The Fear... of the Internet

The Fear

From most quarters of Japan there emanates a vaguely-defined, yet distinct fear and loathing of the internet. I have been quick to label this a “mass paranoia” — originally believing the fear goes beyond any rational assessment of risk — but as we will see, this is debatable. For the time being, I will just provocatively and sensationally label Japanese internet aversion — The Fear.

Some more pronounced aspects of The Fear:

User Trepidation
• A total and comprehensive refusal of Japanese social network site users to post real pictures of themselves (and often, real names)
• An obsession with ultra-long and complicated mobile-email addresses as a spam prevention measure, despite the fact that its effect may be minimal, especially when weighed against the inconvenience.
• A lack of user generated media — YouTube clips, in particular — featuring Japanese faces and real names. Many performers, despite virtuoso-level skills, wear masks or otherwise obscure faces in their video content.
• The predominance of anonymous sites like 2ch as the main corridors of internet culture.
• Blog writers, who have not established fame through other media, almost never reveal real names, even when the information and service provided is of professional quality and not explicitly personal. (More on this here.)
• The local discomfort towards Google Street Maps — debated on somewhat cultural-essentialist grounds — vastly outweighed the benefits for the louder section of Japanese users, forcing Google to plan a re-shoot of all the streets with a “lower angle camera.”

Corporate Indignation
• Mainstream media have essentially boycotted the internet as a new medium for content distribution. Newspapers do not offer full content online and quickly erase content lest it become searchable archives. Magazines rarely use homepages to do little more than list the table of contents in the print edition, and besides a few rare examples like Toyo Keizai and Cyzo, offer almost no full-text articles. Television stations do not sell nor stream programming online.
• Leading management company Johnny’s Jimusho does not allow the use of its talents’ faces on websites to promote their own projects. When images are used, the company fuzzes or otherwise distorts the pictures. (More here.)
• Mainstream news programming likes to play up internet-related crimes in order to discredit new media. See the Smiley Kikuchi incident and Asahi’s creation of fake blogs to prove the internet wrong. Also, this indignation towards the net seemed to fuel Mainichi’s reaction to the Wai Wai debate.
• Companies refuse to let their employees blog with real names on official corporate blogs, as “head hunters may steal away named writers.”

An early caveat: Companies in Japan do not have a strong track record for voluntary change, nor usually welcome increased competition, which is not as much a cultural trait as a universal behavior for oligopolistic firms. So viewed from that perspective, the Japanese mass media are “afraid” of the net, as they are slaves to their own monopolist thuggery and seniority-based decision-making process. If grumpy grandpas had been pulling the strings in Silicon Valley this whole time, everyone would still be using some early version of DOS. Technological foresight is difficult with bifocals.

For users, however, there seem to be three components of The Fear.

  1. A fear that criminals and con-men will use online information to scam or otherwise harm the user
  2. A fear that co-workers or bosses will find personal details which could be held against the individual within his/her organization
  3. A fear of bashing from anonymous mobs for social transgression (especially being judged as an individual “too aggressively trying to stand out”)

The United States is a good counter-test for #1, as nobody has any manner of self-restraint against broadcasting personal information. Despite a culture of “oversharing,” however, I would like to assume — based on anecdotal evidence, at least — that most net scamming strikes naïve users who walk right into (Nigerian) criminals’ traps — rather than those who are “so conceited” to have put a real picture on Facebook. Cases of Internet victimization, bullying, etc. have gotten lots of press in the U.S., but much as driving is a risky activity that both Americans and Japanese would be loath to give up, Americans collectively have decided to accept these risks in order to enjoy the benefits of greater connectivity.

I can already hear the growing protests to this line of thought, however: stop trying to fit Japan into the American model of internet development. True enough. Americans have controlled the global standard for the world wide web, but Japan may not have the right cultural atmosphere to just dive head first into this brave new world. Google Street View is creepy to most everyone at some level, but for Generation X in the U.S., most fears are assuaged by a general good-will towards Google and a set of common ethical values. Imagine the case of Japan, however, where no one knows “what a Google is” nor has much sympathy for the last twenty years of Silicon Valley countercultural land-piracy. Google Street View would just be pure terror — technological menace from abroad.

But maybe the issue is not the internet at all. Néojaponisme contributor Adam Richards (from Mutant Frog Travelogue) points out to me that the net privacy concerns I call “paranoid” may be merely the offline status quo projected onto the new medium:

The Internet privacy obsession is an extension of pre-existing offline phenomena — mosaics on the news, translucent house windows, personal information protection law (and those stickers they place on official postcards), surgical masks, keitai stickers that block onlookers from reading over your shoulder, book covers on the train, people refusing to give their addresses to swine flu inspectors, the broad copyright protection and state-sponsored enforcement, the claim of “publicity rights” to refuse private citizens from photographing celebrities.

