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Japanese Cybercultures

Editor: Nanette Gottlieb, Mark McLelland
Publisher: London, UK: Routledge, 2003
Review Published: June 2004

 REVIEW 1: Leslie M. Tkach-Kawasaki

What is your image of Japan? A technologically hip nation of cyber-savvy samurai? A land where culture can be both cute and conformist? In Japanese Cybercultures, editors Nanette Gottlieb and Mark McLelland challenge our perceptions of Japan and the Internet through a range of fascinating perspectives. Adding to a growing body of ethnographic studies focusing on Internet use in different countries, the three thematic sections of the book -- popular culture; gender and sexuality; and politics and religion -- demonstrate how the use of the Internet is both entrenched in and changing various perspectives of daily life in Japan.

Both editors bring broad academic backgrounds to this collection of papers. Nanette Gottlieb, Associate Professor and Reader in Japanese, as well as Head of the School of Languages and Comparative Cultural Studies at the University of Queensland, Australia, has published widely on all facets of language policy in Japan, including papers such as "Language and Disability in Japan" (2001) and "Discriminatory Language in Japan" (1998) as well as books on language policy in Japan (Kanji Politics: Language Policy and Japanese Script, 1996) and word-processing technologies (Word-processing Technology in Japan: Kanji and the Keyboard, 2000). With a background in Japanese studies, history of sexualities, and cultural studies, Mark McLelland, a postdoctoral fellow in the Centre for Critical and Cultural Studies at the University of Queensland, has written various papers concerning gay studies in Japan as well as being the author of Male Homosexuality in Modern Japan: Cultural Myths and Social Realities (2000).

By departing from group-oriented and hierarchic images of Japanese society, the editors draw out three diverse themes concerning the individual self in various social encounters. Intensification of individual social relationships through the Internet is the focus of the first set of papers, as demonstrated through various aspects of cellular phone use in Japan and collaborative experiments in music. The second section examines the use of the Internet as a means of expressing individual gender and sexuality issues that, for various reasons, do not often surface in Japanese society. In the final section, chapters dealing with individual actions channeled through groups and towards certain issues provide an insight as to how entrenched perceptions of politics and religion in Japanese society are being simultaneously reinforced and altered through the Internet. These three streams are combined to demonstrate how individual perspectives of Internet utilization serve dual purposes of satisfying certain personal and social objectives.

One of Japan's most interesting contributions to new uses of the Internet has been popularizing the convergent technologies of mobile telecommunications and the Internet. Japan's foray into this area started in February 1999 when DoCoMo, the mobile communications division of NTT (Nippon Telegraph and Telephone Corporation) released "i-mode" handsets, cellular telephones capable of sending short messages and accessing the Internet. These functions caught on rapidly among the population especially within their first three years. According to the Information and Communications White Paper released in 2002 by the Japanese government, cellular telephone penetration in Japan now stands at more than half of the Japanese population.

According to Negishi (2003), "the 'i' of 'i-mode' stands for internet, information, interaction, and I, myself" (59). Brian McVeigh's chapter, "Individualism, individuality, interiority, and the Internet," elaborates on these themes to discuss how mobile communications capability has affected personal relationships with society. The connections that he describes between cellular telephones and fashion, the expression of one's feelings, and personal space, cast new perspectives on technologically mediated communications and attitudes towards these devices that make such relationships possible. Exhibiting independence by customizing keitai (mobile telephones) through the use of screen-savers and stickers is also the theme of "Cute@keitai.com" by Larissa Hjorth. Animated characters such as Hello Kitty and Miffy, mainly used by young people (males and females alike), add a "feel good" dimension to their mobile communications and also serve as hi-tech articulations of personal identity and a culture of commodity consumption. However, perhaps more importantly, in the conclusion, Hjorth notes that such familiar characters serve as the means for "particularlizing and familiarizing the global space of the Internet" (58).

Encounters with others through technology is also the topic of "Deai-kei: Japan's new culture of encounter" by Todd Joseph Miles Holden and Takako Tsuruki. These authors continue the exploration of interpersonal relationships through mobile telephones by demonstrating how "deai [type of encounter] is a tool for sociation [as well as] an important instrument in the mediation of identity" (34). In this chapter, the use of technology not only as a tool for forging personal relationships but also as a means of mediating one's relationship with society as a whole is especially intriguing. These illustrations of how new technologies are being used to renegotiate one's self on a personal basis as well as in relation to society as a whole are especially germane to a Japan that seeks balance within itself and the world around it.

