Journalism Essay, Research Paper
The following paper was recently presented by Kamlesh Ramji
VIRTUAL COMMUNITIES IN JAPAN
In recent years, virtual communities have proliferated thanks to the converging technologies of telecommunications and computing. In the United States, numerous virtual communities exist in the form of bulletin boards, newsgroups, computer conferencing, etc. and have been expanding
its scope beyond the national boundaries. But, those virtual communities
originating in the United States carry heavy American-biased culture which
members often take for granted because of the long history of domination
in developing computer networks by American organizations. As examples
of alternative virtual cultures, this paper presents major virtual
communities in Japan which originated in Japan and mainly sustained by
people in Japan.
2. Introduction and Background
The convergence of telecommunication and computer technologies has enabled
networking of people regardless of their geographical and temporal
differences. The scope of such computer networks has been expanding
exponentially since the first extensive comp uter network, ARPANET, was
created in 1968 by the Advanced Research Projects Agency of the U.S.
Department of Defense (now DARPA, the Defense Advanced Research Projects
Agency). Now its successor, Internet, comprises 1.7 million computers in
more than 1 25 countries (Stix, 1993); most of them at universities,
government agencies and companies. As such computer networks have
expanded beyond the small communities of scientific researchers and been
applied in a variety of fields such as education and busin ess,
communication through such computer networks is beginning to alter the
ways in which people interact with one another in formal and informal
2.1. Computer-Mediated Communication (CMC)
The term, computer-mediated communication (CMC) or computer-based
communication, encompasses: computer networks, electronic mail, electronic
bulletin boards service (BBS), and computer conferencing. CMC has been
fairly well studied in educational setting s, as a supplemental to
traditional classroom teaching or as a deliverly mode of distance
education because of its distinct characteristics which make it different
from any other media. Poster (1990) notes that CMC substitutes writing
for spoken conversa tions and extends the domain of writing to cover areas
of communication that previously were limited to face-to-face
interactions, mail, and the telephone.
CMC, up to now, is mainly limited to textual communication where most of
the social cues are stripped off. People only see text on the computer
screen in standardized formats which contains no dynamic personal
information such as tones of one’s voice or
undescrivable facial expressions. ‘Phatic’ aspects of the face-to-face
conversation are minimal in CMC, which sometimes exacerbates communication
anxiety when the sender gets no reply (Feenberg, 1989).
The advantage of such text-based communication is that it reduces
discriminatory communication patterns based on physical and social cues
such as gender, race, socio-economic status, physical features, etc., and
enhances the interaction with one another.
As a result, CMC destabilizes existing hierarchies in relationships and
rehierarchize communications according to criteria that were previously
irrelevant (Poster, 1990). The text-based communication also augments the
interaction with ideas generated t hrough discussions. In CMC, people
tend to focus on the message more than the messenger, and the availability
of an archived transcript of the proceedings facilitates review of
previous comments and discussion, focusing on important ideas and
Another important aspect of this standardized texual communication is an
individual’s great control of his/her self image presented to other
people. In most cases, the only identity an individual user has is a
“handle” name which may be, and most often is expected to be, fictional.
Anonymity is complete and identity is fictionalized in the structure of
the communication. Poster (1990) contends that “computer conversations
construct a new configuration of the process of self-constitution.”
Communicate rs can compose themselves as characters in the process of
writing, inventing themselves from their feelings, their needs, their
ideas, their desires, their social position, their political views, their
economic circumstances, their family situation – thei r entire humanity.
In this sense, CMC is used for what Morioka (1993) calls “ishiki tsushin
(conscious communication)”. “Ishiki tsushin”, according to Morioka, is
the communication for the purpose of social interaction itself, which is
distinguised from “joho tsushin (info rmation communication)”. Goffman
(1959) argued that individuals deliberately “give” and inadvertently “give
off” signs that provide others with information about how to respond.
