Clueless in Tokyo

Avatar chat, porn and microwave cooking -- if the Net in Japan isn't good for much else, no wonder it's not a hit.

Published June 28, 1999 4:00PM (EDT)

The reporter from the Yomiuri Shimbun leans closer. "So," he asks in halting English, bypassing the interpreter he's brought along, "what do you think about the Internet in Japan?" The question has come up so many times over the past few weeks that I've developed some pat answers. Trying hard to sound casually authoritative, or authoritatively casual (I'm still not used to being on the receiving end of an interview), I reply: "Internet use in Japan has been hampered by ridiculously high access fees." The Yomiuri guy nods vigorously and writes that not-very-insightful observation in his notebook.

"Also," I continue, "there isn't much penetration in the workplace because mid-level managers still don't understand the technology." The Yomiuri guy isn't sure about "penetration." He turns to the interpreter, who provides a lengthy explanation of the concept. The Yomiuri guy nods and adds this to his notes. (I'm glad the interpreter is along. Even though I used to live here, I can honestly say that my language skills aren't up to a cogent definition of "penetration.") "Therefore," I sagely conclude, "it will take quite some time before Japan catches up with the West in Internet usage."

The Yomiuri guy writes this down. In a matter of days, I know, my trite perspective will be shared with 10 million readers of Japan's largest daily newspaper, and it no doubt will be cast along the lines of: "Japan losing ground on Internet, U.S. expert warns." My little contribution to bilateral relations.

So what do I think about the Internet in Japan? As a five-week visit draws to a close, and after numerous meetings with local tech and business people, I think I can safely say that the Japanese don't have much of a clue about the Net. Nothing personal. I just don't think they get it. Yeah, yeah, yeah, fine. I'm a racist, insensitive, culturally imperialistic, Japan-bashing son of a bitch. Now that we've gotten the usual response to "foreigner in Japan says something critical about the country" out of the way, let's move on.

Internet use in Japan is growing, and it will keep growing, make no mistake. There are approximately 15 million Internet users in the country, according to most private-sector estimates (the government optimistically places this figure closer to 17 million). In a nation of more than 125 million people, it's not much of a stretch to predict that use of the Net will double or triple over the next few years.

But does this mean that the Japanese "get" the Net? No. In fact, you could say that the country's all-powerful bureaucrats and corporate overlords have gone out of their way to prevent online networks from taking root.

Chatting with members of the local tech community, I've heard all sorts of horror stories about the reams of regulations for how domain names are parceled out and how a handful of backbone providers fleece Internet service providers. Japan's telecom industry may be in the midst of deregulation, but that hasn't stopped authorities from tangling the Net in mounds of red tape, or from maintaining onerous per-minute access charges.

Meanwhile, e-commerce in Japan is virtually nonexistent, with most Japanese wary of online security in general and use of credit cards in particular. To get around these obstacles, Softbank, Yahoo Japan and other partners have come up with "Japanese-style" e-commerce whereby a consumer shops for and orders goods online, and then picks up and pays for them in cash at the local 7-Eleven convenience store. Miraculously, the Japanese government claims that e-commerce involving individual consumers totaled about $1.4 billion in the last fiscal year. I have yet to meet a single person here who's ever bought anything online.

And yet, the Japanese media features stories about the Net almost every day, and just as in other parts of the world, ads for even the dopiest products sport the requisite URL. In practice, however, the Net is treated as little more than an exotic plaything, not much different from a box of Furbys -- which arrived here a few weeks ago; unlike much of the Net, they speak Japanese.

The other day, Sharp, the electronics maker, unveiled an $800 microwave oven capable of downloading more than 400 recipes from the company's Web site. Users would pick a dish, and then the oven would tell you what ingredients are needed and how they should be prepared, and then it would automatically cook the dish just so as per its online instructions. Local newspapers hailed this as an important innovation in the field of Internet technology.

"When a flag is raised in this country, everyone wants to jump on board because it's a fad," says Pete Perkins, director of a Tokyo ISP called the Asia Network. "That's the way it is right now for the Internet in Japan. It's a fad."

I would argue that part of the reason for this is that Internet use here isn't geek-driven, as it was in the United States during early adoption. By that I mean Japan doesn't really have techno-nerds as we understand the breed in the West. Instead, the country has "otaku," which translates roughly as "obsessives," with a decidedly negative connotation. Generally speaking, otaku are viewed by other Japanese as having an unhealthy passion for some very narrow interest -- animated films, say, or cars, or schoolgirls in sailor suits.

Or the Internet.

"The otaku guys are the ones with fetishes about women's panties and things like that," offers Richard Lindsay, general manager of the system division at interQ, a local online service. "These are the guys who sit alone in their little apartments, and go onto the Net because they want to see adult pictures."

