Posts Tagged ‘Internet in Japan’

Two-Tiered Japanese Blogs

Tuesday, October 14th, 2008

Last November, I wrote in the essay “Koizora: Empathy and Anonymous Creation”:

The more net culture in Japan progresses, the more it becomes clearer that anonymity is its underlying principle.

A year later, this seems to still be true. Most Japanese blogs (and even social network services!) operate anonymously. Compared to American success stories such as Perez Hilton and Markos Moulitsas, amateur bloggers have not been likely to parlay site success into wider influence.

Japan’s most popular message board 2-Ch is so anonymous that most users do not even use fixed handles. The Japanese internet’s two greatest success stories — the famed protagonist of Densha Otoko and keitai novel author Mika — have never come forward to take credit for their writing in public. Maybe they are intentionally hiding, but regardless, the media accepts their anonymity as part of the phenomena.

While anonymity remains a good starting point for understanding Japanese net sociology, the rule ignores a vital exception. If anonymity were a prerequisite for all Japanese net participation, all blogs would be anonymous. Yet, there is a certain class of blogs in Japan claimed by named, traceable individuals: blogs from celebrities or otherwise already-established professionals.

So while the masses are quietly and discretely blogging and participating on the internet, top designers/creators write on honeyee.com and models/actors consolidate their fan base on ameblo.jp. These “professionals” use their real names and faces, under which they openly state ideas and opinions. Content-wise these are sometimes no different from everyday diary blogs: pictures of food, reports from events, discussion about recent work, etc. The major lesson seems to be, if you are an individual with authority and legitimacy established through traditional channels, you are free to use a name and face on the internet. Everyone else, too bad.

Most likely, non-famous Japanese individuals unconsciously fear some form of punishment for establishing a public identity through a non-legitimized blog or stating opinions without proper self-legitimacy. Of course, Western blogs also are an affront to the social order, but that is exactly why ambitious individuals embrace blogs — to jump around professional barriers and bottlenecks. In other words, the West’s excitement about blogs is that you can create a name for yourself by stating opinions publicly. In Japan, the excitement appears to be that you can state opinions without having a name attached.

The end result is that anonymity blunts the net’s possibility of changing the current social order. The two-tier system of blogs reinforces the fundamental principles of Japanese social organization. Only individuals at the top of the hierarchy are allowed to embrace a public identity, just as it was before Web 2.0.

In terms of taking power from the media, nothing has changed. Net users still perceive too much social punishment for name-linked net activity, so they elect to hide behind untraceable usernames. While diarists may not want a public audience, anonymity even marks popular, intelligent, and professional blogs written by promising young talent. Research has shown that Japanese blog readers exhibit a high level of trust in the medium, and yet there are few “amateur” bloggers willing to take public credit for their work. Stars, celebrities, older professors, and top-level members of top organizations, on the other hand, are blessed with a freedom of identity equal to the standards of the West. The lesson: if you want to be a famous blogger, first be famous.

Of course, the internet has given more voice to the Japanese public. Message boards like 2-Ch have allowed micromasses to better air their grievances. In the case of Mainichi Daily News’ WaiWai column controversy and other incidents, the anonymous “flame” mobs demonstrated a real power to impact corporate behavior. Sure, this is social change, but the mass anonymity only allows for a “negative” policing action — a check against the system’s excesses. But without identifiable individuals challenging and winning new roles within the system, there will be no change to the social structure. At best, 2-Ch can only chip away at the paint of society’s façade, but it won’t crack the structure.

Technology is only a catalyst: It can extend preexisting social principles into new directions, but not give birth to new philosophical values. The “liberating” social changes we expect from the internet in the West are preconditioned on Western values. The Japanese blogosphere will simply replicate Japanese social values online, not change them. So if public identity is two-tiered in wider Japanese society, we should expect blogs to follow.

This article originally appeared on the Diamond Agency blog clast.

The MacroTrends Behind Top 2007 Products

Wednesday, December 26th, 2007

On December 3, Nikkei Marketing Journal (MJ) offered a refereed list of the top 36 products from 2007 within a mock sumo wrestling ranking chart. (Click here for an explanation of the makuuchi sumo rankings.) The winners were:

EAST

Yokozuna – Nintendo Wii & DS
Ohseki – Face recognition technology (used in digital cameras)
Sekiwake –  “Mega” fast foods (MegaMac)
Komusubi – Video uploading (YouTube & Nico Nico Douga)
Maegashira – iPod Touch
Pilot Frixion ballpoint pen
– Region-differentiated pricing (started by McDonalds)
– Luxury hair-care products
Billy’s Boot Camp
Blu-ray disc recorders
Tomato liquor
National A-La-Uno toilet
Leggins
“My hashi”: carrying personal chopsticks
Sen no kaze ni Natte (hit song)
– India-style calculation method (Vedic Mathematics)
– New operating systems (Vista, Leopard)
“Balance” fitness

WEST

Yokozuna – E-Money
Ohseki – High-quality video cameras
Sekiwake – Tokyo (Midtown, Shin-Maru Building, Yurakucho ITOCiA, etc.)
Komusubi – Softbank White Plan
Maegashira – Axe body spray
Charmy “Power of Foam” dish detergent
– Constant prices at supermarkets despite rising material costs
Transino liver-spot remover
Model planes that can be flown inside the home
(Return of the) Nissan GT-R
Calorie-zero sodas
– INAX Kururin Poi Drain
Unicharm Lifely Slimwear for seniors
Eco Bags
“Butt Biting Bug”
Salt-flavored sweets
Grand Pianist toy
PuchiPuchi “infinite bubble pop” toy