Because of its anonymous nature of CMC, communicators can manipulate image
s of themselves much better than in face-to-face situations and present
themselves anyway they want to be thought of. By doing so, people can
fulfil the unmet desire to be a person whom they want to be.
In one sense, CMC enhances the sense of personal freedom and individualism
by reducing the ‘existential’ engagement of the self in its communications
(Feenberg, 1989). On the other hand, Poster (1990) contends that the CMC
users are bounded in many ways:
first, to the new, computerized system of positioning subjects in symbolic
exchanges; second, by the prior constituting of the self, typically the
experience of that self as restricting, evoking the sense of transgression
when that self may be concealed o r suspended; finally to the language
used in the conversation, with all its semantic, ideological and cultural
specificity, a specificity which does not diminish when converted into
CMC is usually asynchronous although there are also some synchronous
applications. The advantage of asynchronous communications is that people
can read, reply or send messages at their convenience. It is not only a
matter of personal convenience; it mea ns communication crosses time as
well as space. Poster (1990) argues that CMC disperse the subject,
dislocating it temporally and spatially. CMC also has multiple-receiver
addressability. People can send a message to any number of people as long
as the receiver has access to the electronic community.
2.2. Virtual Communities
Marshall McLuhan (1964) said that the global media information networking
would make us live in a global village. Subsequently, Webber (1967)
argued the “nonplace community” which existed beyond any geographical
boundaries. According to Webber, the trad itional concept of
“communities” which is geographically bounded should be replaced by the
concept of “communities” of accessibility. Thanks to the modern
communication technologies, now communities can exist regardless of
members’ geographical locations . In Jessie Bernard’s (1973) terms, CMC
changes “the significance of space for human relationships. . . . we do
not need the concept of community at all to understand how a society
operates.” Hiltz and Turoff (1978) extends this view by saying that:
We will become the Network Nation, exchanging vast amounts of both
information and social-emotional communications with colleagues, friends,
and “strangers” who share similar interests. . . . we will become a
“global village” . . . An individual will, lit erally, be able to work,
shop, or be educated by or with persons anywhere in the nation or in the
CMC builds nonplace communities of common interests, affinity, and
association. They are called “online communities”, “electronic
communities”, or “virtual communities.” Those usually exist in the forms
of online discussion groups such as those found on
the global Internet and USENET computer networks, commercial videotex
systems, and personal computer bulletin boards. Such communities are
dynamic; many people come and go at any time in the life of a community.
There are two kinds of virtual commun ities. The first one is the
community where members know one another and usually have met
face-to-face. CMC (especially electronic mail) is used mainly to maintain
their routine communication, discuss issues relevant to the members, or
collaborate on so me projects. The second category is the community where
members do not necessarily know one another, but share common interests,
value systems, or goals. CMC (especially BBS and computer conferencing)
is used mainly to exchange information and ideas. T he major differences
of such virtual communities from traditional communities are: 1) the
freedom from geographical limitation; 2) the accessibility at one’s own
convenience; 3) the retrievability of information/messages; and 4) the
limitation of communicati ve acts to textual messages.
Those communities, however, are not entirely new and completely different
from traditional communities. Morioka (1993) argues that those virtual
communities are just the geographical expansion of traditional communities
in the sense that the members of a
communitiy use CMC as a means to discuss and exchange information instead
of meeting face-to-face.
In addition to the above mentioned communities, another kind of
communities exist in computer networks, which can be called “communities
of anonymity [ tokumeisei no komyuniti]” (Morioka, 1993). These
communities of anonymity are the communities whose me mbers are anonymous
and share virtual spaces for their self-expression which may not be
possible in the situation that they have to identify themselves. In such
virtual spaces, people play whatever role they want to play, knowing other
people are also p resenting created images of themselves. In many
computer bulletin boards, it is well known that some people use opposite
sex’s handle names (i.e., a man uses a female name or a woman uses a male
name) and play the role of the opposite sex to their own. I n such
communities, people enjoy the virtual aspects of communication per se.
