Embracing Cyberspace - the Evolution of Japan's Internet Culture

By Underwood, William | The World and I, June 2002 | Go to article overview

Embracing Cyberspace - the Evolution of Japan's Internet Culture


Underwood, William, The World and I


William Underwood, a faculty member at Fukuoka Jo Gakuin University, is currently pursuing a doctorate in political science at Kyushu University.

"In five years," Japanese Prime Minister Yoshiro Mori boldly declared in 2000, "we will make this country the most advanced IT nation." That vow is not likely to be fulfilled, but with an IT Strategy Headquarters spearheading the national "e-Japan" plan, the Japanese are indeed on an information technology roll. Domestic shipments of personal computers surged 25 percent in 2000, and for delivery on New Year's Day 2001, Japan's post offices sold some 662 million do-it-yourself greeting cards designed for use with home PCs and ink-jet color printers, 2.4 times more cards than were sold the previous year. Japanese prime ministers have limited shelf lives, of course, and Mori is long gone. Yet the trend remains healthy; the cyber-newsletter put out by current Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi was being emailed to more than 2 million subscribers within weeks of his taking office last year.

In the key area of wireless Internet technology, most significantly, Japan has broken from the pack and is reemerging as a world-beater. For today's Japanese, though, revolution runs deeper. Commentators foreign and domestic have asserted that Japan stands at a momentous juncture in its modern national history. Following the Meiji Restoration and post-- World War II reconstruction, the emerging "Third Way" or "Third Opening" will be inextricably tied to the Internet and information technology.

Plainly, times have changed. In the mid-1990s, news articles about lackluster Japanese and Asian commitment to IT carried critical titles such as "Japan's Internet Tangle" and "Asia Wobbles Onto the Web." An entirely different image was being projected by the end of the decade, fueled by headlines like "Asia Catches .Com Fever," "Japan Goes Web Crazy," and "Watch Japan Leapfrog Into the Internet Age." In a twelve- part feature dubbed "Japan's Internet Tsunami," London's normally restrained Financial Times effused: "The Internet is sweeping across Japan like a massive tidal wave, or tsunami, reshaping corporate structures, challenging cultural norms and pushing up valuations of Internet stocks."

Due partly to the subsequent tech-led global economic slowdown, but mostly to a decade-long banking crisis and endemic macroeconomic problems, Japan Inc. remains on life support. The nation was teetering on the brink of a deflationary spiral and yet another recession as of Spring 2002, with the Nikkei Stock Average worth less than one-third of its 1989 value. Such familiar bad news notwithstanding, Japan's IT revolution has unleashed powerful genies of change that will not be forced back into any bottle.

Internet culture, definable as a society's shared set of norms and practices as they relate to the Internet, develops as an extension of social, political, and economic values. Because values are not universal, nothing resembling a monolithic or global Internet culture has yet emerged. Rather, nations such as Japan and the United States are utilizing the Internet in ways that reflect their unique national characters. One anthropologist offers that traditional American personality attributes include individualism, equality, rights and privileges, self-assertion, and change; traditional Japanese personality attributes include collectivity, hierarchy, duty, deference, and endurance.1 Though oversimplified, such constructs may suggest why Americans and Japanese have taken to the Net so differently.

As the technology was invented in the United States, it embodies--and to some degree, transmits--American values and displays an unmistakable American personality. Like American society, the Internet is boisterous and driven by individual choice, whereas group consensus is the guiding principle of the more reserved Japanese. …

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