Japan's Former Computer Lag

At Book Off last week, I picked up an English translation of Tsutsumi Seiji’s Japan’s Consumer Society: A Critical Introduction 『消費社会批判』. Tsutsumi is, for those who do not know his legend, the man behind the Saison retailing group and its sophisticated retail chains Seibu Department Store, PARCO, Loft, Mujirushi Ryohin (MUJI), Wave, and Seed. He is also a former Marxist and award-winning poet/novelist who used his industrial power to support avant-garde artists such as Terayama Shuji.

The title of Tsutsumi’s book is a bit misleading: The volume is mostly abstract and theoretical, quoting Barthes, Bourdieu, and Baudrillard rather than talking about the specifics of Japanese consumer society. Written in 1996 — just as the Bubble had popped and the consumer market was about to peak — Tsutsumi offered many critiques to the Japanese industrial system. He, however, sounded most worried about Japan’s lag in the information technologies. When framed within the context of mobile phones and video games, this may have seemed like a silly concern. The following facts about the state of computer usage within Japan, however, grabbed my attention:

[A] 1993 study…of the diffusion rates for personal computers in the office showed Japan at 9.9% and the United States at 41.7%. Looking at Internet-connected systems as of January 1995, Japan had only 96,632 compared to the United States’ 3,179,170, and the gap is widening year by year. (174)

This data reveals a very significant difference in the centrality of the personal computer and Internet within the two perspective societies — even when held for population.

Of course, Japan eventually “caught up” and now boasts an impressive Internet diffusion rate. Thanks to highly-evolved mobile phones, even non-PC users can connect to the Internet (or its i-mode simulacra). Yet when you look at the “cultural development” of the Net, Japan still feels stunted. The most obvious example is that a very niche site like 2ch still works as the central hub for Net cultural creation and sets the overall tone, despite the core users’ non-mainstream values such as obsession with little girls and bitter neo-right-wing tendencies.

These computer diffusion numbers from 1995 help explain what is happening: Internet culture does not just rely upon the current state of usage but a compounded set of familiarities and expectations about the medium forged over a broad historical period. If less than 10% of the working Japanese population used computers in the 1990s and very few families had computers at home, that means that most Japanese people are not likely to be comfortable with computers nor communicating through them. Even those who have embraced computers in the last decade do not have a lifetime of knowledge about them from which to pull.

Personally speaking, my father’s work on math and statistics meant we always had a PC at home — from a TRS-80 to a Mac Classic II. Part of my joy of using computers and belief in the power of the Internet comes from my good fortune of being exposed to both PCs and the Net at an early age. And I do not think my case was that rare.

Conversely you cannot expect a population without these experiences to somehow make a full psychological embrace of the medium. This is especially true for older Japanese who likely never used computers at work nor saw their peers and neighbors use them with any kind of regularity. And based on the relative recentness of PC diffusion, we should expect that the top decision-makers in Japanese companies — who have always traditionally been in their 50s and 60s — do not have a deep-seated familiarity with the computer.

In this sense, I would argue that while Japan has caught up in terms of infrastructure, the idea of using computers as a social and communicative tool is still very young within a great majority of the population.

W. David MARX
August 14, 2011

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

19 Responses

  1. williambanzai7 Says:

    This is interesting. However, I think there are other purely “Japanese” cultural factors involved.

    If you look at the 1990 penetration rates in China, they were feeble at best. Now look at what has happened.

  2. W. David MARX Says:

    This is probably true. The real test would be a comparison with South Korea in the 1990s.

  3. W. David MARX Says:

    I would also argue that Japan has been comfortable with technology just not PCs. So with the rise of the Internet, they weren’t bowled over by the concept, since society had similar networks.

    Meanwhile a developing country where technology itself is rare is likely to have a population who are excited to embrace the latest forms of tech.

  4. T. Lang Says:

    This resonated with me.

    I recently spoke with twenty year old woman, a first year employee who had won an iPad 2 at a company bingo game. She said she sold it to who friend for 25,000 the day after she got it because she didn’t have a computer or an internet connection and used her keitai for checking email.

  5. W. David MARX Says:

    Carl, your comment proved so useful I was able to delete it.

  6. filosofem Says:

    since society had similar networks.
    Could you elaborate on that? Just curious.

    My brief exposure to IT in Japan during the mid-2000s was one of bewilderment. How could they have the hardware infrastructure down so well – it was so much better than what is even now in North America – but have so little software and content to take advantage of it? Why did (and still do) they insist on running their own very un-user-friendly P2P networks?

    Yet back in the early 1990s, owning a PC-9801 was the ultimate dream for every otaku, at least in Taiwan where I come from.

  7. W. David MARX Says:

    similar networks

    I could be mistaken but Japan did have a host of non-internet ways of connecting devices, which I would lump i-mode into. Even the first NES had a modem port although that turned out to be a failure.

  8. Leonardo Boiko Says:

    filosofem: otaku are different.

  9. David Shadoff Says:

    Extremely in teresting topic, and I could just about write a book on it, as I noticed the same thing during the same period.

    First, think about business usage as separate from internet connections – these are two different things. Business usage of PCs in North America in the late 80’s to early 90’s was something embraced by small companies, and generally rejected by large ones. They considered that most canned software was administrator-based (word processing, spreadsheets, etc.), and these were already handled by personnel with those positions. It should come as no surprise that the virtual elimination of the secretarial occupation happened more or less coincident with the rise of PCs and this software. Wwhile never having worked in an office in Japan, I just can’t see this type of structural change happening easily.

