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The state of the Japanese Internet is very interesting. It’s about ten years behind in both how it’s used and how it’s designed, it doesn’t work too well, and like something out of a DC Comics Bizarro World comic, Yahoo Japan is doing better than the original.

So how did Japan get so behind despite being on the bleeding edge in terms of most technologies? How is it that internet usage is can be so different? There are a lot of things at play here, but I have a theory: they are practicing internet isolationism. It’s the Tokugawa Era all over again, except this time it involves more LOLcats.

Japan’s First Big Isolationist Period

trollface shogun

Let’s jump back a few hundred years. It’s 1641 and the Tokugawa family has gained control of Japan after a long, bloody war. In order to protect their newfound control, the new Shogun implements what is known as the Sakoku Policy. Basically, no foreigner could enter Japan and no Japanese person could leave Japan on the penalty of death. That being said, they actually allowed some foreigners (from Asia, mostly) to come to Japan to trade, but where they were allowed to go and what they were allowed to do was very restricted. It certainly was not the gay old times when everyone would sing songs together after crashing their boats off the Japanese coast.

There were a couple presumed reasons for this isolationism. First, the Shogunate was worried about foreign influence. Religion and colonialism were both a serious threat. Another reason was to keep the daimyo (basically like lords under the Shogun) down. Some of the Daimyo had pretty convenient trade routes with East Asia. Before Japan was unified under Tokugawa, these clans would use these trade routes to get rich and build powerful armies. In order to stay in power, the Shogun had to curb and control this trade so that he and only he got the main benefit from it.

Although Japan wasn’t totally cut off (just extremely restricted), it was quite isolated. During this time ship after ship was turned away. Sometimes they were even attacked. During this time the government built anti-ship defenses too just in case anyone got the wrong idea. You can see a giant list of attempts to trade with the Japanese government during this Sakoku Policy period. It certainly wasn’t easy.

After a while, though, the Western powers got pissed. Commodore Matthew Perry steamed into Edo Bay with four warships and showed off his big cannons so that the Japanese could know who was really in charge around here. A year later Perry came back with even more ships and Japan was all like “Okay, you cool. We can sign a treaty.”

The rest is history, as they say. So what about them Nyancats?

Isolationism In The Japanese Web

I should start by saying that the isolationism of the Tokugawa Era and the isolationism of the Japanese internet are two completely different situations. Of course, Japanese Internet Isolationism isn’t anywhere near as severe as the Sakoku Policy ever was (duh). It’s quite tame in comparison. It’s also more subtle, and not something that was instituted top down. Instead, the Japanese internet version of isolationism came from the bottom up. It happened naturally, slowly branching the Japanese internet off from the rest of the modern world.

The beginning of all this, I think, had to do with cell phones. The Japanese took to cell phones much faster than the West, staying way ahead of us for at least a couple of decades. Because of this, the Japanese didn’t take to computers like we did, and our internets took two very separate paths. Japan has been using the internet on their phones for a lot longer than us. Their infrastructure was made for it and the Japanese internet evolved accordingly.

One such evolution was the creation of services like i-mode. In i-mode, site creators actually make an i-mode version of a site to display that works well in cell phones. If there isn’t an i-mode version, for example, you can’t access it. It’s almost like a whole separate internet that you can only access from your phone. We experienced a very shallow version of this during the time before iPhones then smartphones became popular in the West.

Due to the speedy advancement of the Japanese cell phone internet infrastructure, the use of personal computers was a lot smaller. This means that the Japanese have seen the internet (as we know it, at least) for far less time than the West. It also means they’ve been (basically) using a different kind of internet than a lot of the rest of the world, aka a kind of internet that is very Japan-specific and somewhat isolated. This has caused web culture to develop separately as well causing a lot of the isolationist features you see in the Japanese internet today.

