So what’s up with the Japanese web – disappointing or enthralling?

Judging from the super-heated Twitter exchange between Marxy and Chris Salzberg, you might think the Japanese web were in CRISIS. But in fact this all stems from a recent interview with the author of ウェブ進化論 (Theory of Web Evolution) and IT industry executive Mochio Umeda. In the interview he responds to critics of his recent Twitter that “there are too many stupid postings on Hatena” (a popular Japanese blog/social bookmark service) by saying that “the Japanese web is a disappointment” for reasons he ends up failing to really detail, but that involve a) A basic agreement with critics of the web that it is dominated by “stupid people” b) The failure of the web to develop as a platform for high profile professionals or alpha bloggers (he says that whatever alpha bloggers there are in Japan, there are 100x more in the US), and also has not developed as a system that creates such people or offers chances for advancement, and c) The Japanese web continues to be dominated by “sub-cultures”

The two positions seem to be thus:

Chris: There’s a lot of great stuff going on in the Japanese web, so it doesnt really make sense to criticize it as not working

Marxy: The Japanese web needs to evolve into a place where people can use their real names and have an influence on public discourse instead of hiding in anonymous communities. (A continuation of his Fear of the Internet article)

I for one am not married to one position or another (I feel like I fall somewhere in the middle), but it is definitely a topic that fascinates me. Obviously two Twitterers are not only ones responding to this. A few notable Japanese responses:

Ichiro Yamamoto (writer and former 2ch mucky muck): Umeda was being incoherent (even staying dead silent when asked the question “what areas are wrong with the Japanese web?”) but basically he is just complaining that the web hasnt developed in the way he would like to see it.

Anonymous blogger: Umeda just ran away from the key questions by citing his position as a Director of Hatena. He should not be consulted as someone expected to actually create anything since he is only taking potshots.

Actual Japan alpha blogger (and former Livedoor director) Dan Kogai:  Actually there is plenty of noteworthy stuff on the Japanese web, like Cookpad for housewives.

And on and on. Anyway I am just setting this post up so people can post comments on “the state of Japanese web” longer than 140 characters…

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35 thoughts on “So what’s up with the Japanese web – disappointing or enthralling?”

  1. Although Umeda did not name check it, I think he was referring to iTunes U or more generally universities offering lots of free materials online. I have listened to hundreds of hours of lectures from Yale, Stanford, Duke, Berkeley, and other great universities, and I would love to see the same kind of thing from Japanese universities. But they first have to see what the value in being associated with interest distribution would be.

    Anyone in love with the English-language net tends to be disappointed with the Japanese net, maybe unfairly, but it almost feels like a “gut feeling” sometimes rather than a rational discussion. I really want to draw up a list of areas where I use the Eng-net and don’t see an equivalent on the J-net. Otherwise, we are just talking abstractly.

    The J-net has been successful in creating its own culture — the same way the Net did back in the late 1990s and 4chan/SomethingAwful does still today. I think Umeda, however, wants the Net to be a really, pro “serious” place that helps people emerge as professionals and build knowledge and debate the big issues. The J-net has some of this, but I can see why he is disappointed.

  2. Obviously, J-net users are also going to automatically get defensive anytime people attack or criticize them, seeing that they are attack on all sides by almost everyone. But I really want to see someone on the Japanese side, who understands the full breadth of the Eng-net, defend the state of the net. I want to hear why Japan doesn’t need (or perhaps even, has) an equivalent of The Drudge Report, Huffington Post, Slate (and its podcasts), Hulu.com, PBS/NPR podcasts, Bill Moyers video casts, BuzzFeed, Boing Boing, Mega-Alpha bloggers like Andrew Sullivan, etc. etc. Not that Japan “must have” an exact equivalent, but they all provide incredibly prolific high-level information in high-tech, well-designed settings. Am I already crazy in asking for that level of quality and professionalism? (Obviously, there are a lot of great local blogs too, but in terms of national influence…)

  3. I am interested to see how much traction keireki.jp gets. Based on the preview screenshots, it will basically be a Japanese version of LinkedIn – an SNS for professionals using their real names. It goes online this month.

    Still pessimistic, though.

    The fundamental problem (as I see it) is that Japan’s economy, at least at the substantive decision-making level, is still dominated by large institutions with strong walls between them. There is minimal lateral hiring and no desire to share best practices across organizations. These firms naturally don’t care about professional blogging and would probably pounce on any employee who said anything using the organization’s name without getting multiple hankos from the Corporate Communications Division.