    In North America, PCs were slow to be completely accepted at large companies because custom software development on PCs was something that they considered should be done on their mainframe computers. It was only when shown that per-user CPU power was better on a PC, or that portable PCs appeared that they considered such things, and thus began the drive to computerize everything in the early-to-mid 90’s. Again, this was another catalyst for change in the corporate landscape as the large companies of the 80’s often died due to ineffective use of computers (and their small competitors who used computers to their benefit became large competitors).

    Internet connections in Japan suffered for completely different reasons.

    First, all home connectivity in the 90’s was dial-up, and with Japan’s usurious connection costs, this was really only an option for those people truly determined to connect. For those people, networks such as PC-VAN were available (analagous to the pre-internet BBS’s and AOL which existed in North America).

    Second, Microsoft Windows 95 was the catalyst within North America for connectivity, as it had an embedded dial-up networking driver (which was notoriously difficult to install on DOS). But Windows 95 wouldn’t run on most Japanese PCs, and didn’t even support non-ASCII character sets such as the SJIS popular in Japan. So Windows 95 penetration in Japan had to wait for both a hardware wave (IBM-compatible PCs) and a software wave (SJIS support) before even the early adopters could use it.

  10. Anymouse Says:

    And you can’t ignore the fact that the PC 98 was not comparable to the generic clone computers which permeated the U.S. NEC achieved for more than a decade a monopoly which would have made IBM proud.

  11. Tilman Says:

    Thank you for the hint on Tsutsumi Seiji. I never knew there was one man behind all those famous retail chains of Japan. I think retailing is something Japan does better than anyone in the world, even better than the US. It would be great to get more background information on the retailing world of Japan (Shinuku’s clothing stores, Convenience chains and their ultracompetitive ways, Electronics stores, etc.), as I think it is a major part of current Japanese culture and just a glimpse of Tsutsumi Seiji’s background story promises a very compelling read. Maybe something you should tackle here on Neojapnonisme.

    By the way, I also thought the article on Nigo the other day was really interesting. As an outsider, you get the idea that retailing in Japan is just about putting in the hard work, but once you read up on it a bit, it looks like there is a huge abyss of dog-eat-dog competition, Organised-crime-involvement, and other stuff going on. Request filed ;-)

  12. M-Bone Says:

    Read it a long time ago so can’t testify to its accuracy or quality, but there is a lengthy book about the Tsutsumi brothers in English –

    Lesley Downer, “The Brothers – The Saga of the Richest Family in Japan”, Vintage, 1995.

  13. W. David MARX Says:

    There are actually two good English books on Tsutsumi Seiji:

    1. The Brothers: The Tsutsumi Family

    This is very soap opera-y, but they had a very, very soap opera-y life. (Tsutsumi Seiji’s father had tons of illegitimate children, and Seiji’s mother wasn’t actually his mother.) Also, Tsutsumi Seiji’s younger half-brother Yoshiaki is a total corporate tyrant and was convicted of corporate crimes recently.

    2. ARCHITECTS OF AFFLUENCE The Tsutsumi Family and the SEIBU-SAISON Enterprises in

    This is an academic work but pretty readable. It’s more about how Tsutsumi Seiji and his Saison group basically invented sophisticated consumer society in Japan.

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  16. adam Says:

    Completely agree with the author on Japan’s not having an established culture of using personal computers.Although one can argue that the Japanese have higher communication apprehension and less need for computer mediated communication, the true reason, in my mind, lies in the enormous power of elderly in the business world, their larger representation in the parliament and, naturally, a larger elderly population in Japan.

    Old people in general tend to be conservative and very slow adopting new technologies (not only in Japan but all around the world). Same is true for risk avoiding people because new technology always has some unknowns. When you look at Japan you see a population way older than any other country on the planet (30% of Japanese people are older than 60) and a culture where risk avoidance is a virtue. If you combine both, you get a country that doesn’t want to change anything at all. That’s why Japanese GDP has been the same for the last 15 years.

    It is not necessarily being against the technology per se, it is just being afraid of doing things differently because “sekinin ga toru.” American companies are happy cutting costs by switching from FAX to email but in Japan, a super risk avoidant and old marketing manager will do everything he can do to stop the company replacing the fax machine with a computer network. Then the question becomes, why South Korea, which has an old population, have higher adoption rates. The answer is South Korean companies do not give all the power to old managers just because they are old.

  17. RMilner Says:

    As an employee of a large Japanese computer based corporation, my personal worry is how terrible the Japanese are at programming and interfaces.

    I don’t know if that is something that grows out of traditional Japanese social attitudes.

    Japan has been very successful at hardware, but you can’t be successful at modern digital hardware without being successful at the software too.

  18. Anymouse Says:

    “but you can’t be successful at modern digital hardware without being successful at the software too.”
    IBM would beg to disagree. :)
    I realize that for consumer technology things are a bit different, of course. But the Android system does show a definite possibility that software might become a commodity.

    And no one can accuse UNIX or Linux of having a nice interface, but they are still the number one backbone system out there.

  19. Ashley Says:

    Before going to Japan, I expected it be a technological wonderland, and in some respects it is, but the average Japanese person that I met doesn’t know very much about computers. My friend still uses IE6, despite many websites discontinuing support for it. One of my colleagues said she doesn’t have a computer or an internet connection at all; she checks her email via her phone. My neighbor had to wait 2 months just to get an internet connection in her apartment.

    It would be interesting to see of the PCs currently owned in Japan how often they’re used.