Going Online in the PC Graveyard: The Sociocultural Evolution of Japan’s Mobile Internet

Going Online in the PC Graveyard: The Sociocultural Evolution of Japan’s Mobile Internet

Inkyu Kang
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-60960-037-2.ch013
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This chapter explores how the keitai (mobile) Internet has come to dominate Japan, marginalizing the PC-based Internet. The discussion focuses on the country’s cultural and ideological aspects that have worked as driving forces behind its mobile Internet boom. Special emphasis will be given to the validity of the common belief that the Japanese language has been a barrier to PC and Internet diffusion. This chapter argues that the Japanese language has actually encouraged rather than discouraged Internet adoption in Japan. Relying on media comparative analysis, this essay examines how Japan has developed a qualitatively different Internet use pattern that cannot be revealed in statistics like “number of Internet subscribers” or “household Internet penetration rates.”
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Japan has been known for its technological innovations for a long time. Its pioneering adoption of the mobile Internet has been no exception, reinforcing Japan’s reputation as a “techno-wonderland.” For example, NTT DoCoMo’s i-Mode was nothing short of revolutionary; the world’s first 3G network service turned Japan from an Internet graveyard into one of the most wired nations in just half a decade. Whereas Japan’s Internet penetration rate was merely 37.1 percent in 2000, it soared to 68.5 percent by 2006 (ITU, 2003; MIC 2007, p. 28). Thanks to i-Mode, by 2005 Japan had risen to become the first nation where more people access the Web through cell phones than through PCs (Williams, 2006).

In spite of many efforts to export its home-grown innovations, however, Japan’s mobile technologies have not taken off in foreign markets. As the New York Times reported recently, using the phrase “Galápagos syndrome,” “Japan’s handset makers have little presence beyond the country’s shores” (Tabuchi, 2009a, p. B1). Even the legendary i-Mode service has failed to take root outside the country, including in Europe, North America, and Asia, and its limited popularity overseas is fading rapidly. As an explanation for this, critics have pointed at the overly complicated hardware and the “walled-garden” approach of Japanese mobile Internet services.

Although technological Darwinism has become a popular framework for understanding the evolution and divergence of the information and communication technologies (ICTs) in Japan, specific sociocultural factors in this unique development have rarely been explored. There are several studies that investigate the Internet penetration in Japan, but they tend to explain it predominantly from an economic or business perspective. For example, economic wealth is considered as one of the most important predictors of Internet use (Beilock & Dimitrova, 2003; Kiiski & Pohjola, 2002; Norris, 2001; Wareham, Levy, & Shi, 2004). The problem is, however, that Japan never fits into this explanation. In spite of being one of the world’s wealthiest countries, Japan was very slow to adopt the Internet until the mobile Internet gained popularity.

In an attempt to account for the exceptional case of Japan, Norris (2001, p. 55) lumped it in with countries that are “relatively affluent yet display lower than average Internet penetration rates” like “Bahrain, Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates, and Saudi Arabia, as well as South East Asian states such as Singapore, Japan, and Brunei.” She went on to argue that “they can perhaps best be explained by the extreme inequalities of personal income and wealth characteristic of these states, possibly combined with some cultural restrictions on use through restricting Internet Service Providers” (Norris, 2001, p. 56). In reality, Japan is far from being a country with “extreme inequalities of personal income and wealth.” Although its income gap has widened with its long-term recession, Japan is still one of the countries with the least earning inequalities in the world. The country’s income inequality has consistently been lower than that of many other successful Internet adopters like the U.S. and Canada (Jones, 2007, p. 9).

Although potential cultural factors are touched upon in Norris’s analysis, the approach is problematic, not only because it is unclear what cultural elements those countries have in common but also because cultural forces are seen as “restrictions” on technological diffusion. In this formation, culture hardly plays a central role, understood either as barriers to or as facilitators of the adoption of technology. To be explored later, however, the “cultural restrictions” on the PC-based Internet during the 1990s are the very vector that helped morph Japan into one of the most connected nations in the world in the following decade. Interestingly, the same cultural forces shaping “mobile Japan” that has been envied until recently for being “blessed with some of the best-looking technology in the world” are now coming under attack for turning the technological powerhouse into an isolated island (Fitzpatrick, 2007).

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