Underlying Macro Trends in this Ranking List

1)  No Kids or Youth Products / Lots of Middle-Age or Elderly-Marketed Products

A decade ago, Japanese schoolgirls gained a reputation for leading trends and creating hit products — essentially the “early adopters” for the whole of society. Looking at this 2007 list, however, there is almost nothing that gained massive popularity within or growing out of youth cultures. Axe body spray is apparently a huge hit with the kids, but hard to detect from the sights and smells of the city. On the other hand, the DS and Wii succeeded precisely because Nintendo took gaming into society at large — including women in their 20s (with their custom-bejewled DS lites) and the elderly. Leggings — the only apparel item on the list — experienced broad adoption, but it was women in their 20s that led the charge. Even the few toys on the list — Grand Pianist, PuchiPuchi, and inside-friendly model planes — seem to be relatively adult-oriented. (MJ makes the note that the Grand Pianist appealed to 40 year-olds). Maybe the “Butt Biting Bug” song was a “kid” thing, but the slightly grown-up nature of the lyrics attracted the most attention. Young students probably have to do the Indian-style method of calculation, but only because their parents force them to.

If there was an item that showed Japanese youth contribution to culture, surely it was Koizora — the “keitai novel” turned hit book and film. High school students love melodrama, and hoaxy-anonymous authors like “Mika” deliver the goods: dead boyfriends, gang rape, and miscarriages.

In addition to a lack of youth products, there also seem to be lots of “mature” products in categories normally attracting teens. For example, the big hit/development amongst non-alcoholic beverages was zero calorie colas. I seriously doubt the kids are the ones demanding less fattening soft drinks. Nor do I think that they are so jaded with artificial flavors to demand a little salt in their sweets. Needless to say, the youth are definitely not the ones demanding incontinence-ready “slimwear” or liver-spot remover either. Even the pop music market — which has historically been teen-oriented — was best represented by the (year-old) cheesy semi-opera work “Sen no kaze ni natte” topping the charts, perhaps sending a message of impending doom for Japanese youth culture as a whole. The main point is, middle-aged and elderly Japanese are now leading consumer culture in Japan without much competition from their children and grandchildren.

2)  Eco Eco Eco

Judging by the large number of eco-conscious products on this list, Japanese consumers do seem to be making concrete efforts to show more personal commitment to global footprint reduction. The idea of carrying around personal chopsticks (in order to avoid using the disposable wooden waribashi) is a small-scale pro-environment action, but a positive sign if indeed a mass trend. The “eco tote bag” made being green much easier by doubling as a fashion statement. (Yes, there were crowds and disorder before the Anya Hindmarch eco bag went on sale in Ginza, but something about the event seemed different from the normal crowds of patient Japanese youth.)

3)  Class-Bifurcated Market

The Japanese population avoided drinking an even cheaper, worse-quality beer-like beverage this year, but the market continued towards its two-tier structure of providing the wealthy with first-class versions of products while creating low-price goods for everyone else. The “luxury hair care” boom proved that a certain population is willing to pay way more for shampoo and conditioner than ever before — or maybe just that women are willing to pay more to guarantee luxury-quality hair. Meanwhile, people are flocking to the Softbank White Plan to reduce their cell phone bills. If you think about it enough, the Mega Mac and other “mega” fast food can almost be seen as a “freeter luxury” for those poor souls who can no longer afford to partake in giant steak dinners. And now with McDonalds starting region-variable pricing, businesses are clearly starting to add in price differentiation strategies to capitalize on the growing inequalities. This should be a key trend for 2008 as well — for better or worse.

4)  What Internet?

Although there are a lot of gadgets and technical innovations on this list, there seems to be little recognition of Net culture’s impact on society. Yes, YouTube and Nico Nico Douga are attracting lots of viewers, but this is just a continuation of last year’s trend than anything new. And these sites are still filled with illegal copies of TV and music videos rather than original content created by actual Japanese users. (The homemade Halfby videos are a good sign, however.) The iPod Touch’s most innovative feature for Americans — the ability to browse the internet using Wi-Fi — is completely worthless in Tokyo where almost no buildings or cafés offer free wireless service. The new operating systems “trend” is a pretty boring one — neither Vista nor Leopard changed any lives. In general, the list makes it sound like there have been more plumbing innovations — the A-la-uno toilet and Kururin Poi drain — than new evolutions in internet culture.

Due to the state of entrenched industry know-how, Japan has always been more about standalone gadgets than computer-based peripherals and desktop applications. With the Blu-ray recorder and high-quality video cameras, this principle still seems to be in action. Even E-money seems to chart out an alternative future rather than streamlining the concept of currency with the internet.

Although this year saw more internet phenomena — the aforementioned keitai shousetsu cell-phone novels reaching the top of the book charts and 2-ch flaming-related corporate scandals, etc. — we still don’t get the sense that the internet has become interwoven with Japanese life like in the United States or South Korea. This is not to say that these two nations represent the authoritative version of the “future”; simply, Japanese companies remain devoted to pursuing their own conception of a gadget-based technological progress rather than just hopping on the global bandwagon.

This article originally appeared on the Diamond Agency blog clast.