In summary, there are basically three kinds of virtual communities: 1) the
ones totally overlapping with physical communities; 2) the ones
overlapping with physical communities to some degree; and 3) the ones
totally separated from physical communities.
3. Computer-Mediated Communication in Japan (Pasokon-Tsushin)
Most of the computer networks in early days started in the United States. In Japan which seems to be such a technologically advanced society, the computer-mediated communication has not been as prevalent as that in the U.S. According to Hiroshi Inose, director general of the National Center for Science Information Systems, Japan’s computer networks are estimated to be lag behind those of the U.S. by about 10 years (Hamilton, 1993). There are several reasons for the unpopularity of computer-mediated communication in Japan.
First of all, in business Japanese people still tend to rely on face-to-face communication instead of doing business through some mediated communications, mainly because of the high context culture of Japan where people tend to read between lines a lot w ith the help of social cues such as facial expressions, tone of voice, the posture, etc. In addition, as most business people in Japan do not have individual offices and have no need to use e-mail to contact others in the office, LAN has not been widely implemented. It has begun to be used only recently with the “downsizing” trend.
Secondly, unlike most parts of the U.S. where local telephone charge is a flat rate regardless of the number of calls and the total communication time, Japan’s local telephone service is charged per minute. It has discouraged people to have modems at hom e.
Thirdly, there have been a negative stereotypical image about people indulging in computer communications who are pejoratively called “Otaku-zoku” meaning unsociable home-bound people.
Lastly, the majority of average Japanese have never learned to use a keyboard; in addition, unlike typing English, typing Japanese requires additional key strokes for inputting by Roma-ji which is a way of transcribing Japanese phonetically into the Lati n alphabet, selecting appropriate Kanji, and shifting the mode of characters between Hiragana and Katakana. This may be the main reason why facsimile is more common than e-mails in business communication.
In Japan, there are two distinct realms of computer-mediated communication, each of which seems to have little interest in or awareness of the other. In the following, one realm called “pasokon tsuushin” is discribed followed by the other, “Internet”, re alm.
“Pasokon tsuushin” refers to public access BBSs and commercial online services to which personal computers at home or in offices are connected. Recently, such computer networks are gaining popularity among people who are not so-called “techie” and commer cial online services such as NIFTY-Serve of Fujitsu and PC-VAN of NEC (the two biggest commercial computer networks in Japan which have about 540,000 members and 578,000 members respectively in August, 1993) are showing a tremendous growth in their memers hip. NIFTY-Serve is affiliated with CompuServe in U.S. and members of NIFTY-Serve can have access to CompuServe without any additional fees. In a similar vain PC-VAN has an affiliation with GEIS (General Electric Information Services) and members of PC- VAN can have access to GEnie.
The number of total users of computer networks in Japan is estimated to be around 1,5 to 2 millions including some overlaps in membership (Nikkei Communications, 1993). Most of the commercial computer networks had not been interconnected, but recently ma jor ones began to be interconnected through their electronic services. Now both NIFTY-Serve and PC-VAN are connected to the Internet though connection is limited to the exchange of electronic mail messages.
According to a survey of 969 users of commercial computer networks (Kawakami, et al. 1993), the largest number of people answered that the motive of using the computer network was to obtain the information they want. However, it is noticeable that a larg e number of people also listed interpersonal communication (e.g., to exchange e-mails with friends, to have discussion with those who have same interests, to find a new friend, to express his/her own opinions and ideas, to communicate anonymously, etc.) a s the motive to use computer networks.
Recently, people in business also started to utilize such commercial computer networks for the communication with their customers such as user supports and product supports.