    Yes, there are a few independent VCs and small tech companies scattered around these parts, but they aren’t active enough to really impact the market, except to the extent that they can influence the big companies. So, at the end of the day, who cares what they have to say?

  4. I am not disappointed with the Japanese web (as loaded a statement as that is) but there are times when individual services can be VERY disappointing.

    For instance the Nikkei’s interactive web services are so annoying – you have to fill out a very long form to access a site that basically lets you comment on what youve read on the dead-tree edition. And then they make you wait forever to give approval to your comments and may not even allow them on at all. It has some good features but that gets to me because they put so much effort into ensuring that I have as limited an experience as possible.

    http://netplus.nikkei.co.jp/

    All in all, you cannot really say you’re a media literate person in Japan if you do not read dead tree newspapers, unless you are in the IT industry in which case the internet is your best source of news.

  5. Marxy – there’s the OpenCourseware stuff in Japan too, but I don’t know how easy it is actually to get one’s hands on the output.

    How much of a hindrance is, as hinted at by Joe Jones, the fact that most J companies don’t allow outside jobs? I asked once when I got offered an occasional column in a paper (didn’t come to anything in the end, however) and I got the feeling from the reply that I was getting the OK just because I was a foreigner.

    You’d think that with an average commute of an hour each way people could find time to blog or prepare blog posts at least, but 99% of the time I’m the only one with a note PC.

    Is the fugly-ness of the average blogging service a barrier to entry? A lot of them auto-hyperlink every other word to internal searches and the like.

    From a WJT perspective, goo Research have stopped their monthly regular blogging and RSS surveys, and I’ve never seen any survey asking about people self-hosting.

  6. Joe: anonymously and privately of course. I occasionally shoulder surf on the train and do see people reading mixi, but I would bet that 99% of the content there is basically Twitter with emoji. Q: is there an emoji-supporting Twitter?

  7. One incident of shoulder-surfing I was tempted to blog about earlier was this: some dude in his 20s was doing a parody interview with actress Aoi Yuu where the interviewer was confusing her with a porn star Aoi Sora. Its the kind of stupid joke that youd have to be anonymous to even attempt.
    Aoi Yuu
    http://www.itoh-c.com/aoi/photo/index.html

  8. I’m not sure Mixi is as anonymous as people make it out to be. I’d wager that most people know who all their “friends” are on Mixi even though they don’t use a real name. The whole reuniting with high school friends is not really relevant in Japan where they still have reunions every year with their Jr. high school class.

  9. The thing is, Mixi is not entirely friend-based. Have you seen their news tracking service? It indexes user diaries based on cited articles and keeps track of which stories are most popular.

  10. Boing Boing = Zaeega?

    Seems like a big diss on Boing Boing there. I am not even the biggest Boing Boing fan, but I am impressed about how well the site does what it does.

  11. “You’d think that with an average commute of an hour each way people could find time to blog or prepare blog posts at least, but 99% of the time I’m the only one with a note PC.”

    Isn’t that exactly what those “keitai novels” are?

  12. Hoshigaki,

    Anonymity is not whether or not someone’s identity is known, but rather whether or not someone’s name is known or made public.

    Subtle but important distinction, especially when it comes to mixi, because people are comfortable having a ring of acquaintances that they know and sharing their “diaries” with them. However, they do not want their blogging known to people outside of this ring, or if they are fine with publishing so the rest of mixi can access, they do not want their real name being used.

    I think this is what Ken Y-N is referring to when saying both “anonymous and private”. From what I know of 2ch, there is little privacy but much anonymity, and from what I have seen using Facebook, there are differing degrees of privacy, but very little anonymity.

  13. It is possible to be anonymous on Facebook, but the culture of the site is such that you will probably not be getting any “friends” and won’t have much of anything to do. This is in fact part of the core design of the site, which in its early days (when I joined) was restricted only to students at certain universities, and actually required both an official university email address to register. Accounts which seemed to use false names, including joke accounts made using the names of fictional characters and celebrities, were usually deleted. While technologically Mixi and Facebook users are both equally capable of using either real or fake names, the early rules led to a foundational culture in Facebook that strongly discourages the use of pseudonyms of any kind.

  14. “Q: is there an emoji-supporting Twitter?”

