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
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.
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.