The Closed Japanese Internet

Perhaps the greatest example of isolationism in the Japanese internet comes from Mixi, one of Japan’s largest social network (as of 2008 it had 21.6 million users). It’s a lot like Facebook in that you share journal entries, thoughts, pictures, and so on. What makes it different is how closed it is. Due to the registration setup (you need a Japanese mobile phone email address to join) foreigners basically can never join unless they’re living in Japan and have a cell phone. As for as isolationist Japanese websites go, Mixi certainly takes the cake and has done so for a long, long time.

But it’s not just Mixi that does this. Gree and Mobage (the other two big social networks in Japan) also require Japanese mobile phone addresses to join. If you don’t have one, then you’re out of luck. Everything on the Japanese internet feels so closed, down to the users themselves. On Facebook using your picture and your full name is the norm. On Japanese websites it’s a rarity. There’s a level of anonymity on their web that you don’t see so much on the Western internet. In fact, 2chan (anonymous forum that 4chan came from) is from Japan. It doesn’t get much more anonymous than that.

This is all cultural, though. Like I said, this isolationism comes from the bottom up, not the other way around. It’s not wrong, it’s just different, and this has caused it to be very difficult for the big Western internet companies to break into the Japanese web. It’s like all those trading vessels that tried to land in Japan only to be turned away by the Shogun.

Of the big web companies to make it over to Japan, only a couple have stuck… and not even that much (though they are gaining traction, keep reading). Facebook had problems with its real name policy and real picture culture, causing it to see slower Japanese growth than it wanted or expected.

Google still lags way behind Yahoo Japan, though they recently pulled off a great deal where they took over all of Yahoo Japan’s search much like Bing did for Yahoo in America. Still, people visit Yahoo, not Google in Japan. Yahoo is the internet.

Speaking of which, Yahoo Japan is majority owned by Softbank, a Japanese internet company. It’s not even an American company, which probably explains why it did okay making the jump to Japan in the first place. Softbank knows what it’s doing over there.

Basically, if you’re in the internet, it’s hard to get into Japan. It’s closed, it’s different, and your Western trade vessels aren’t wanted here.

So Where Are Perry’s Black Ships?

If we’re going to pretend that the Japanese internet is like Tokugawa Isolationist Japan, where are Perry’s black ships? Who will come and flex some cannon muscles to get Japan open up their Internet for the rest of the world?

It’s not quite that simple, unfortunately. This isolationism has come from the people, not from the Shogun. No one person can open up the Japanese internet. It has to spread from person to person, slowly but surely allowing more and more outside internet in.

That being said, I think the black ships have already pulled into Edo Bay, metaphorically speaking. Google and Facebook have the best shot. After a bad year in 2010, Facebook made huge progress in 2011 (much to the thanks of the Facebook movie, supposedly, even though the Japanese thought Mark Zuckerberg was a hamburger). I’ve also seen a lot more of my Japanese friends join Facebook and add me as well. At the same time, Mixi is beginning to struggle. It’s having its MySpace moment. Twitter is probably the biggest success story. For the longest time, even before it was translated to Japanese, Japan was Twitter’s number two country in terms of users. It’s still very popular today, too. That being said, Twitter caters to you not having to use your real identity making it more acceptable to Japanese internet users.

As the Japanese people become more web savvy (at least on personal computers) we’ll see a lot of changes in the old internet guard. The Shogunate will crumble from within and we’ll see something interesting rise from the ashes. I think Facebook will start taking off and Google too. I don’t see all the Western internet companies getting a spot in the Japanese internet market, of course, but it will become more international. I think we’ll even see some trades, too. Japanese companies will make the jump to America and blow our socks off. Pixiv and Gree are a couple that come to mind, but more will wash up on our shores later.

But, the black ships have landed. They’re taking their time, though. They have to convince the individuals to open up, but once they get enough people on board it will snowball and hopefully allow Japan to show the internet world what they have to offer as well.