    There’s no reason that someone couldn’t write a Twitter client that supports the input and/or display of emoji. Since I started using my gmail account on my iPhone I noticed that Gmail actually displays emoji now, although there’s still no way to input them. Incidentally, since the iPhone OS actually supports emoji wherever you buy it, and Gmail has at least partial support for emoji, I kind of feel like they should be making a push to bring this feature world-wide instead of a Japan-exclusive thing.

  15. It’s probably worth pointing out that the world of “The Drudge Report, Huffington Post, Slate (and its podcasts), Hulu.com, PBS/NPR podcasts, Bill Moyers video casts, BuzzFeed, Boing Boing, Mega-Alpha bloggers like Andrew Sullivan” is an American view of the internet, notwithstanding the fact that the Sullivan and Nick Denton of Gawker Media hold British passports.

    Few of my British friends would have a daily diet of the sites above and it’s not necessarily that they would choose British equivalents instead because, in some cases, there really aren’t any. That’s also true in a number of other countries so it raises the usual question about how much the American experience is the anomaly. In the same way, Britain has a rich tradition of satire but, right now, we don’t have any real equivalent of Jon Stewart or Steven Colbert.

    We have some things in common with the US: traditional media groups have moved extensively online which everyone agrees has contributed to falling sales of magazines, CDs, videos and newspapers etc. However, Japanese media groups have indeed been slow to move online and yet Japan is also experiencing falling sales of magazines, CDs, videos and newspapers etc. There is perhaps a danger of mixing up cause and effect when we look at these issues.

    At some level, the US internet world must inevitably represent the interests, values and ambitions of Americans and we know that not all of those are universal. Britain doesn’t really have a culture of uber bloggers but we don’t really have massively popular Talk radio figures either who seem to be another large pillar of topical debate in the US.

  16. I don’t know. The BBC has a fantastic online presence, with great websites, loads of podcasts, etc. although the iPlayer is sadly currently limited to UK residents. UK newspapers like The Guardian or The Economist and others also have excellent websites, which are FAR closer to the American equivalent than the Japanese. Take something like The Bugle comedy podcast by Jon Oliver (of the Daily Show) and his friend Andy Zaltzman back in London, which is part of the Times Online website.

    And as for sites like Boingboing, while it’s American in origin, I’d say it’s pretty globalized in terms of content and readership. Maybe the British web hasn’t got quite as many major political independent websites and blogs (something I really can’t comment on since I’ve never really looked) but in my experience I at least don’t see a whole lot of difference from America in the way British media has moved and adapted online.

    Now why do you think there aren’t so many big UK political blogs? Is it partly because newspapers are more varied and opinionated, creating less need for ultra-partisan voices outside the mainstream?

  17. One factor is that the UK has relatively draconian defamation laws. In the US, you can say almost anything you want about a public figure. In the UK (and many other commonwealth countries), where there is common-law libel but no First Amendment culture, bad-mouthing someone on the air or in print can easily land you in court.

  18. The Internet is by its nature supra-national. I found a healthy mix of foreign and domestic sites in use in Japan. There is no need to duplicate the wheel for each country. Just give the Japanese a localized version so they may play in their native tongue.

    Sasaki Toshinao (a tech blogger at CNET) has been going off on this topic on Twitter. See below for examples:

    日本のネットは、バカと暇人の集積からフィルタリングして一握りのすぐれたクリエイターを生み出すために存在しているのだ。

    プラットフォーム作りのうまいアメリカと比べたってしかたないじゃん。それが文化の違いってもんだろう。

    だいたい過去、浮世絵とか戯作とかアニメとかニコニコ動画とか、そういうヤクザなもの以外に世界で認められたものなんて日本にあったか?

    あとものづくりとね。

    システムとか構造とかプラットフォームみたいなものの戦争は、ことごとく負けてるじゃん。太平洋戦争しかり、OS戦争しかり。

    でも日本のネットは、芥川龍之介の足下に転がっているバカと暇人の死屍累々を全部可視化しちゃったんだ。

    そりゃゴミはゴミだけど、ゴミにはゴミの生きてる意味があるんだよ。上澄みしかみていない人間には永遠にわからないだろうけどね。

    PS @Roy: Facebook actually requires you to use your real identity in the EULA. Not that anyone reads those things…

  19. Whew, lots of traffic:

    mixi: It’s also private from Google and the rest of the outside world, as is Nico-Nico Douga

    emoji in Unicode: Google and Apple are working on that.