A geek-driven Internet culture is constantly exploring new opportunities and applications. An otaku-driven culture is concerned almost exclusively with self-gratification. It's an important difference, and goes quite a ways toward explaining the relative lack of Net-related technical developments and entrepreneurship from this side of the Pacific -- not to overlook the almost complete absence of venture capital, of course. It also helps explain the decided lack of gloriously goofy sites for a Japanese-speaking Web surfer to visit, thus making the online experience less adventuresome, and less compelling, than elsewhere.

So if Japan's bureaucrats see the Net as simply another industry in need of rigorous oversight, and if the corporate world sees it as hardly more than an add-on appliance feature, and if many of the early adopters see the Web as the world's greatest circle jerk, what does everybody else make of this technology?

Not much, I'd say. Among high school and college kids -- who make up the majority of Net users here -- the killer app isn't e-mail, or even Web surfing. It's chat. People generally log on late at night when costs are cheaper to see if anyone they know is online, and if so, to shoot the breeze for a little while. Not that they couldn't accomplish this just as easily, and probably for less money, with the ubiquitous mobile phones that no trendy Japanese teen would be without. But, hey, it's fun to go online every now and then.

Most chat groups in Japan aren't the text-based gab-fests we think of in the West. Rather, they're VRML-powered virtual environments where one's cartoon-like avatar can rub shoulders with those of others. "People tend to just clink into someone else and say hi, and then go on and see what the wall looks like around the next corner," says Asia Network's Perkins, who at least gives high marks to the Japanese designers who create these snappy online worlds. "Nobody makes better-looking walls," he notes.

In a society where everyone reads comic books, the Net thus enables anyone to be a manga character. It's like a dream come true.

Along related lines, I'm starting to wonder if Japan's emphasis on group dynamics is conducive to widespread use of a technology that's scientifically designed to empower the individual. Aside from the country's financial and technological barriers to Internet use, might the cultural element be the biggest obstacle of all?

For me, this helps explain Japan's unflinching love of paper, and why e-mail is nowhere close to replacing faxes as the primary form of official communication. Visit almost any company or government office here, and the first thing you're struck by is the stacks of paper. Everywhere you look -- big, precarious, yellowing stacks of paper. A pack rat's paradise.

While part of the blame goes to an instinctive reluctance to throw things out -- that would be disrespectful -- there's a deeper force at work. In a society where consensus is prized above all other things, paper is frequently used as the medium for cementing the group to a given purpose.

Many Japanese have what's called a "hanko." This is a small, lipstick-size cylinder, usually made of ivory, embossed with one's personal seal. This seal is registered with the government, and it carries the same legal weight as does a signature in the West. When a key decision is called for, it is written on a piece of paper and passed around to all related members of the organization. Each recipient affixes his hanko, and thus signs off on the idea. The group has spoken.

"Paper is a way of enforcing the structure," says Chris Bryden, chief technical advisor at Sunnynet, an Okinawa ISP. "When you put your mark on paper, you make a commitment and indicate your place in the hierarchy." (You'll notice that I give plenty of credence to the views of non-Japanese techies. I find that they tend to speak more freely than their native-born colleagues, who tend to adhere to the official line in interviews and are uncomfortable speculating as to why things are the way they are. So sue me.)

While some Japanese companies are introducing groupware applications, the vast majority remain married to the hanko system. And as long as this is how decisions are made, online networks will remain little more than office message boards -- if that. Most companies still rely on PA systems for office-wide announcements, and play little snippets of music at different times of the day to remind workers when they should eat their lunches or return to their desks.

Handing pieces of paper to one another offers brief moments of human interaction. This is how "wa," or group harmony, is promoted. E-mail may be infinitely more efficient and a good deal less wasteful, but it doesn't do much for one's sense of wa.

A couple of days after my encounter with the Yomiuri reporter, I find myself at the offices of mighty Nippon Telegraph and Telephone, where I've been asked to meet with some of the people handling the company's online activities. It doesn't take long for one of the NTT guys to lean close and ask, "What is your opinion of the Internet situation in Japan?"

I do my usual riff about high prices and mid-level managers, and the NTT guy nods his head in agreement. He translates my answer for the others in the room, and then asks if I have any questions for NTT.

Turns out I do. I note that the Nihon Keizai Shimbun, Japan's leading business daily, has quoted anonymous sources as saying that the government plans to "urge" NTT to introduce flat-rate pricing for Net access within the next couple of years. The plan reportedly would entail Net users shelling out 5,000 yen, or about $42, to NTT each month on top of the approximately 3,000 yen, or $25, paid to one's ISP.

"That would mean," I point out, "that unlimited Net access would cost users 8,000 yen, which is more than three times what people pay in the U.S."

A brief discussion breaks out in Japanese. Finally, one of the NTT guys says, "You must understand that we are trying to bring down prices as much as we can." Another chimes in: "Right now, the average Internet user pays between 9,000 and 10,000 yen a month. So 8,000 is an improvement."

Like I say, they just don't get it.

By David Lazarus

David Lazarus covers business and technology for the San Francisco Chronicle.

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