  • vivianlostinseoul

    Great article, once again! I liked your previous article about the obsolete web design, and this is an informative follow-up. I did feel a secret sense of excitement when I first joined Mixi. (not anymore). http://vivianlostinseoul.blogspot.jp/

  • http://www.vietamins.com Viet

    RELEASE THE KRAKEN

  • ジョサイア

    Shogun troll LOL xD

    Great article, I learned something new.

  • http://www.tofugu.com/ Hashi

    wait do u have a mixi invite?!?

  • kuyaChristian

    It sucks how I was soo ready to register to Mixi when it had the small loophole but it was patched up quickly T___T
    I remember reading the Tofugu article about that too… Good times.

  • kuyaChristian

    I’ve been seeing more of my Japanese peers have a Facebook lately. Yoyoing is my hobby and the Japan scene is big. Facebook is the main social network hub for yoyoers around the world. I don’t know…the Japanese peers I know seem not to mind the lack of anonimity on FB.
    But it’s just me and our small yoyoing circle. It could be different from the general public, but I do see a change…little by little.

  • Alx

    I haz a mixi… And do not live in Japan:)

  • Sue

    You don’t really need a mobile phone when registering with Mixi, just an unusual e-mail address- not google or yahoo, for example, I used my uni address and it worked fine, some of my friends did that as well so I see no problem in registering with mixi. The only thing is that most people contacting you will barely know any english, so you better know Japanese if you want to find friends this way (and watch out for the creeps as well, such as gaijin hunters or whatever they are called ;D)

  • Spelling Fairy

    ‘Cannon,’ not ‘canon.’

  • Guin

    That part about the black ships breaking into the ports… do you suppose it was one reason why the Japanese entered WWII on the axis side?

    Also what do you think of the facebook model compared to the anonimity model that japan seems to have? And since it seems that the internet evolved from the people does that mean its more of true internet? (in spirit anyways?)

  • http://www.facebook.com/jay.palin.7 Jay Palin

    I’ve made a lot of friends on Lang-8. I mean it’s not necessarily a social networking site, but a lot of the people there have their real names and pictures of themselves up like I do on Facebook.

  • http://www.tofugu.com/ Hashi

    I really don’t think that Perry had much to do with Japan’s alignment during WWII. I think it had a lot more to do with the attitudes of various countries during the lead up to WWII about Japan’s imperialism. The whole thing is complicated, to say the least.

  • http://twitter.com/enricobianco Enrico Bianco

    Also possibly worth noting is NicoNico.com, the English/International version of ニコニコ動画, though the current state of it is pretty sad.

  • http://www.tofugu.com koichi

    SPY! I must inform the shogun!

  • http://www.tofugu.com koichi

    Some .edu addresses work, but not all. It just depends on what they’ve decided to block up until now :( They block them up pretty quickly when they notice certain ones, unfortunately.

  • http://www.tofugu.com koichi

    Nah, the whole Meiji restoration happened because of this, and the rulers of Japan in WWII were of the same government as the Meiji Restoration, which partly owes its success to Perry and his ships coming in.

    WWI also had Japan on the side of the Allies, too. WWII was more of a crazy imperialist sort of thing… like Hashi says… complicated.

  • http://www.tofugu.com koichi

    Spelling fairy! You’re real! I knew you were! I believed… I believed!

  • http://www.tofugu.com koichi

    Thanks!

  • fee_fi_Fiona

    I do believe in fairies! I do! I DO!

  • 古戸ヱリカ

    Are we sure that’s the canon spelling?

  • kitsuki

    ya i got a friend to send a mixi invite but it was the same problem, i dont have an email address for my phone..
    i cant remember if i ever got in.
    but anyway for the most part people make them and dont really use it lol

    YAY FOR SEVEN SAMURAI!!!

  • http://www.project-kathryn.com kathryn

    Facebook is so major in Japan. Whenever I went out drinking or socialising, I’d meet people and within 2 minutes, they’d want to friend me on facebook. But they’d never seem to actually do anything on fb, just ‘like’ the photos I post. It’s not even a language thing because they don’t interact with other Japanese people either. Maybe it’s just an ego thing, being on facebook and having lots of friends?