    US versus UK: Think of the current expenses scandal – in the US it would have been leaked to Drudge or HuffPo etc, and I suspect you’d only have heard about the fiddlers from the other side. In the UK it was to the Torygraph, but it has spared no party’s blushes despite its obvious partisan editorial stance.

    I also like to think that the average British person interested in politics is above the viscious one-sidedness that US political blogs seem to display. What about Guido Fawkes as a UK example? I don’t read it but I see it often mentioned.

  20. Oh, and I forgot – about using note PCs in the train – I’m sure a lot of my fellow travellers are consuming varied content on their keitai, but is anyone creating anything other than email or emoticon-ridden blog/SNS entries?

  21. Well, when I’ve ridden Japanese commuter trains during rush hour it’s usually an impossible situation for using a notebook PC, with most people standing and a few on seats around the edges with some other dude’s butt in their face. There’s enough room to read a paperback book, but not much more.

    “in the US it would have been leaked to Drudge or HuffPo etc, and I suspect you’d only have heard about the fiddlers from the other side”
    Not necessarily. Talkingpointsmedia Muckraker, while being part of a generally very Democratic-leaning site, also reports on scandals in Democratic politicians. I mean, clean government regardless of party is a concern of a lot of people in ALL parties.

    emoji: Very glad to see that RFC! It’s like they read my mind! Interesting to see that they start using the term “emoji” before they define it.

    Guido Fawkes: Never looked at it before, but judging from the content and number of comments it seems to be in the same league as many of the popular American political blogs. But interesting that he’s using a nom de plume. At least it’s a good one.

  22. Yes, the BBC has a great online presence, I didn’t suggest that all aspects of the US experience were missing in Britain. In fact, the BBc iPlayer is so successful that it might be one reason why some aspects of the US model haven’t developed in the UK.

    One interesting point about the UK expenses scandal is that the journalist who chased the issue down was inspired to do so because of her experience in the US where such details were freely available. You can hear her speak about the process here: http://rly.cc/C1XXl (the first part is another journalist talking about an Irish scandal). Because the Daily Telegraph ended up buying the database, she hasn’t received as much credit as she might. In fact, even though she is a freelance journalist, she has only just set up her own twitter account (http://twitter.com/newsbrooke) so you can see how the process is much slower than the US example.

    Even allowing for the greater reach of the US freedom of information acts, I’m struck by the harder grilling UK representatives get when they appear on radio or TV in Britain so it’s fair to ask what role Comedy Central, bloggers etc are actually playing in the US. The Guido Fawkes site is largely irrelevant, however, because it mainly parrots mainstream stories so it really is no more than an MSM ReTweet.

  23. “The Guido Fawkes site is largely irrelevant, however, because it mainly parrots mainstream stories so it really is no more than an MSM ReTweet.”

    So, it’s The Drudge Report?

    Speaking of grillings, I wish POTUS had to take one in PM question time style, if not weekly perhaps every month.

  24. A couple of points:

    While not every country’s internet will be or should be like the American example, there is no reason to automatically think that embracing the American model of “more information, better platform, more voices, more influence” is somehow capitulation to cultural imperialism. Defamation laws may make things harder in certain regions, but there is no reason why more behind-the-scenes information cannot be leaked on the net in Japan to legitimate third-party web media sites (like Wikileaks), instead of say, the obnoxious and frankly unbelievable Kikko. Japanese net users do not have to automatically take the position that “Japanese culture is different and therefore all of our sites must be different or differently operated. No YouTube, we must migrate to NicoNico Douga. No Facebook, OUR system is Mixi.”

    In fact, the government’s original demand to create a “separate Japanese internet” is what seriously slowed down the global net coming to Japan in the first place.

    Because of the language, Japan will always be a little separate from everyone else, so I don’t get why so much action has to be taken to make “separation from the rest of the world” the main goal of internet development. I would like to think that global standardization of platform does not mean standardization of content. Japan CAN have podcasts without somehow that meaning defeat to the American behemoth.

    And as Tokuriki says, quoted by “Shioyama,” Japan needs to show the world what is great about the Japanese net. And if it’s using totally different sites and platforms, that will be a hard battle.