Adam believes that this culture of privacy stems from a (perceived) failure of law enforcement, which makes citizens take up matters in their own hands: “The police seem to only take action against major crimes, so people stop counting on them to help if something small goes wrong — hence people take more preventive measures.”

The unreliable police may be a cause for Fear #1, but Fear #2 tends to go hand-in-hand with Japanese society as a whole. The quasi-military organization of white-collar labor in Japan means that individuals often have to hide personality quirks that do not fit with the ideals and standards of the corporate atmosphere. Any sort of questionable hobby automatically qualifies as “secret double life,” and as much as the individual may want to blog about their weird anime obsession or pop sociological theories, for example, bosses may hold it against them. Obviously, this dilemma is somewhat universal — no one anywhere thinks they can get away with overtly public blogging about porn videos — but I would argue that the bar for internet-related impropriety is much lower in Japan — or at least, employees show much more self-censorship to what is an acceptable level of sharing on the web.

Fear #3 — being lynched by an anonymous mob — also seems to be totally legitimate, in that the internet in Japan so far has been almost exclusively about anonymous mobs making trouble for individuals and industry. This writer has found himself on a 2ch page called “Suspicious Foreigners” (someone wrote about my picture, “He looks like an Arab.”) 2ch has shattered many lives, and seeing that the 2ch mobs basically operate without any sort of constraint or liability, most people are smart not to throw their real names or faces out for bait. The Japanese net is basically a den for the “tyranny of the majority” — and the best part is the “majority” could literally be ten pathetic human beings in soiled sweatsuits operating out of some net café in Miyagi-ken and we would have no idea.

So maybe Japanese national paranoia towards the internet is not paranoia at all, but a slightly-overcautious but basically-accurate level of risk assessment. The problem, however, is that the mass anxiety — justified or not — has crippled the development of the internet, which subjectively-speaking, resembles the English-language net in 1997, in terms of graphic design, corporate participation, and general cultural influence. The only difference is that everyone in Japan knows the internet is supposed to be a big deal, instead of some freak side show for college kids and nerds.

Local internet is ultimately, however, an extrapolation of local culture, and so I almost feel some sympathy for the Momus line, in thinking that an attack on the pace of internet growth in Japan is an attack on Japanese culture as a whole. Telling well-meaning and outspoken anonymous Japanese bloggers — many of whom read and comment on this site — that their anonymity is “crippling” to their cause is basically a very gently extended middle finger. That being said, I am adamant that the internet cannot reach full fruition — moving beyond a mere tool box of e-utilities like email, maps, and coupons — without adhering to its fundamental Western-biased premises: namely, “information wants to be free” and “individuals want to establish public identities.” There is no value in a half-assed internet. The whole crux of the internet is user participation — building a network bigger than the sum of its parts and giving voice to the voiceless. So there is a real limit on how interesting or relevant an internet can be if no one is willing to claim responsibility for their contributions. This is why Facebook destroys Mixi — no one wants to see dog and cat pictures, but people do want to see how their old classmates turned out. Companies can provide the shell, but users have to fill in the content.

A fully-realized internet will be critical for Japan achieving some of its own stated goals: prolonged economic growth, greater democracy, more transparency, greater geographic dispersion of economic activity, and equal access to knowledge. Moreover, understanding the latest stages of global internet culture is now a requirement for product development. Apple, not Sony, could make the iPod because the Cupertino-based company knew that college kids wanted to free the thousands of mp3s collected on their computers. I met a cabinet-level bureaucrat recently, who is apparently in charge of Japan’s net infrastructure, and he basically had no idea that free wi-fi was becoming ubiquitous (or at least common) in American cities. In the 21st century, protecting local idiosyncrasy and tradition requires understanding the global standard and knowing how to negotiate it. Everyone in Japan can collectively decide to hate the web and continue to use dog pictures in place of profile portraits. But the country will not be a competitive economic enterprise if its citizens treat think the internet is a Godzilla-like menace that wrecks some infrastructure and then disappears after a while. If there is one thing we have learned about the internet, the genie does not go back in the bottle.

W. David MARX
May 19, 2009

W. David Marx (Marxy) — Tokyo-based writer and musician — is the founder and chief editor of Néojaponisme.

104 Responses

  1. Roy Berman Says:

    “Speaking of YT, remember that they recently reached a deal with JASRAC to pay regular blanket fees for users to post copyrighted music. Though people have big problems with JASRAC’s status as the arbiter of creative expression in this country it apparently puts YT in line with the current Japanese laws”
    Technically the JASRAC license only applies to original performances of JASRAC controlled music, i.e. cover songs. It’s a tiny amount of freedom, but not nearly as big as it was made out to be unless it leads to similar licenses that cover more content.

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