The Emergence of Netizens: The Cultural Impact of Network Evolution in Japan

by Izumi Aizu


Do networks evolve differently in different countries or cultures? How do cultural and societal differences affect the course of evolution of communication networks? How do societies differ in dealing with the growth of networks? These are new questions; definitive answers to them are not yet available.

As we approach the next century, we all agree in principle that the world is entering a new age, an information-centric society. But what does this mean? This "information society," as it has become known, will be built on a network of networks, and these networks consist of computers and telephone lines. The prototype of this future network is the Internet, a globally interconnected and seamless network of networks, created in the United States in the late 1960s by the military research community. By the 1980s it had evolved into mainly an academic and education network. In the past five years it has become a much broader general public network that has finally gained acceptance in the business community.

Culture

In an article published in 1992, John Perry Barlow, one of the founders of the Electronic Frontier Foundation and leading thinker on the future of networking, wrote that

Barlow went on to cite several conservative Japanese corporate executives who have had difficulty understanding "Net culture." Barlow was describing what is (and certainly was in 1992) an essentially American-dominant world culture that has emerged in cyberspace:

Very good questions, indeed. A comparison of network evolution in both the United States and Japan will help us examine whether Barlow's insight more than three years ago is still valid today.

Catch-up

In November 1993, The New York Times business section ran a front-page article titled "Now It's Their Turn to Play Catch-Up." It observed that the United States had 1.18 million host computers linked directly to the Internet, while the number in Japan was a mere 38,000 units. Other figures such as the number of PCs in the office or the number of cable television subscribers all showed that Japan lagged far behind the US in the information and applications sectors. The lack of awareness among Japanese business and government leaders about the importance of the Internet stuck out like a sore thumb.

This article and other similar messages about Japan's lagging behind were quickly picked up by the Japanese business community. The concept of "catch-up" is very familiar to the Japanese people, who have pursued that game with both zeal and success since the Meiji era more than a century ago. By the mid-1980s, Japan's phenomenal economic success had induced much of the nation (and many parts of the world) to believe--quite erroneously--that Japan had reached the long-sought position of "number one." This feeling was exceptionally rare in Japanese history; perhaps the only other time it was felt was in the period immediately before and during World War II. After the collapse of the so-called bubble economy in the late 80s and amid a recession that has worsened every year since, many Japanese are starting to realize that something very wrong has happened that requires a fundamental fix to their system.

Internet Growth

The Internet is booming all over the world, and Japan is no exception. Just as is happening in the United States and Europe, many Japanese corporations are starting to use the Internet. In 1995 alone, more than fifty companies started to offer Internet connection services on a commercial basis. The number of host computers in Japan directly connected to the global Internet is doubling every 12 months, showing the same rapid growth patterns as elsewhere in the world.

The exact number of Internet users in Japan is hard to obtain, but a good guess may be around a million. Commercial online PC network services such as Nifty-Serve and PC-VAN boast three million users. These services are now offering partial Internet access: e-mail, telnet (remote access), and FTP (file transfer). They are expected to offer full Internet services (IP connection) sometime in 1996. This will further boost the diffusion of Internet in Japan. In June 1995, NTT, the nation's largest telecommunications carrier, announced it plans to provide an "Open Computer Network" (OCN) soon. This new concept promotes an interconnected network modeled after the Internet--a bold departure from the centralized and hierarchical telephone network and its digital successor, ISDN.

User Profile

Who uses the Internet? A user survey is regularly carried out by the Georgia Institute of Technology. The most recent, conducted in May 1995, received more than 13,000 responses to the online questionnaire. The average age of respondents was 35 years, up five years over the previous survey results of October 1994. In terms of profession, 31% are in computer-related fields, 24% are in education, 22% are professionals, and 12% are managers. Females accounted for 15% of the total, again an increase over the October '94 figures. Internet users have a higher level of education and higher average income compared with the US national average; worldwide they earn an average of $69,000 per annum, and in the United States more than $80,000.

A survey of Japanese Internet users was recently conducted by a Japanese "virtual corporation,'' CyberSpace Japan. According to a 1200 online response CSJ survey, 30% are from 20 to 24 years old. More than 80% of Internet users in Japan were under 34, showing that users are much younger than their American counterparts. An astonishing 96% were male. But because the number of users is growing quickly and because Internet use in Japan is far from mature, these demographics will probably change rapidly.