  25. I wonder if there is a relationship between the numerous 24-hr-news channels and the political blog explosion. It seems to me that the blogs started popping up to refute what was being said on those cable news channels. In Japan, they have a few cable news channels, but the viewership is pretty low. Not to mention the overall disinterest of politics seen on university campuses.

  26. “Not to mention the overall disinterest of politics seen on university campuses.”

    You mean, all of society.

    I think when we say “politics” we tend to put too much thought into what is happening in Washington, when really, it’s battling ideologies that make the U.S. a hotspot for political blogging. People are super liberal or super conservative, and this is not just voting preference but lifestyle.

    I just don’t see ideological difference or exposition being a big part of Japanese life. It used to be from 1945-1960, so it has nothing to do with “Japan” as much as contemporary society. And clearly, the lack of ideological battle is going to hurt blogging.

    But you could say that the emergence of the 2-ch right winger shows that ideology does create net productivity, even in Japan. Too bad there is no vocal liberal Left to respond in kind…

  27. Marxy:

    “The Drudge Report, Huffington Post, Slate (and its podcasts), Hulu.com, PBS/NPR podcasts, Bill Moyers video casts, BuzzFeed, Boing Boing, Mega-Alpha bloggers like Andrew Sullivan, etc. etc. ”

    I’m sorry, but I just can’t see what you’re writing here as anything but trying to find America in the J net, instead of appreciating the J net for what it is, with all its good and bad. I don’t read any of those sites/blogs regularly myself, am I missing out?

    “Japanese net users do not have to automatically take the position that “Japanese culture is different and therefore all of our sites must be different or differently operated. No YouTube, we must migrate to NicoNico Douga. No Facebook, OUR system is Mixi.””

    I don’t think Japanese net users take this position at all! They don’t “take the position” that J culture is different, J culture just *is* different. They didn’t migrate to Nico Nico Douga to be different. This is a crucial point which could be made for many other countries as well about services that are popular in some countries but not in others.

    sandbaggerone’s point I agree with:

    “The Internet is by its nature supra-national. I found a healthy mix of foreign and domestic sites in use in Japan. There is no need to duplicate the wheel for each country. Just give the Japanese a localized version so they may play in their native tongue.”

    Above and beyond which, as I stated on Twitter, your discussions about the J. net culture seem to demand a response from people who are a part of that culture itself. which implies to me that you should write something in Japanese (*not* translate your articles into Japanese — there’s a difference), preferably at a blogging service used by Japanese net users (i.e. not a wordpress blog, etc.). Then you will get an interesting discussion going on this topic.

  28. instead of appreciating the J net for what it is, with all its good and bad.

    The follow-up to this is… okay, what are the killer Japanese blogs and sites out there? And the answer is usually disappointing… The great thing about the Internet in Western Society is that it literally has something for everybody, not just info-utilities and narrowband content for a hardcore group of IT professionals and angry middle-aged men. Global Voices has done a great job of finding interesting Japanese blog posts when they arise, but I think one of the best things about the Eng-net is high level aggregators that make finding tiny pockets of activity much easier. 2-Ch Itai News is good (and less overtly-racist these days) but a bit skewed on what they cover. A lot of other blogs do a good job of aggregating foreign content, but it’s still a bit of an unnavigatable jungle.

    *not* translate your articles into Japanese—there’s a difference),

    I’d like to hear about this difference. Because in theory, an idea is an idea.

    I was thinking today that one of the presuppositions of this entire argument is that the Japanese print media world is incredibly professional and diverse. Japanese fashion magazines, for example, destroy the Western competition. Long-form journalism a la Vanity Fair or the New Yorker is not a strong point, sure, but for any fields fringing on commercial products or hobbies, Japanese mags rule supreme. And the biz and social analysis of mags like Diamond or Toyo Keizai can be great.

    But why is none of this high-level analysis, depth of knowledge, and professional graphic design reflected on the Net? My main complaint is not that “Japan should be more like America” as much as “The Japanese net should be as good as the rest of the Japanese mediasphere.”

    (Bonus point: when people crush over Ikeda Nobuo, it’s so clear that they are excited that he has adopted a totally American style, pro-level, thinking-man’s blog.)

  29. Marxy:

    “I’d like to hear about this difference. Because in theory, an idea is an idea.”

    Don’t agree. Ideas are very much shaped by the language you express them in, and by the context in which you express them, and by the audience to which you orient them. To varying degree ideas are expressible/inexpressible (or at least more/less easily expressible) in other languages, is my view.

