that funded the AUM Shinrikyo cult, to its current status as sacred ground for "otaku" obsessed with gaming, anime and manga, music idols and other pop culture, the youth of the Heisei era has morphed the landscape of this district in Tokyo's Chiyoda Ward over the last 30 years.

In a 31-story office building facing the Akihabara Electric Town exit of JR Akihabara Station earlier this year, 39 young people completed the first one-year government training program to develop cyber security experts. It is hoped they will secure Japan's networks for years to come, and this day they will present their final projects.

The National Institute of Information and Communications Technology (NICT) "SecHack365" program kicked off in April 2017, and the students were tasked with creating games or applications that related to net security. The students, all aged 25 or younger and living scattered across Japan, worked on their projects under the guidance of IT companies and university researchers in their area. Many of those chosen for SecHack 365 were university or graduate school students, but there was also an elementary school and junior high school student.

In a second-floor hall in Akihabara this past spring, they presented six projects completed during the yearlong endeavor in front of government officials. Even after completing the program, the students demonstrating exceptional skills will be eligible to be sent to events overseas and university lectures, and for support to start their own businesses, all on government funds.

One three-person project team led by Takuya Kitamura, now 26, created a game app for junior high and high school students where they must protect four servers from attack while also attacking their opponent's servers, with a variety of attack methods available.

Kitamura was born in the northeastern prefecture of Fukushima, but his family moved to Hiroshima in western Japan when he was in second grade due to his father's job. Bored and feeling brainwashed by the college prep classes at the private junior high and high school he attended, Kitamura became interested in gaming. In the fall of his third year of junior high, he stopped attending classes. While he did return to school, in his third year of high school he temporarily developed double vision from playing games for extended periods of time. "I became unable to chart my future in the real world," he recalled.

After taking a gap year, he enrolled in the Hiroshima University School of Engineering, where he came upon a book about programming. After only a year, he was able to develop gaming apps, and in his third year of university, software he created that could learn the basic moves of shogi became popular on the online market.

"Programming ended up being the tool I needed for self-actualization," Kitamura said. "I found the joy of expressing myself online." He is now working on his doctorate while operating a multi-franchise programming school for elementary, junior high and high school students. Currently he has over 100 students in 14 locations across five prefectures, mainly in Hiroshima. "I would like to bring out the talents of children who can't get used to school or society and provide them with support."

The NICT is Japan's only public research institution specializing in information communications, and the SecHack program itself is considered to be forward thinking on an international scale. NICT National Cyber Training Center head Michio Sonoda, 56, who created the program, explained why he chose Akihabara as the stage for the students to present the fruits of their yearlong labors:

"There are many people in the area with a high level of interest in IT related projects, and anime and music here is also cutting-edge. I hope that for the students, coming here will provide inspiration."

However, the products lining the streets of Akihabara electric town's large shops have shifted from home appliances to computers, and from computers to smartphones and other IT devices over the course of the Heisei era. In the fall of 1995, the seventh year of Heisei, the Japanese version of Microsoft's "Windows 95" went on sale. There is someone who remembers the frenzy just after the release well -- 51-year-old Naruhito Noda, a former top member of the AUM Shinrikyo religious cult.

It was widely known that the cult that orchestrated the March 1995 Tokyo Metro sarin gas attack ran a computer store in Akihabara. After the incident, the cult's successor group changed the name of the shop, and expanded its business to several locations. Noda was put in charge of operating the business in 1997.

"The customers new by word of mouth that AUM's successor was involved in managing the stores, but the prices were lower than other places, and the products sold," explained Noda. "We had sales of over 10 billion yen in 1998, and some 1 billion in profits." After police cracked down on the business as the source of the organization's funds, it was reportedly shut down around 2000.

Noda himself joined AUM Shinrikyo in 1987. He was studying physics at the University of Tokyo, where he came to "see the limits of (his) own abilities to study the physical world." He dropped out of the program after coming across a book published by the cult. Since he was not involved in any of AUM's terrorist attacks, he was tasked with operating the group's successor organization, but left in 2009. Noda now works on efforts to aid the homeless in the wider Tokyo metropolitan area.

AUM grew from the end of the Showa era into the beginning of the Heisei era, when society was riding the expansion of the economic bubble. Young people who felt out of place in the bubble society gravitated to the group in search of spiritual worth.

Of the indiscriminate trolling attacks now occurring over the web, Noda said they feel ominous. "If you look at the comments overflowing on online message boards like distractions, then I think you might find even more people harboring feelings of dissatisfaction than at the time of (AUM Shinrikyo's terrorist) attacks," he warned.

Meanwhile, what drew the young programmer Kitamura to apply for the SecHack365 program was a book about preventing recurring and expanding multinational cyberattacks. "I felt that it was similar to bank transfer fraud. You cannot see the face of the other person," said Kitamura. "If the attacks are carried out indiscriminately, then the feeling of being an assailant also weakens," he added with a sense of crisis.

"The internet has become infrastructure," said the NICT's Sonoda. "Communications, finance, transportation -- the internet intimately connects the world. If security is compromised, then the extent of the damage is severe."

The second year of the SecHack365 program, once again gathering a wide variety of young people of the internet generation, kicked off in April. This time, there are 50 students enrolled in the NICT training program, including two junior high school students. Next spring, they will gather once more in the ever-changing Akihabara district to present their work.

(Japanese original by Tatsuya Kishi, General Digital News Center)

This is Part 1 of a 10-part series.

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