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Internet's Influence on Social Interactions in Japan

Bill Gordon

July 2000

Although Japan in the first half of the 1990s lagged behind other advanced countries in electronic networking, Internet use has surged since 1995, with Japan now having the second-largest population of Internet users in the world. Recent rapid technological changes in electronic networking and mobile telecommunications are bringing about changes in patterns of personal interaction and the creation of new virtual communities with their own distinct cultures.

The first part of this essay looks at Internet environmental factors in Japan, such as usage demographics and means of access. Part 2 examines the formation of virtual communities and the effects of the Internet on personal interactions. The next section of this paper explores some of the language issues Japan faces with the growth of the Internet. The last part briefly considers the impact on social interactions of some Japanese government initiatives to promote the Internet.

1. Japan's Internet Environment

Until about 1995, Japan's Internet growth was held back by several factors, including little governmental assistance, low rate of home PC ownership, and high cost of high-speed digital leased lines and home phone lines, primarily due to NTT's near-monopoly status in telecommunications (Aizu 1998; Economist 1995, 50; Kumon 1998). Despite these impediments, the number of Japanese Internet users has increased rapidly from 129 thousand at the end of 1995 to about 27 million at the end of 1999. Even with this steep increase in users, the number of Japanese using the Internet still has much potential for growth, with Japan's Internet penetration rate of 21.4 percent only about half of the 39.4 percent in the U.S. (Aizu 1998; Ministry of Posts and Communications 2000).

Much of this tremendous growth in Japan has been driven by Internet-enabled cellular phones produced primarily by NTT DoCoMo. More than a third of the Japanese Web users access the Internet using wireless technology, and the total number of users logged on through mobile connections (about 10 million) far exceeds figures in other countries (Stevenson 2000). Since February 1999, about 7.8 million people have subscribed to DoCoMo's "i-mode" (Internet-enabled) service, with one major reason for the high demand being its reasonable cost in comparison to home PC connections (Schmit 2000).

Although the rate of Japanese home PC ownership falls well below the percentage in the U.S., public access to the Web in cafes and kiosks and mobile access through phones and palmtops have the potential to bring the Internet to Japanese citizens in all demographic groups.

2. Effects on Personal Relations

The Internet is bringing about fundamental and profound changes in patterns of social interaction in Japan. Although online communities lack traditional face-to-face interactions, Surratt (1998, 22) argues that the communication between members allows online communities to form the basic elements of a culture, which includes a "generalized system of values, beliefs, norms and symbols."

Online communication through the Internet allows people to establish friendships and acquaintances based on mutual interests rather than primarily based on geographic proximity. This potentially will change radically how people relate with each other, as Shapiro (1999, 49) explains:

Because individuals are judged online mostly by what they say, virtual communities would appear to soften social barriers caused by age, race, gender, and other fixed characteristics. They can also be valuable for people who might be reticent about face-to-face social interaction, like gay and lesbian teenagers, political dissidents, and the disabled.
As early as the late 1980s, one can see some examples in Japan of what type of emotional support can be provided by members of an electronic network. Aizu (1996) relates the story of a Japanese high school student who disclosed many of his personal problems online and who found members of the online community to be the first persons to listen and to treat him as a real person. Members of this early electronic network in Japan found the ability to openly communicate with others as its greatest advantage. Many other network communities exist in Japan, such as a self-help group of people wanting to quit smoking and a temporary Internet community formed to support victims and volunteers helping victims of the Great Kobe Earthquake of 1995 (Miyagawa 1999).

Although the phrase "surf the Net" conjures up images of people visiting many different Web sites for short periods of time, several studies show that the majority of people repeatedly go to the same sites, especially those that have "chat" capability (Abramson 1998, 59). Japanese Internet use statistics indicate that people tend to build communities by going to the same sites to exchange views and obtain information. The typical Japanese Internet user spends about two and a half hours a week online, but visits only six unique Web sites (Lawrence 2000). During April 2000, about 70 percent of Japanese Internet users visited Yahoo's Japanese-language site and 60 percent visited Nifty, a Japanese Internet service provider (Chea 2000).

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