Japan's high-definition TV system gets reprieve


TOKYO -- It was a display of confusion and cross-purposes totally unlike the Japan the world once thought it knew.

Tuesday, a senior official said Japan would cease support for HHTC Japanese standard for super-high-quality televisions because the technology had not kept up with world trends.

Yesterday, the official recanted, and presidents of Japan's top electronics firms launched a counterattack to assure consumers that the technology was alive and well.

The flap over high-definition television, or HDTV, underscores the high risks of government planning where the pace of technological change is swift. Although Japanese corporations spent an estimated $3 billion on the system, called Hi-Vision, most analysts believe the next generation of television sets will eventually use a fully digital standard easily compatible with computers. Such a standard is now being developed by a "grand alliance" of U.S. companies led by Zenith.

Akimasa Egawa, a top Ministry of Post and Telecommunications official, shocked Japan on Tuesday when he announced at a news conference that Japan would abandon the Hi-Vision standard to put the nation in line with the trend toward digital television in the rest of the world.

A furious reaction from industry and Japan's powerful semi-governmental television station, NHK, forced Mr. Egawa to retract his statement.

Experimental HDTV broadcasts will be expanded into full-time regular broadcasting, as previously planned, once a new satellite goes in service in 1997, Mr. Egawa said.

After Mr. Egawa spoke, the presidents of Sony, Matsushita Electric and NEC Corp., three of Japan's leading electronics manufacturers, held their own joint news conference to assure the public that the Hi-Vision standard would continue to expand in use into the next century.

"I fear that recent reports have given the impression that the digital system will take over, when that is not true," said a visibly emotional Tadahiro Sekimoto, president of NEC Corp. "I just hope that the media do not put off consumers from buying."

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