Language Barrier?

A culture is often defined by the language its people use. Is the Internet dominated by English? If so, most Japanese must have difficulty in making full use of the Net. Quite often, Japanese who don't know much about the Internet fear that their lack of English skills will make it impossible to use. Globally speaking, it is true that the Internet is on the whole an English-speaking community. Yet if one looks at it locally, many people are using their own language on their Net. In Japan, the vast majority of words used among Japanese to communicate on the Net are Japanese. In all aspects of life it is very unusual for Japanese to communicate with one another in anything but their own language, and the Internet is no exception. At least in the domestic sense, language will not become an obstacle to the diffusion of the Net.

One great strength of the Internet is its global connectivity. Here you need to speak a common language, and English is by far the most dominant. If Japanese want to keep up with what's going on in the world, we have no choice but to use the language that other people of the world are using. Unlike native English or other Roman character based speakers, the Roman alphabet is still very foreign to most Japanese. The distance between English and German or Spanish is much less than that between English and Japanese.

In one sense this is clearly a cultural impediment to Japan's global use of the Internet. But on at least two occasions in history, Japanese society was determined to learn and master English. The first was in 1850, when US Commodore Matthew Perry demanded that samurai-governed feudal Japan open to the world. The second was when Imperial Japan lost World War II and the US army occupied Japan. Both times the Japanese not only learned the language, but were able to adopt to advances in the world through hard work and innovative efforts.

But the Internet is neither a military occupation nor a cultural invasion. Opening up the country to a networked world doesn't mean giving up cultural assets. To the contrary, it is an opportunity to bring Japan's own cultural contributions to the world. It also opens the possibility for badly needed change: perhaps Japan will become a less rigid, more decentralized society, following the network paradigm of the distributed nature of the Internet itself.

Netizens

In Howard Rheingold's book The Virtual Community, Joichi Ito, a Net pioneer and cofounder of TWICS, one of the first commercial internet access providers in Japan, is quoted as saying that the widespread use of the Net could change the Japanese system for the first time in thousands of years. Ito thinks it will cause a kind of unprecedented allergic reaction in Japan. No one doubts that Japan may need to go through these "allergic" symptoms, but the results--a truly internationalized Japan literally hard-wired to the world--will be ultimately worthwhile.

Michael Hauben, a student at Columbia University, has coined the term "netizen" to describe the new breed of people on the Net. The localities of netizens cover, almost literally, every corner of the globe, but the "place" in which they spend most of their time is cyberspace. Today's netizens are few in number, mostly young and relatively powerless politically, but as society as a whole moves toward an increasingly integrated Information Age, netizens will multiply even faster than today and will become as common and as influential as the citizens of today.

Joichi Ito and Michael Hauben are among the first generation of netizens. Many more are in Japan, in the US, in Asia, and Europe, and every location where young people discover the marriage of the computer and the telephone line. They use the Net extensively in their economic and social lives, providing interesting--and sometimes odd and scary--'art' or self-expression through their own Web home pages. Few differences across national borders are evident in the cultural styles and imaginations of these netizens. Japanese netizens are, by this definition, quite similar to their netizen counterparts around the world.

Less flexible, perhaps, is the traditional business community in Japan, or, for that matter, in any other industrial country. People born before the age of television, before telephones brought the power to communicate with anyone, anywhere, at any time, may have difficulty in understanding and accepting the emerging global new culture. What happened to a generation of young people thirty years ago when the Beatles changed the way music was played is now happening again to a new generation in cyberspace. Geographic differences count for little--it is generational differences that are affecting the direction of network evolution and its consequences to all societies. Soon we will witness the emergence of new types of businesses, new educational and cultural movements that match the dynamics being created by today's netizens.

Japan now lags behind, but this marathon has no clear finish line. Simply by taking part in the race, runners gain experience and knowledge that are used along the way. Besides, the rush to build a networked world is hardly a zero-sum game. Participants in the "virtual marathon" of global communication all win by virtue of their links to one another.


Izumi Aizu is Research Director at the Institute for Hyper Network Society, and Planning Manager at the Center for Global Communications (GLOCOM) at the International University of Japan.