While much of the discourse regarding music and the Internet has focused on peer-to-peer file sharing, Napster, and, by extension, larger issues of copyright, two chapters in this volume are devoted to experimenting with collaborative musicianship and interaction. "From subculture to cybersubculture? The Japanese Noise alliance and the Internet" by Costa Caspary and Wolfram Manzenreiter and "Filling in the blanks: Lessons from an Internet Blues jam" by Gretchen Ferris Schoel discuss how Japanese musicians have combined technology with music to reach out to the wider world. As noted by Caspary and Manzenreiter, the Internet has allowed Japanese musicians to both "maintain their sense of identity and authenticity" and "[contribute] to the construction and reconstruction of a subculture" (70). The Japanese Noize Alliance musicians and those who participated in the Internet Blues jam organized by Schoel showed that new forms of popular culture and new expressions of individualism can be simultaneously rearticulated and transformed through the visual and audio capabilities of the Internet.

Two common themes surface in the four chapters regarding women's activism, masculinity, networking on the Internet by HIV patients, and alternative sexualities that comprise the second section of the book. The first is the recasting of common assumptions regarding gender roles. Junko R. Onosaka's "Challenging society through the information grid: Japanese women's activism on the Net" and Romit Dasgupta's "Cybermasculinities: Masculinities and the Internet in Japan" demonstrate how women and men use the Internet to reach beyond traditional social stereotypes to forge alternative interpretations that reflect the economic and sociocultural changes that have taken place in Japanese society in the 1980s and 1990s. Through web sites and e-mail newsletters, new channels for direct communication and organizing have been opened up to both genders, resulting in greater awareness and empathy of the difficult choices caused by the merging of traditional and modern definitions of gender roles.

The final two chapters in this section show how two different sets of Internet users are negotiating new sub-communities based on common experiences but that are also firmly based on social interaction customs prevalent in Japanese society. The style and content of social discourse in Japanese society is dictated by strict customs. Often honne (one's inner feelings) are best reserved for discussions among an individual's in-group or close inner circle such as family or close friends. Maintaining social norms and harmony are the objectives of tatemae (one's public position or stance). As pointed out by Joanne Cullinane in "'Net'-working on the Web: Links between Japanese HIV patients in cyberspace," "defining an in-group can be especially tricky for many HIV patients, who may prefer to conceal their illness from family and friends" (131). Furthermore, given the mass-media climate -- most often negative -- surrounding the issues of AIDS and HIV (129-130), quite often people with these afflictions have nowhere to turn for advice and support. The Internet has allowed them to maintain a delicate balance of preserving privacy while finding interaction within a society bounded by certain topical norms. Co-editor McLelland's chapter, "Private acts/public spaces: Cruising for gay sex on the Japanese Internet," also addresses this theme by examining how gay people are using the Internet as a means of creating both communities and norms within the larger context of Japanese society and its emphasis on social harmony. While gay people in Western nations may be able to exercise more social choices concerning their sexual identity, being openly gay in Japan, McLelland notes, may be "a bar to social acceptance, career advancements and even house rental" (p. 150). Through web sites for gay men such as Park Paradise, homosexual Japanese men have constructed a "safe" haven to find partners, including, on this particular site, features such as a "gay check" to weed out visitors to the site. For these men, the Internet has offered an alternative environment where their sexual selves can be expressed and explored in ways that are not offered in mainstream society.

The final section of this book contains five chapters dealing with the use of the Internet as an arena for various forms of political action, such as activism, political advertising, and obtaining or maintaining power. David McNeill's chapter, "The great equalizer? The Internet and progressive activism in Japan," discusses activism in Japan by critically analyzing the difficulties faced by progressive groups in Japan who have gone online. Despite isolated successes, overall, the progressive left has not discovered a "level playing field" through the Internet. In fact, argues McNeill, "the increasing commercialization of online activity threatens the gradual marginalization of progressive online campaigns" (159).