3.1. Communication Styles in Computer Conferencing
Among many services offered in computer networks, computer conferencing such as SIG (special interest group) and Forum is the most popular and thus the most profitable service for commercial network service providers (more than 60% of the total access tim e is dedicated to such conferencing). At present the PC-VAN has about 150 such SIGs and the NIFTY-Serve has approximately 290 Forums. A Forum or a SIG is further divided into several conferences of specific topics under a general theme of a particular F orum or SIG. Most participants of the Forums or SIGs use handle names so that anonymity is maintained for those who don’t want to disclose their personal identities. Moreover, in the NIFTY-Serve there is a function called “Home Party” where members crea te their own passwords for a particular party and set up a small informal meeting place. The number of members in a Home Party ranges from a few to over 100 during the last few years.
Those SIGs and Forums are managed by so-called SYSOP (system operator) or SIGOP (special interest group operator), who usually are computer network enthusiasts and volunteer to spare their time in running the confernces. Some SIGOPs are admitted to becom e one after applying for establishing a SIG; Some are entrusted by a network operation center; and others were asked by the previous ones. Those SIGOPs sometimes appoint sub-operators and board leaders as occasion demands. Usually there is no tangible reward for being a SIGOP/SYSOP. The degree of influence a SIGOP/SYSOP has on the nature of discussion in the SIG varies.
Because commercial networks are trying to avoid cancellation of membership by users as much as possible and most SIGS and Forums are moderated by SYSOPs or SIGOPs, discussions in these SIGS and Forums maintain relatively high quality and “flaming” message s are usually elimitated.
In those Japanese online communities, people who read messages in computer conferencing but do not usually reply are called ROM (read only members) (In U.S. those are called “lurkers”.) and those who actively participate in the conferences are called RAM (random access members or radical active
members). One study showed that 83% of the people who subscribed to a conference had never “spoken” and, among those who had spoken at least once, the two-third of them had spoken less than three times (Kawakami, 1993). It is common in computer conferencing that a few people speak a
lot while a majority of people only “listen.”
Kawakami (1993) listed six reasons why ROM outnumbered RAM a great deal:
1. reluctance to speak to people whom they don’t know; 2. resistance to participate in the group which has been already formed and developed without them; 3. lack of expertise to participate and fear of being evaluated by others; 4. difficulty of deciding to what extent they should disclose themselves to others; 5. worry of not knowing how clearly they make themselves understood; and 6. fear of getting criticism from others.
It should be noted that a ROM in one conference may be a RAM in another
conference and a RAM in one conference may be a ROM in another conference;
ROM and RAM are not the labels attached to individuals but the roles in
one particular conference.
3.2. Emoticon (Emotional Icon)
Because computer-mediated communication is basically texual communication which lacks in social and nonverbal cues seen in face-to-face conversations, unintended confrontation often occurs as the result of misunderstanding. One way to lessen this problem is the use of “emoticons” or “smileys” to complement the lack of social cues in CMC. Interestingly, smileys (or emoticons) used in Japanese
computer networks are a little different from those used in American or European networks, reflecting its unique culture.
typical smileys used in typical emoticons used in
U.S./European networks Japanese networks
regular smile (^_^) regular smile
sad (^o^;>) Excuse me!
wink (^ ^;) cold sweat
) very happy (^o^) happy
Wow! (*^o^*) exciting
Grim (_o_) I’m sorry
| anger (^ . ^) girl’s smile
smile with glasses (*^_^*;)sorry
:^) happy face (;_;) weeping
:^( unhappy (^_^;; awkward
As you see, smileys used in U.S./European networks have to be looked at sideways while emoticons used in Japanese networks are not. According to a study of the major nationwide noncommercial computer network in Japan, JUNET, by Nojima (1993), smileys are used to show (a) an affection or (b) that it’s meant as a joke. The use of smileys to indicate a joke is also common in American/European networks, but its use to show an affection without any specific indication is unique to Japanese networks. In add ition, Nojima also pointed out that sometimes smileys are used to apologize some possible offense.