    But more to the point, as soon as you post what is obviously a translation, even a very good one (and I am a proponent of translation, don’t get me wrong) you give the impression that you are not speaking directly to an audience. This debate is *about* the J net, so it should *involve* the J net, not just in the sense of some article being available in Japanese (as a piece of writing for them to read), but also of *you*, the article-writer, being there and ready to discuss ideas with people who read it. That is the beauty of the net, after all. That’s what everybody is doing in this thread.

    If you can show that you are genuinely there, talking and listening, you may get insightful responses. You may also just get angry rants, who knows, but I think it’s worth putting in the effort once and a while, especially on topics like this one.

    “The follow-up to this is… okay, what are the killer Japanese blogs and sites out there?”

    There are plenty of places to start on this. I have my preferences, I like Toshinao Sasaki’s stuff a lot, as you know. I also like a lot of the bloggers who are part of the Agile Media network:

    http://agilemedia.jp/en/

    But that’s just me. The Japanese net is full of little niches, I often stumble on amazing stuff out of the blue. Recently I found this amazing blogger:

    http://d.hatena.ne.jp/Delete_All/

    e.g:

    ラブホテルをつくろうと母は言った
    http://d.hatena.ne.jp/Delete_All/20090528#1243501499

    But again, what you actually find depends on what you are looking for, and what you’re expecting to find.

  30. The Japanese net is full of little niches

    Sure, but so is every other net. I guess my question is, where are the larger content sites (not utilities like Mixi) — a la 2-Channel Itai News — that are widely-read common experiences? Where is the “net mass culture”? Seeing that Japanese society does have create strong bonds through the shared experience of mass media consumption (especially TV), I just don’t think the net has the same impact for society until it moves out of just being a large collection of individual silos and small niches.

    There are fashion blogs I like in Japan, but none of them have 1/100th the influence of a mass media fashion magazine. I know you don’t read the list of American blogs I mentioned, but the idea is not that they need to be replicated, as much as that they are all professional-quality, massively-read, central content sites that shape the national dialogue to some degree. I find it hard to believe that no one on the Japanese net is hoping for the day when their efforts have a much wider audience and have an effect on society.

  31. Marxy:

    “I find it hard to believe that no one on the Japanese net is hoping for the day when their efforts have a much wider audience and have an effect on society.”

    It’s a sensitive and subtle point. I’ll say from my experience at GV that in translating blogs, I often had this very uneasy feeling that if the translation drew a lot of responses (as sometimes was the case), the blogger who wrote the original post would get angry at me for the attention I had directed at them (which is why I often requested permission first for sensitive topics). Most often the opposite was the case, but I’d say a large percentage of J bloggers feel this way, or else feel this way but perhaps wouldn’t realize it until the attention actually comes to them.

    In the U.S. parallel, the typical blogger would be more worried about being properly credited, but in Japan there is a genuine concern among many about having influence. Many would prefer to stay in their niches, with their small audience. Many (most?) don’t even really blog to be read widely at all. That’s partly due to 2ch and the whole enjo phenomenon, but I think it’s also something internal. It’s caused me personally to question the whole idea that it’s natural that everybody wants as many people to listen/read/follow/etc them as possible — i.e. having direct influence as a desirable thing — which is the assumption in the “west”.

    The influence in the J net (as I see it) bubbles up from small niches, rather than propagating out from influential individuals. That’s my picture anyway, not scientific just impressionistic.

    Actually one of the reasons I like Hatena is that it has a bit of both of these worlds, the bubbling up (via Hatena Bookmarks) and the influential individuals:

    外国人として、はてなのどこが面白い?
    http://d.hatena.ne.jp/colourofthesun/20090503

    This is a great way to visualize Hatena bloggers/news and niches, btw:

    http://globalvoicesonline.org/2008/10/06/japan-newsgraphy-and-hatenarmaps/
    http://www.nicovideo.jp/watch/sm4282947

  32. On engaging people in Japanese:

    I think that is an great idea though it’s one that will vary depending on people’s abilities and interests. Honestly, until recently I didn’t really feel confident enough to try, but I’ve been heartened by the generally positive reaction to my past couple attempts from MutantFrog. Those were on swine flu and 9/11 conspiracies, two issues where I felt I had something to add to the discussion. Posting on places like MFT and NJ might be something of a hindrance, but it’s one I’ll live with because I hate the Japanese blogging services’ user interfaces and page designs so much.

