Despite efforts to gather expert opinions (such as Joi Ito) and connect with Japanese bloggers, the recent Washington Post article on the Japanese blogosphere “Japan’s Bloggers: Humble Giants of the Web” contains serious mis-characterisations and inaccuracies. It seems the author falls into the trap of starting with a dazzling premise and getting carried away without bothering to step back and wonder if he’s starting from the right premise or back up his statements (or even read the day’s news before submitting his story).
The article aims to give an overview of the Japanese blogosphere, which is supposedly relevant since it is apparently the most active blogging language on earth (more on that later). The overview is essentially a series of variations on the theme “Unlike Americans, who often times blog to stand out, the Japanese blog to fit in.” A quick look at the beginning:
Compared to the English-speaking world, the Japanese have gone blog wild. They write Web logs at per capita rates that are off the global charts.
Although English speakers outnumber Japanese speakers by more than 5-1, slightly more blog postings are written in Japanese than in English, according to Technorati, the Internet search engine that monitors the blogosphere.
By some estimates, as much as 40 percent of Japanese blogging is done on mobile phones, often by commuters staring cross-eyed at tiny screens for hours as they ride the world’s most extensive network of subways and commuter trains.
Blogging in Japan, though, is a far tamer beast than in the United States and the rest of the English-speaking world. Japan’s conformist culture has embraced a technology that Americans often use for abrasive self-promotion and refashioned it as a soothingly nonconfrontational medium for getting along.
Bloggers here shy away from politics and barbed language. They rarely trumpet their expertise. While Americans blog to stand out, the Japanese do it to fit in, blogging about small stuff: cats and flowers, bicycles and breakfast, gadgets and TV stars. Compared with Americans, they write at less length, they write anonymously, and they write a whole lot more often.
First and foremost, it should be self-evident that this dichotomy of Japan as meek navel gazers and Americans as gung-ho self-branding showoffs is totally false. Has he ever heard of something called Livejournal? Case closed! Anyone who thinks about it for two seconds and spends any amount of time on the Internet should realize how strikingly personal and specific US blogs can be.
The next issue that the author simply gets wrong is the characterization of blogging as a “tame beast” – some kind of dainty, “nonconfrontational” extension of summer diaries. I barely know where to begin addressing this, but the author could have at least taken a look at the news on Japan:
1. Some part-timers at Yoshinoya were suspended after posting a video of themselves set to the Megaman music making a phony “terra-donburi” to compete against Sukiya’s “Mega-don.” The reason they were suspended was because the video generated massive negative comments from anonymous commenters, an example of “enjo” or Net bullying that is extremely common here and a phenomenon that I have documented here and there before.
2. The Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications has announced once again that it plans to submit legislation that will massively change the regulatory foundation of the Internet by treating it as a broadcast medium no different from TV stations. Why the need for such an overhaul? All the malicious, anonymous posting!
Just from those two examples alone, you can see that the bigger picture is nowhere near as clear-cut as the Post would have you believe.
What has been crucially left out of this article is the vast amount of Internet activity in Japan that goes on outside of what can be defined as “blogging” – message boards such as 2-channel are rampant, social networking sites such as Mixi are all the rage, Youtube is huge. And as with any country that has embraced the Internet (it’s got to be just about all of them by now I guess), there’s a diverse array of content. Additionally, there’s little talk of the development of an actual blog culture that’s much different from journaling – alpha bloggers, celebrity bloggers, etc.
It is almost insulting to the thousands of Amazon reviewers and cynical 2channelers for the WP to claim with no basis whatsoever that there is no critical content on Japanese blogs (and by implication the rest of the Japanese Internet). As for the idea that blog posts tend to be shorter, I wish he’d look at Kikko’s blog, probably one of the most popular around (though it’s dropped to the 40s in Technorati rankings). Kikko’s posts are always long and take a while to get to the point, but that hardly deters the readers.
Finally, let’s look at the statistics mentioned. That Technorati figure about Japanese as the dominant blog language got a lot of attention when it was released in April, and it’s clearly gotten the WP writer’s attention. Nevertheless, declaring Japanese the dominant blog language is likely difficuly, and the survey is less than conclusive in its tallying. Someone took a good critical look at the figures, but I can’t find it now. The best I can do is this look at Japanese bloggers’ reactions. Basically, the report counted the number of submissions, so dead blogs don’t count, and since it is Technorati, I am sure lots of spam blogs ended up being counted (seriously, go try a blog search on Technorati Japan right now!).
The PR executive mentioned in the story backs up the claim that Japanese blogs are apolitical and “conformist” by claiming that Japanese bloggers are far less likely to “act” as a result of their blog reading. In the accompanying video, he notes that in the survey his company conducted, Japanese bloggers were “less likely to sign a petition or attend a meeting” as a result of blogging or blog reading. In the Japanese context, those two activities don’t strike me as representative of the nature of Japanese online activism. Without leaving their homes (or their seat in the train), people in Japan can engage in enjo when they’re angered by what they see, and as in the case of Yoshinoya it can provoke a reaction.
Another example in which online protesting resulted in changes in the policy of the target was the PSE Law scandal – when the Ministry of Economy Trade and Industry attempted to ban the sale of most used electronics in a misguided attempt at consumer safety that originated in a bad interpretation of a sloppily written law. Yellow Magic Orchestra legend Ryuichi Sakamoto led an online campaign to stop it, and in the end a series of stopgap measures were put into place to help the ministry save face while keeping the used goods dealers in business and the used electronics on the shelves (though the change did end up hurting sales).
Why does this story get it so wrong? Perhaps it is always troublesome to write about Internet culture as it is constantly changing. I am not even caught up on it myself since I am not interested in a lot of the new technology (Twitter and Digg seem like wastes of time!). Maybe the author fell into the trap of going too far in trying to compare Japan and the US, another common mistake that I am occasionally guilty of myself (I’ve heard the “Japanese children are better behaved” line from more than one visiting Westerner, even though it’s not true at all).
Why the fixation on blogs? To examine the Japanese language version of the Internet, it might have been more insightful to see a treatment of other issues that might provide some better comparison between the US and Japan – why is anonymity so much more prevalent on the Japanese web? What is inspiring the Internet bullying phenomenon? Where are all the Japanese Internet superstars? Who’s getting rich off the growing online ad market? More than blogs, I feel like a good place to start would be 2-channel and the enigmatic Hiroyuki.
I can appreciate that this “Tokyo Stories” feature is an attempt to provide easy-to-understand vignettes about Japanese culture for an American audience. There is a lot of misunderstanding about Japan, so for readers and visitors to the Washington Post to take an interest in what’s going on on the other side of the world is extremely important. Unfortunately, the blanket generalizations and shallow analysis in this piece undermine that mission.