In high context cultures such as Japanese which rely heavily on contextual cues to communicate, people tend to pay special attentions to the politeness, appropriateness, the non-offensiveness, etc. even in textual computer-mediated communications. It is debatable that the use of smileys and emoticons is the best way to compensate for the lack of contexual cues; however, it is true that such smileys and emoticons are the cultural products of virtual communities.
In addition to the emoticons, a variety of colloquialism such as dialects and infant languages, or vocalization of non-verbal behaviors are being employed to convey some contextual information which is difficult to be transmitted via text only.
3.3. On-Line and Off-Line Meetings
People who get to know one another through computer networks often gather physically as well. This is called off-line meetings (or Ohumi). Usually such off-line meetings are held within a specific SIG or Forum where the dates and places are posted and m embers reply to them indicating if they’re going to attend or not. Kuroiwa (1993) points out that most of the members who attend such off-line meetings are those who are active in having chat (real-time electronic conversation) in each SIG or Forum; not necessarily active in participating in the discussion of the SIG or Forum itself. He hypothesizes that it is because off-line meetings are considered to be the extension of online chat.
Both on-line chat and off-line meetings are the communication by those who share the same virtual or physical space at a particular moment. It is different from a regular on-line discussion which is asynchronous and where spontenaity is minimal. From a business perspective, off-line meetings are considred to highten the members’ sense of belongingness to the specific SIG or Forum which holds a meeting and strongthen the cohesiveness among its members. It usually results in the overall increase of part icipation in the SIG or Forum.
However, not all kinds of Forums or SIGs are holding such off-line meetings. Those Forums or SIGs whose main purpose is to exchange information such as computer-related ones usually don’t hold any off-line meetings. On the other hand, the Forums or SIGs relating to lighter subjects such as hobby, living, music, sports, etc. tend to hold off-line meetings.
Many people who attended those off-line meetings mentioned that they did not feel like meeting another member for the first time. This tendency seems to be stronger in this kinds of off-line meetings (face-to-face meetings after participating Forums or S IGs online) than in the meetings
held after some initial telephone conversations. Kuroiwa (1993) explains that it is because in CMC people discuss topics more in depth and rather informally. Sometimes a phenomenon called “network-high” (which has been discussed in the news group, fj.soc.media, ) occurs when a newcomer to a computer conference such as a Forum or SIG becomes addicted to the conference.
4. Internet in Japan
Internet is the massive world-wide network of computers, comprising of thousands of smaller regional networks and connecting over 4 million users scattered throughout the globe . Although Internet is somewhat new in Japan, currently there are 21,252 Inte rnet hosts in Japan (Quarterman & Carl-Mitchell, 1993). Apart from the commercial networks such as the NIFTY-Serve and the PC-VAN, such Internet hosts in Japan provide academic communities with network infrastracture to facilitate collaboration and infor mation exchange among researchers and scholars. Unlike the Internet in U.S. which is gaining tremendous popularity even among those who are not within the academic communities, Internet in Japan is still somewhat limited to researchers in universities, people in research laboratories of consumer electronic or computer manufacturers, and students in computer scinece.
The advancement of Internet in Japan has been somewhat slow compared with that in the United States due to several reasons listed below.
1. Centralized computing has been dominant in Japan, used by banks, security houses and railway systems, etc., and even ministries like the Ministry of Education and the Agriculture Ministry have their own networks that are not linked to each other. 2. LAN has not been widely implemented in offices. Even those companies who have implemented LANs don’t have much interest in interconnecting with others. 3. Computer manufacturers in Japan such as IBM, Fujitsu, Hitachi, NEC, and DEC have been using proprietary network protocols, which has made internetworking difficult. 4. The TCP/IP protocol has not been recognized as a standard protocol. 5. Routers have not been readily available with support and training in the Japanese language since most routers have been developed in U.S. and their design requires detailed knowledge of a variety of protocols. 6. Postal regulation and high cost of leased lines have not encouraged personal communication on networks. NTT has been making a big effort to make ISDN a nation-wide service while keeping leased lines relatively expensive. As a result, the ISDN service is available in most cities in Japan but the cost to use leased lines has been kept high. 7. With a population largely concentrated in a few urban centers in the same time zone, not much demand for delayed network communication. 8. There have been several incompatible methods of encoding Japanese texts (a 10,000 plus character system) into computers. (This is detailed in the following section.)