    On the state of the Internet:

    Where I think Marxy and Umeda stray is in trying too hard to reach a broad, general conclusion, and by doing so muddy definitions and ignore the real ways in which the internet and new technologies in Japan really have revolutionized people’s lives. This isn’t directly internet related, but yesterday’s Nikkei reported that as of April 30, there were 130 million “e-money” cards in people’s wallets. That’s more than one apiece and is a clear change in the way of life here. One small but important way things have changed is in the smoother passage through ticket gates. I would say small changes like that have taken place to change people’s lives at the margins. Probably a majority of people aged 18-29 have a Mixi or Gree account and use it to plan high school reunions, share photos, keep a diary of their trips abroad, or just reflect on the day’s events for a small audience. But like Chris mentions that’s my gut feeling, not supported by facts (though I am looking!). And as seen in the many “blooks” and keitai novels that have been published to high sales and acclaim over the years, the compelling, funny, and moving stories produced by true amateurs have made an impact culturally as well.

    Where they have a point, however, is where they echo Ikeda Nobuo’s frustration that in Japan public discourse by the elite has not shifted to the internet to the extent it has in the US (By “public discourse” I basically mean the process we are all familiar with of a news cycle and how large scale developments are reported and discussed in public).There are some aspects where it has – the dinosaur media seem to be completely left in the dust with any true reporting on the internet since they just dont understand it. But despite the fact that many MPs, celebrities, and economic experts have their own blogs, so far it does not add up to the more revolutionary situation in the US where elections are decided on Youtube campaigns, the Dow Jones Industrial Average component stocks are decided in part based on bloggers’ (reasoned and fact-based) suggestions, and of course celebrity life is relentlessly documented and dissected online. To a large extent, I think it can be agreed that the online product of top-shelf elite players (with notable exceptions such as freelance journalists) is at best supplementary and at worst non-existent. I won’t go that extra step and make a value judgment of good/bad/disappointing or claim that history is on the march; obviously no one can predict the future, it’s definitely not true that everything that happens in the US is desirable, and often the supposed badguys win – players like Johnny’s Entertainment have the law and the policymakers on their side, and it’s clear that upstarts who challenge this cozy system can easily find themselves marginalized.

    The process of public discourse has undergone a revolution in the US. Today the 6-o’clock news seems like an ancient concept but up until the 1980s it was most Americans’ window on the world. Now, even CNN is considered part of the so-called traditional media and faces competition from Internet video. This change is not just important to the existing players’ bottom lines – it jeopardizes their ability to shape the coverage of stories and maintain some control over events, attributes that are attractive to the official sources they rely on for stories.

    But the story of how the internet shapes public debate, like the stories of the printing press and pirate radio before it, is one of finding a balance between agitators and the people in power. Very crudely, the story goes like this: A new technology emerges, the muckrakers and sensationalists take advantage of it, and eventually the people in power try to keep it down until they can figure out its usefulness and co-opt it. For example, back in 2004 or so blogs by independent players were influential in scooping the mainstream media on political scandals and some other major stories. Today that is still the case but the MSM has adapted by hiring its own “bloggers” and placing a lot of its content online. And while the internet’s “here comes everybody” effect has reduced the MSM’s stranglehold on how the news is reported, those same media institutions are learning and adapting to varying degrees of success.

    Overall, as a US citizen I find the addition of a new chattering class called “the blogosphere” to be very healthy for the country because it allows a more diverse set of opinions to influence our elected leaders, watch them for corruption, and subject their claims to critical scrutiny. Not only that, the very fact that the MSM have been coaxed into the open is another “step forward” in terms of transparency and “keeping them honest.” So while it may sound a little triumphalist and grand, I do hold hopes for a similar cleansing effect to take place in Japan as well.

