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

Part Two and Part Three of this post highlights some of the discussions in the blogosphere and Twittersphere that followed the conterversial interview “The Japanese web is ‘disappointing': An interview with Mr. Mochio Umeda, summarized in Part One. [All links in this article link to Japanese content unless otherwise noted.]

At the very least, the interview kick-started a serious dialog on how we perceive the Japanese web and the direction that it's taking. Mochio Umeda played a major role in shaping our current perception, starting with a popular blog about trends in the English web in 2003. His influence extended to the general public when he published “Web Shinkaron” (”Theory of Web Evolution”) in 2006, and took on the role of educator and evangelist for Web 2.0. @tsuda tweeted:

『ウェブ進化論』の凄さは、一見最新のネット事情をわかりやすく説明する「解説書」の体裁を取っていながら、物心ついたときからネットが側にある若者に対して「既得権益層を潰しちゃえよ!」というメッセージを発信していたところにある。

The brilliance of ‘Web Shinkaron’ is that while taking the shape of a ‘practical guide to the web', the book actually transmits the message “Break down the establishment!” to young people who've had the Internet at their side since childhood.

In this context, much of the initial reactions to the interview were heated analysis of Umeda himself and included quite a few personal attacks that emphasized his lack of awareness of the responsibility that comes from being in an influential and public position. For example, Takayuki Fukatsu, after underscoring that it was Hatena who failed at making inroads into the U.S. market, commented on his blog:

「Web進化論」みたいな、宗教的なカリスマになったからには、衆民にご利益と実績を示し続けないと、宗教は機能しないと思うんよ。煽ってムーブメントを作り出したからには、梅田さんなり、はてななりがそれを実践しないと、「あぁ、あの人の言っていたことは机上の空論だったのだなぁ」と、逆にみんなそれを諦めちゃうんじゃないかと。それが、「web進化論的なるものは日本では失敗する」っていう共通認識が、いまのwebのがっかり感の基盤なんじゃないかなと。煽るだけ煽ってリタイアしながら、日本のwebが「残念」とか言われても、どうしろというのかと。

Since Mr. Umeda gained cult-like status for ‘Web Shinkaron', he's obligated to continue bestowing boons and displaying accomplishments to the public, or else the ‘religion’ will stop functioning. He's the one that fanned the flames and started the movement; therefore Mr. Umeda or Hatena must carry out the vision, or else people will give up and say “Oh, he was nothing but talk.” The common perception “The world from Web Shinkaron will fail in Japan” is the basis for this disappointment that we share. What are we to do? He's fanned the flames all he likes and retired, and yet calls the Japanese web a ‘disappointment'.

As Umeda predicted, many people pointed a finger at Hatena as the reason for the current state of the Japanese web, with varying degrees of opinion on how ‘disappointing’ it is. Economist Nobuo Ikeda focused on the part about how the web has not developed beyond the realm of subculture:

この「残念」な状況を作り出した大きな原因は、はてなである。梅田氏が「バカなコメントが多い」といったように、実名の生産的な批判より匿名の悪罵のほうが圧倒的に多いことが「上の人」を萎縮させ、日本のウェブのレベルを下げているのだ。その結果、アメリカのブログは著名人が既存メディアの枠を超えてリアルタイムで議論する場になり、大手メディアに対抗する存在になりつつあるのに、彼も嘆くように日本のブログはますます劣化している。

[....]

日本をだめにしているのは、このような日本企業の家父長的な構造と、それにチャレンジしないでストレスを飲み屋やウェブで発散するサラリーマンだ。はてなは結果的には、こうした卑怯者に「ガス抜き」のプラットフォームを提供することによって、この救いのない(梅田氏も嫌悪する)システムを延命する役割を果たしている。このアーキテクチャを個人が変えることはできないが、はてなの取締役である梅田氏には現状を改善する意思決定は可能だ。それをしないで他人事のように「残念」というのは、加害者の開き直りにしか見えない。

One big catalyst for this ‘disappointing’ situation is Hatena itself. Like Mr. Umeda's comment that “there are many stupid comments”, the fact that anonymous bashing is more pervasive than constrictive criticism under real names have made the ‘higher ups’ shy away and subsequently lowered the level of the Japanese web. As a result, the American blogosphere has become a place for real-time discussions by prominent figures that go beyond the borders of the existing media. Meanwhile the Japanese blogosphere, like he despairs, continues to deteriorate.

[...]

What's bringing down Japan is the patriarchal structure of Japanese corporations and the salarymen that don't challenge the status quo but release their frustration online or in bars. In hindsight, Hatena has offered a venting place for these cowards and fulfills the role of life-support to this hopeless system (that Mr. Umeda also detests). One person as an individual cannot change this architecture, but it's possible for Mr. Umeda, as an executive of Hatena, to make decisions to improve the situation. Summing it up as ‘disappointing’ as if this were someone else's problem, without making such an attempt, is a perpetrator's easy way out.

Not very many bloggers ventured into comparing the English and Japanese web. Journalist Nobuyuki Hayashi is the noted exception, with a fantastic post on the difference in scope, competitiveness, feedback, profitability, and diversity of the two cultural spheres.

So what’s up with the Japanese web – disappointing or enthralling?” was posted by Adamu at Mutantfrog Travelogue following a flurry of Tweets between Marxy and our own Chris Salzberg. There is a good discussion in the comments section, with language differences adding another twist to the debate.

Eiji Sakai, who blogs in English, Japanese and Vietnamese asks how many of us have a deep enough understanding of the English web to give constructive feedback on Umeda's views. He wonders if the Japanese inferiority complex towards the United States and Silicon Valley influenced our response, and doubts it would have been so excessive if Umeda lived in Saigon instead of Silicon Valley.

Michi Kaifu surmised that the aftermath of the interview proves to a point that Umeda's frustration is on target. She likens Umeda's vision of the web to a virtual School of Athens and offers her take in this way:

サブカルにもEコマースにもどんどん使われて大歓迎だけれど、この「アテネの学堂」の世界に限って言えば、「知的エリート」だけの世界である。すぐにメシのタネになるわけでもないのに、へとへとになるほどの頭脳エネルギーを絞って、知の形成過程に参加することに甘美な楽しみを見出せるような類の人だけの世界である。それが、全然ないわけじゃないだろうけど、あまりに小さく弱いと見える。

つまり、彼は日本(あるいは日本語世界)の知的エリートたちがふがいないことを攻撃している。同時に、知的エリートの世界に参加したいと潜在的に思っている人たちをつまらない嫉妬で引きずりおろそうとする「大衆の愚」に怒っている。

For subculture and e-commerce to flourish is welcome, but the world of the ‘School of Athens’ is one thats limited to the ‘intellectual elite'. It's for people that can find sweet pleasure in concentrating all of their energy into the process of creating knowledge, even if it doesn't put food on the table. This world, while not entirely absent, seems far too small and weak.

In other words, Mr. Umeda is attacking the shamelessness of the Japanese elite. At the same time, he's angry at the ‘stupidity of the general public’ that, with trivial jealousy, drags down the people who latently aspire to participating in the world of the intellectual elite.

Continued in Part Three.

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