4.1. Japanese Encoding Methods
As mentioned above, one of the reasons why the advancement of Internet in Japan has been somewhat slow compared with that in the United States is because of the difficulty of handling Japanese text in computer networking. Since there are different encodi ng methods (JIS, Shift-JIS, and EUC) to input Japanese as well as different character sets, it is not as simple as using the ASCII character set to exchange Japanese texts between different machines.
JIS (Japanese Industrial Standards) encoding is being used for external
information interchange (i.e., moving information between computer
systems) such as e-mail since JIS encoding is not very efficient for
internal storage or processing on computer syst ems. JIS encoding makes
use of seven-bit for representing two-byte characters and escape sequences
to switch between one-byte seven-bit ASCII and two-byte seven-bit Kanji
character modes. All the Japanese texts which are composed with encoding
methods ot her than JIS have to be converted to JIS encoding before being
sent out as e-mail (Lunde, 1993).
Another encoding method, Shift-JIS encoding, was originally developed by ASCII Corporation in collaboration with Microsoft and is widely used as the internal code for Japanese PCs and KanjiTalk (the Japanese operating system for Apple Machintosh) as well as the millions of inexpensive portable Japanese language waapuro (word processors) that have flooded the market. It is a combination of a one-byte eight-bit code and a two-byte eight-bit kanji code, and uses no escape sequences. The conversion between Shift-JIS and JIS requires a complex algorithm (Lunde, 1993).
The third encoding method, EUC (Extended UNIX Code) was developed by AT&T UNIX Pacific and is implemented as the internal code for most UNIX workstations configured to support Japanese. EUC is a two-byte eight-bit code and supports not only Japanese but multiple character sets within a single text stream. Although EUC does not make use of escape sequences as JIS does, EUC encoding is closely related to JIS encoding and conversion between EUC and JIS is easier (Lunde, 1993).
The first attempt to build a nation-wide academic network, the N1 project, was started in 1974. With the support from the Ministry of Education, three universities (Tokyo, Kyoto, and Tohoku), a common carrier (NTT), and three computer manufacturers (Hita chi, Fujitsu and NEC) participated in the project. The N1 protocol developed in the project was modeled after the ARPANET protocol. This network was the very first WAN which employed the commercial packet-switching service called DDX -P, the domestic Ja panese X.25 network started by NTT in 1980 (Ishida, 1992).
At that time, encoding Japanese texts was still difficult and the
significance of electronic mails and news exchange facilities had not been
fully realized yet. Unlike the American counterpart, the N1net was a
resource-sharing network but not an interper sonal communication network.
On the other hand, the specification of the N1 protocol has been made
public and the N1 protocol became the only network protocol in widespread
use for linking heterogeneous computers (Ishida, 1992).
JUNET (Japanese Unix NETwork) is the first nationwide noncommercial computer network designed for e-mail/e-news exchange. It was started experimentally in October 1984 by connecting two public universities (Tokyo Institute of Technology, and Tokyo Univer sity) and one private university (Keio University) through public telephone lines (at 9600bps) with UUCP (Unix to Unix Copy) protocol. JUNET utilizes UUCP connections instead of full IP connections and its services are basically limited to news and elec tronic mail. When JUNET began, international communications had to be in English or romanized Japanese, but later Kanji support in a windowed user interface to the messaging systems was included. Since then the amount of public traffic as well as JUNET membership has increased dramatically (Shapard, 1993). Subsequently the network has expanded throug