    It is simply a fact that the opinion-makers in Japan have not yet embraced the net with the same enthusiasm. This comes from lots of potential reasons, among them a fear of massive flame attacks or even right-wing terrorism, a failure to see what they’d gain by offering for free what they now sell in 1,500 yen hardcovers, and a similar failure to see what they’d gain in influence since influential people in Japan might maintain 5 paper newspaper subscriptions but never read a single blog. Then there are the institutional reasons, such as a company’s reluctance to let employees speak out, the relative ease of getting served with a defamation suit that keeps even the MSM from speaking critically of certain products, or the harsher copyright/image rights laws that make it difficult to directly cite the latest stories (one popular TV talent/stock commentator was all but destroyed for printing parts of Nikkei stories in her mail magazine).
    http://www.j-cast.com/2008/10/29029423.html

    And on the prospects of individuals stepping out from anonymity to become super-influential bloggers, for some reason I don’t see this happening so much. Most of the individual bloggers seem content giving away their content for free to Ameba or whatever other hosting services. It seems like to host your own site and try and monetize your writing or creating a brand for yourself that way, you really need to consider yourself to be taking the same level of risk as a freelance journalist or an independent designer, which would be a minority of the population in any country. So with such a high hurdle to entry, I think there ends up being a lack of motivation for most people. And as for having an effect on society, I think people might feel stymied because in a lot of ways that avenue is really only open to genuine experts and other so-called influencers in Japan, simply because even if you make the most powerful argument in the world and have a million followers, the ministry involved might just wait until the anger dies down and then just do whatever it wants when no one is looking. It’s that lack of transparency and accountability that I think cuts off the logical connections between rational persuasion and government/official action. This is of course not set in stone, but it’s my gut feeling about the motivation behind some of the secrecy among amateur writers on the net. As to Chris’s encounters with people who don’t want a wider audience, I can see that being the same as people from Livejournal who might write something particularly insightful but not really want it shared beyond their circle of friends (no doubt that fuels some of the anger toward Somethingawful’s “weekend web” feature).

    I don’t think it’s controversial to say that the big media here in Japan have so far had a pretty bumbling response to the Net ((just look at the WaiWai scandal), and that they have tended to err on the side of keeping both their content and prestige offline, offering only the same kind of supplementary content described above. Essentially I think they are acting on the same institutional awareness as the big media houses in the US – they want to figure out how to adapt themselves to new realities while maintaining their positions in society. However, the tide does seem to be shifting if slowly. Japan is often said to move slowly and adopt new technology only after it’s proven successful abroad. In the US, The Wire creator David Simon worries that the news industry has acted so fast to go online without thinking of a way to make money off it, so they might go bankrupt before there is a viable alternative online. In that sense Japan may be served in the long run by an MSM that only acts when it is safe. But like kids in the 80s who wanted their MTV, I want to start seeing Aso having to deflect Ikeda Nobuo’s talking points now rather than later.

    I would just add that it’s not like people aren’t trying. J-Cast is an independent news site whose headlines share space on Yahoo News’ front page with the mainstream press; many freelance journalists publish their writings online; and there are lots of fee-based mail magazines etc for investigative reporting and other topics.Also, the proliferation of celebrity blogs apparently does result in closer communication between fans, and gives celebrities a place to respond to scandals and communicate directly with fans without the media filter. It’s just except maybe for J-Cast and the IT media we don’t see much in the way of success stories for independent content producers in absence of offerings from MSM.

  33. Damn lack of internet….

    At least a half dozen manga artists (like 福満 しげゆき, 中村 光) have had work that they posted online lead to serialization in Morning or other big magazines (this is the cultural equivalent of getting a B-level HBO show). Is the mountain starting to move?

    Are average Americans not still getting most of their information from lame local news shows? I think that the “America” that appears in these Japanese internet debates ends up taking the highly educated and highly engaged as the rule rather than a notable exception.

    Japan has seen some interesting moves in its information sphere over the past few years – like the dramatic expansion of Shinsho publishing. These are “books” that fall somewhere between a magazine and a mainstream non-fiction title. Some lame ones (Baka no Kabe) are the biggest sellers, but there are a lot like Hanhinkon that challenge the status quo in meaningful ways and have sold well. Japan lags in internet debate, but I don’t think that this should be mistaken for the lack of an engaged chattering class. Japan has had over 70 books published in the last year with kakusa, working poor, etc. in the title. Kanikosen is going on 1,500,000 copies (all versions including manga). I’m not confident that one can walk into a big chain bookstore in the US and find a variety of inexpensive titles on poverty problems. Zinn did a “People’s History of Poverty in the United States” last year – it’s a $30 hardcover. Information doesn’t necessarily want to be free and there is a whole lot of it is being tied up as elite, pricey, status consumption products in the US. There are good and bad things going on in each public sphere.

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