  • Dana

    Actually, you don’t need a Japanese mobile address to use Mobage. All I did was have a Yahoo Japan account, use Mobage’s PC version on Yahoo, and sign in to the mobile version of Mobage with my Yahoo Japan e-mail and password with an Android tablet.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=19509501 Matthew Olson

    I’m just wondering, where did you find the 1941 date? I can’t find any information about Sakoku after 1939, with 1935 or so being the actual Sakoku Edict that declared restrictions on leaving the country and the foreign trade restrictions. Is there anywhere that can show me I’m wrong? Or, at least, is there somewhere I can read up more?

  • Robert Patrick

    I think one of the things that makes Twitter so great in Japanese is that you can say a lot more with 140 Japanese characters than you could with our alphabet. So I guess they don’t feel as restraint as we do, it’s like a mini-blog.

  • http://twitter.com/WackoMcGoose Kimura

    I’ve noticed that not only are Japanese a lot more open on Twitter than on other sites, I find it easier to just say things 日本語で there myself. It probably is that short, frequent posts are the norm there while they’re annoying on FB, and the pseudonymity makes you less worried about embarassing mistakes.

  • 古戸ヱリカ

    Friending everyone they meet and then not actually interacting with them? Sounds like they’re getting the full Facebook experience, really.

  • http://www.tofugu.com koichi

    Hmm, I’m a bit confused… I don’t think I mention that date anywhere.

  • Hinoema

    I’ve noticed the same kind of odd isolationism with retail, as well. It’s simply amazing how many Japanese retailers can’t get behind the idea that worldwide shipping (at least to many countries) can be a good thing.

  • puccadesilento

    You mention 1641 whch is what Matthew probably meant.

  • http://ogijima.com/ David @ Ogijima

    Great article Koichi.
    Yeah, sometimes I think the Sakoku never actually ended, and the internet is a good example.

    Also concerning Japanese people and computers, a few weeks ago I asked my teen students when was the last time they used a computer and I was shocked by the answers which very between one week and one month for the most part. Then, I also remembered that both my brothers in law don’t have an internet connection at home.
    And then I realized: celle phones (when personally, even if I have a smartphone, I can’t stand going on the web with it, give me a 18″ screen and a keyboard please!).

  • http://twitter.com/ayabuns Aya

    JAPANESE INTERNET PROBABLY NEEDS MORE RICHARD GERE

  • http://www.tofugu.com/ Hashi

    YA

  • http://www.tofugu.com/ Hashi

    IT DOES

  • FoxiBiri

    You know what else is like 10 years behind in Japan? THEIR HORRIBLE TV!!
    I don’t even know if it’s dated or just completely different >.>
    The production value of Japanese commercials seems far higher than that of their tv programs, it’s just so backwards >.<"
    Someone should write a post about that!

  • http://twitter.com/ayabuns Aya

    I BRIEFLY THOUGHT YOU TYPED IN MY NAME AND FORGOT THE FIRST LETTER, ASHI

  • http://twitter.com/ayabuns Aya

    Wait WAIT, maybe GREE is actually GERE with the letters jumbled up, maybe that’s why it became successful

  • Mary Ann Moss

    I have noticed that in this past year my Japanese host sisters joined facebook. I am glad that more Japanese are joining a social network we can all be on.

  • joonjune

    I was able to sign in with my .edu addresses during the good college days when I had a few Japanese exchange student buddies. However, why would anyone want to get into a Japanese social network if their friends and family are on their native social network sites? Sound like desperation to me, to make Japanese friends.

  • jeanne

    NO! its so much better that they isolate from most of our western rubbish. It preserves their culture. I really hope their “old” inernet doesn’t die and that they don’t get sucked into the facebook/twitter scene it really isn’t that great anyways. PRESERVE YOUR CULTURE JAPAN