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Japan: On How to Perceive the Japanese Web (Part One)

Reporter Yuka Okada from the Japanese tech news site ITmedia brandished her well-regarded interviewing skills for a one-on-one session with Mochio Umeda. The result was “The Japanese web is ‘disappointing': An interview with Mr. Mochio Umeda” Part One and Part Two [ja]. In reaction, the Japanese blogosphere had to give their two cents about Umeda, Hatena, and the Japanese web.

Part One of this article offers a summary of the interview with translated excerpts, focusing on the parts that were more heavily-referred to by bloggers. [Note: Due to copyright issues, the original Japanese text from the interview is not included.] Part Two will highlight some of the discussions in the blogosphere and Twittersphere.

Okada starts off by noting that Umeda hasn't written about the Japanese web recently, and asks if his interests have moved onto shogi, Japanese chess. Umeda replies that he is currently taking a sabbatical, having published seven books after “Web Shinkaron” (”Theory of Web Evolution”).

It's not that I deliberately refrain from talking about the current state of the web. However, there is something that disappoints me – how the English web and Japanese web have become very different things.

I'm not really a critic, even though some people think I am. I'm involved in the business operations of Hatena, and I'm the type of person that thinks as he acts. It might seem as though I look at things objectively, but my personal hopes and expectations are included in my writing. Suppose that the web has become a negative thing; I don't have the motivation to analyze it in the first place.

Asked how the two are different and what he means by ‘negative', Umeda brings up a passage from the book “Webu wa baka to himajin no mono ウェブはバカと暇人のもの” (which literally translates to ‘The web belongs to idiots and people with too much time on their hands') by Junichiro Nakagawa, editor of Ameba News. Nakagawa claims that Umeda interprets what the web is like for smart people and that his book is for regular people and idiots. Umeda states that this categorization is not unreasonable.

In that sense, shogi fascinates me because I'm attracted to professional worlds where remarkably talented people commit themselves to bettering their skills. They work extremely hard to reach a state of greatness, and in doing so, show us a world of supreme excellence. I'm attracted to that [type of world].

Okada asks if the English web is ‘better’ than the Japanese web or if it's a matter of like/dislike. Umeda concedes that personal preference does influence his stance, but objectively speaking, there is no question that there is a difference between the two. The Japanese web has not become part of the infrastructure for life or for self-improvement.

The web is really neutral because it's a tool. Neutral things generally look like a normal distribution model; both good things and bad things should come out of it and on the whole, look balanced. All things have their good and bad sides, and the Japanese web is no exception, but it seems to me that the ratio [of the two] is completely different.

There is a fifteen second silence as Okada asks for examples on the ‘bad things’ about the Japanese web.

Umeda is in a complicated position because he's a board member of Hatena Co., Ltd, which runs a Japanese bookmarking and blogging service with over a million users. Broadcasting negative opinions about the Japanese web invites comments like “Are you criticizing your own users?”.

As long as I'm a board member for Hatena, I'm not allowed to say “You guys should do that!” and “People who talk like this are bad”.

Readers will say “People talk like that because Hatena's system is structured that way” and to fix things first.

I understand that. I'm working with Kondo (founder and CEO of Hatena) and everyone at the company to improve Hatena. I understand now that I just can't say what I think because I really like Hatena.

The topic moves onto the ‘good’ parts of the web and what the Japanese web should strive for. Umeda brings up a concept that he covered in Web Shinkaron; so-hyogen shakai (総表現社会), which describes a society where self-expression is not restricted to the intellectuals and artistic elite but encouraged from all.

Considering the Japanese population, there could be a layer of participants in so-hyogen shakai that consists of five million people. In the English web, the layer is very thick and has become a kind of authority.

For the most part, there isn't much incentive for people like this in the Japanese Internet space. The lineup of ‘alpha bloggers’ hasn't really changed beyond the group of people that came into prominence in the initial stages, has it? We haven't had the kind of progress where the talent pool multiplies by the thousands to create a solid wall of talent. The Japanese web hasn't been able to fully leverage its skills.

Umeda refers to the open-sourced translation projects of his shogi book as one example of online collaborative work with exciting possibilities. Okada brings up Nico Nico Douga, where users contribute music and video to each other's works.

I fully understand how web culture flourishes within the realm of Japanese subculture, and I respect that. For that reason, discussing such examples at this point don't contribute to the argument that Japanese web culture has really changed.

There's a part of me that's disappointed at the reality in Japan: the Internet, which amplifies outstanding skills, is hardly used beyond subculture and the ‘higher ups’ are in hiding. There is a very large difference with the English web in this area, and it's highlighted to my eyes.

On Hatena founder and CEO Junya Kondo, who, against Umeda's advice, started a subsidiary for Hatena in Silicon Valley in 2006. Kondo returned to Japan after a few years, having failed to build a user base.

He's a very unique and interesting person. I have high expectations for him because he has many qualities that I myself don't possess.

I can usually tell [how it is] with people, which is why I don't feel that they need my support. However, Kondo is different. He's the only one that can surprise me on a constant basis. I can't say anything outrageous because he hasn't had a breakthrough yet, but he requires time to throughly accept things and this is the reason that I believe he is the kind of person who will achieves breakthroughs.

Umeda talks about how his readiness to ‘jump onto’ anything that sparks his interest is his first priority in life, which led to his foray into the world of shogi. He runs his consulting company, Muse Associates, in a way that it can be closed within a year if necessary, which might have happened if Kondo had, against his expectations, achieved great success in Silicon Valley.

From a business and financial perspective, it would make sense to continue that role [of talking about the web]. However, that isn't my priority at all so I decided to take a sabbatical and have finally built a system where I can jump into whatever's in front of me.
There's a high possibility that I won't write another book like Web Shinkaron, but I don't know yet. However, I've always said that the sequel or ‘final installment’ should be written by someone who is much younger than myself.

The web is and always will be a cutting-edge tool for self-experimentation for me. I will keep writing with the web as my theme, but I'm not sure whether it will turn out to be something that can be called a critique.


Part Two will be posted next week. Meanwhile, here are some previous posts that offer insights to Umeda and the influence that he has on the Japanese web:

[Note: This is an unauthorized translation of the original interview in Japanese, reproduced under the terms of fair use. The article will be removed if the publisher so requests.]

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