This phenomenon is further explored in Isa Ducke's chapter, "Activism and the Internet: Japan's 2001 history-textbook affair." Friction between Japan and South Korea concerning how South Korea, annexed as a colony by Japan in the period 1910 to 1945, has been portrayed in Japanese textbooks used at the junior high school level has been ongoing since the 1980s. When the latest version of the junior-high-school textbook produced by the right-wing group Tsukurukai (Japanese Society for History Textbook Reform) received approval from the Japanese Ministry of Education, protests from South Korea and China resulted in only minor modifications to its content. The issue came to light at a particularly critical time in relations between Japan and South Korea, as both countries were gearing up to jointly host the FIFA World Cup in soccer in 2002. Based on interviews and comparisons of the web sites produced by groups and state actors involved in both sides of the debate, Ducke found that although web sites and e-mail communications added immediacy to their respective campaigns, integral factors such as technical skills, resources, and reliance on traditional campaign methods tended to minimize the effect of the Internet.

Two further chapters in this section discuss the strategic use of the Internet, albeit for different political purposes. Co-editor Gottlieb's chapter, "Language, representation and Power: Burakumin and the Internet," focuses on how language can be used on the Internet to achieve certain strategic goals aimed at different audiences. Although not an ethnic minority, the Burakumin, Japan's largest minority group, have been segregated from other Japanese since the 1600s mainly through language and occupations involving taboo occupations such as work with the dead. As outgrowths of mini-komi ("mini-communication media" such as self-produced leaflets, flyers, and newsletters, as opposed to mass communication media), web sites produced by Burakumin groups fulfill two purposes: Japanese-language sites serve as a means of disseminating information and communicating among the Burakumin while English-language sites provide education regarding the Burakumin to a worldwide audience. Gottlieb points out that while this strategic use of language is no different on the Internet than in traditional media used by these groups (199-200), she emphasizes the use of language as playing a "crucial role in their strategies of both representation and power" (202).

As another example of political strategy, Vera Mackie offers a new perspective on the e-mail magazine produced and distributed by the office of Prime Minister Koizumi Jun'ichiro in "Creating publics and counterpublics on the Internet in Japan." While other chapters in this section focus on Internet use by political actors and groups in Japan that may be disadvantaged by the mainstream media, this chapter demonstrates that traditional political actors are also present on the Internet's "playing field" and using it with some measure of success. Bypassing traditional media organizations and appealing directly to readers (who are also potential voters) may be a new form of politicking through e-mail, however Mackie points out that such use is overwhelmingly one-sided and does not make "full use of the potential for 'many-to-many' communication provided by . . . new communications technologies" (187). Although an example of successful direct marketing through the Internet, the use of the newsletter also points to the difficulty of demarcating the concepts of "e-democracy" and "e-politics" as traditional political actors and governments become more active on the Internet.

Maintaining a balance between offline activities and online presence requires a certain amount of coordination. For groups with evolving organizational structures, incorporating the use of the Internet for information dissemination activities aimed at the public as well as internal communications may progressively occur rather than happen all at once. "Self-representation of two new religions on the Japanese Internet: Jehovah's Witnesses and Seicho no Ie" by Petra Kienle and Birgit Staemmler offers a comparative analysis of the web sites produced by two new religious organizations that highlights this point. According to their findings, the contents of these web sites tend to aimed at creating awareness rather than active mobilization. By examining the self-representation strategies through the textual and visual elements found on their web sites, they found little evidence of self-proselytization, yet ample support for self-expression strategies through the Internet.

In conclusion, the research in this volume offers new insights not only in cross-national and comparative perspectives but also with regard to the evolution of the Internet itself. The rapid expansion of the Internet into Japan has afforded new opportunities for individual expression within Japanese society through interpersonal communications and issue-oriented group networking. Yet, traditional and non-traditional groups, including political actors, are still experimenting with "what works on the Web." Japanese Cybercultures simultaneously examines Japan's evolving experiences with the Internet within Japanese society as a whole and challenges us to reevaluate the conventional theories and applications of Internet.


Negishi, Masamitsu (2003). "Development of Mobile Phone Culture in Japan and Its Implications in Library Services: Prospecting Information Services in Coming 'Ubiquitous Society,'" NII Journal No. 6, 57-67.

Leslie M. Tkach-Kawasaki:
Leslie M. Tkach-Kawasaki is a Ph.D. Candidate in the Graduate School of International Political Economy, University of Tsukuba, Japan. Her primary research interests lie in political communications through the Internet, web site analysis, and the evolving Internet in Japan. Leslie reviewed The Victorian Internet: The Remarkable Story of the Telegraph and the Nineteenth Century's On-Line Pioneers for RCCS.  <tkach@japan.email.ne.jp>

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