A Tour Through Japan’s Internet Back Alley

There’s a reason that sites like “WTF Japan Seriously” exist. It’s because Japan makes a lot of, well, interesting things that just never would have come out of the Western world. And that’s exactly why we should be paying attention to the country’s Web culture.

Last month, Weiden+Kennedy Tokyo created a short film about Japan’s Web culture called “Back Streets of the Internet.” The film highlights a funky event called the Internet Yami-Ichi, which translates to the Internet black market.  It is a special offline gathering organized by experimental Web artists where people come together in real life to buy and sell oddball Internet-related products.

Hits at last year’s Internet Yami-Ichi included “Real World Retweet” man. He sold “real-life retweets,” which took the form of people paying him to shout out whatever they wanted – a funny, if goofy, take on what Twitter would be like in real life. Another person sold stones along with their 3-D scan data, kind of like a pet rock genome project.

Shingo Ohno, the film’s director, recently discussed his work via email with Digiday. See what Ohno, who is by day art director at W+K Tokyo, has to say about how Japanese Web cultures differs from its American counterpart, how anonymity and more reserved modes of communication are important to Japan’s Internet etiquette and which rising Web artists we should be watching. Excerpts (both in Japanese and translated by W+K Tokyo into English):

What is different about Japan’s Internet culture versus America’s? 
A lot of people say that we place importance on anonymity in Japan. On 2channel, the oldest Internet community that’s still very powerful today, people exchange candid opinions because of the anonymous nature of this website. On the other hand, when Facebook launched in Japan, people hesitated to use it because it requires everyone to provide their real names. Also, there are many YouTubers who appear in their videos in the U.S., while that’s quite rare in Japan. Twitter is very popular because of its anonymity.

However, young people sometimes forget that their tweets can be viewed by anyone around the world. Recently, there have been incidents where some young people working part-time at various restaurants posted on Twitter pictures of themselves getting inside industrial refrigerators for fun. Their pictures made headlines and didn’t just cause them to lose their jobs but also drove the restaurants out of business. These incidents show a unique aspect of Japan’s Internet culture.


What is something that is part of Japan’s Internet culture that you wouldn’t find anywhere else?
The features of Nico Nico Douga might be distinctively Japanese. It’s a video-sharing site like YouTube, but what makes it unique is that you can write comments directly onto the video, synched to a specific playback time. For example, when you see a cute girl appear in a video, the screen suddenly fills up with the word “cute,” written by a lot of people. There are also people called Danmaku Shokunin (barrage artisans) who create comments that look like ASCII art and put them up on the video at the right timing. Nico Nico Douga was created by the person who started 2channel.

ニコニコ動画のシステムは日本独自かもしれません。YouTubeのようなビデオサービスですが、特徴的なのは画面の上にユーザーがコメントを記入できることです。それはビデオのタイムラインと連動していて、例えばビデオに可愛い女の子が登場したら、画面上が沢山の人々の「可愛い♥️」というコメント で埋まります。また、弾幕職人と呼ばれる人々がいて、そのコメントを正確なタイミングでアスキーアートのようなビジュアルを作り上げたりします。ちなみにニコニコ動画の創業者は2chを作った人です。

What are some digital trends in Japan that you are keeping an eye on?
A lot of people have switched from feature phones to smartphones over the past few years. In Japan, NTT DoCoMo’s i-Mode made it possible for us to start using the Internet on mobile phones long before smartphones became available. Lots of games became popular on i-Mode and music download also became available through the Chaku-melo (ringtone) service before anywhere else in the world. People found i-Mode truly convenient, so they didn’t switch to iPhone right after it launched in Japan. Especially young women who were very familiar with Japanese feature phones were reluctant to switch to iPhone. However, when people started to enjoy social network services such as Twitter and Facebook, they realized that to make the most of these services, it’s easier to access them through smartphones. They gradually started to move away from Japanese feature phones (sometimes referred to as Galapagos mobile phones) and now the speed of transition to smartphones is faster than ever.


Are there any social media behaviors that are unique to Japan?
Japanese people seem to be very comfortable using Twitter, and a lot of people are using it today. When it comes to Japanese people and Twitter, I need to talk about “Balse.” “Balse” is the spell of destruction in “Castle in the Sky,” a classic animated film by Hayao Miyazaki. This film is very popular and is broadcast on TV once or twice a year in Japan. The exact moment the main characters say “Balse” during the film, a lot of people tweet the word “Balse” in real time. The number of people who tweet it has been increasing every year, and the latest data is 143,199 tweets per second in August 2013, which, of course, is a world record. I think this is a great example that shows Japan’s group-oriented culture.

Also in Japan, social networking was synonymous with mixi until a few years ago. Mixi’s functions are similar to those of Facebook, but it has a unique function called “Footprints,” which shows which other mixi users have visited your page. Footprints just show that your friends have viewed your page, and they are more subtle than likes and comments. They worked well for Japanese people who prefer a reserved communication style and motivated them to keep going back to mixi. In fact, because the pages to check Footprints were viewed most, the banner spaces on those pages were most expensive. However, people who had familiarized themselves with the Internet through mixi have already shifted to Twitter and Facebook, and mixi is struggling very hard today.

日本人とtwitterは相性が良いようで、今では多くの人々が利用しています。そして日本人とtwitterの話をするならば「バルス」を抜きには語れないかと思います。「バルス」は、宮崎駿監督の名作「天空の城ラピュタ」の中で出てくる「滅びの呪文」の事。同作品はとても人気があるので、年に1〜2回テレビ放送されるのですが、放送の中で主人公達が「バルス」と言う瞬間に、リアルタイムで多くの日本人が「バルス」とtwitterに書き込むのです。その数は年々増加し、最新のデータでは2013年の8月に14万3199ツイート/秒を記録しています。もちろん世界記録です。これは集団行動を好む日本人の性質をよく表しているのではないかと思います。かつて日本のSNSと言えば、数年前まではmixiでした。全体的な機能としてはFacebookのようなものでしたが、ユニークな機能として「足あと」というものがありました。それは、誰かがMay pageに訪れると、その訪問履歴が表示されるというものです。Likeやコメントのように明らかな態度では無く、単に友人が自分のページに訪れたという情報が、控えめな日本人にとってmixiに再来訪するためのモチベーションになっていました。実際問題、足あとを閲覧するためのページが最も閲覧されているので、そこのバナースペースが最も高価でした。ちなみに今はmixiでインターネットに触れる事に慣れてきた人々はtwitterやFacebookに流れて行ってしまったので、mixiは今、瀕死の状態です。

Who are important Web artists that people should pay attention to?
Exonemo, the artist duo introduced in our video, is doing very unique things. They don’t just pursue new technology. They are good at expressing things from different angles. Also, a creative unit called Rhizomatiks continues to show unique experiments and works.


What can people in the digital media world learn from Japan’s creative Internet culture and subculture?
Japanese people are good at perfecting things. This could also be true in the world of the Internet. We often take something that has been developed somewhere else and “make it better,” taking it to the level of a unique expression. Personally, it would be more interesting if Japanese people started to actively introduce things that are original, even if they are not fully refined.



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