Why Isn't Facebook Big In Japan?

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It's said to get glimpse of the technological near-future, one need look no further than Japan. Talking toilets, sleeping pods, 180 mile-an-hour trains, hybrid vehicles, video games with Italian plumbers--what futuristic innovation hasn't come out of this densely populated island a few thousand miles across the Pacific? Curiously however, the country that gave the world brands like Sony, Canon and Yamaha has been strangely absent on the social media front, with less than 2 million users on Facebook, a scant 2 percent of the entire country (compare that to the United States' 60 percent). The ten foot tall singing robot in the room has to be: where is Japan's participation in the world of new media?

What's happening in Japan? The Japan Times reports that Japanese manufacturing has been losing out on its market share to countries like South Korea and China. "Experts say Japan Inc.'s business model isn't working any more at a time when the rapidly evolving digital technology market requires more emphasis on software, quicker decision-making, and cheap assembly of module parts sourced from around the world," writes Kazuaki Nagata. Japan's per capital GDP ranking has dropped from safely in the top five in 2000 to higher than fifteen in the last few years, the paper reports.

How can Japan's absence on the social media scene be explained? Dolores M. Bernal on News Junkie Post gives two main reasons. One is English: "The Japanese have...fallen behind countries like China and South Korea in learning English. Even though the Japanese begin to learn English in junior high school, the education system in the country has failed to adopt techniques that could make learning English practical," she reports. The second explanation is an issue of culture: Instead of Facebook, she writes, "Japanese young people have instead opted to using a social media site called Mixi, which allows them to be more anonymous. Mixi doesn't ask for users' real names, a feature that seems most attractive to a culture of people not used to freely expressing their opinions in most settings--at schools, home, or at their workplaces."

The New York Times comments on Japan's purported preference for sites that encourage anonymity and privacy as well, noting that there the one thing popular sites like Mixi, Gree and Mobage-town (each with participation numbers of around 20 million) have in common--the emphasis on pseudonyms and anonymity. That "is crucial to Japan’s fiercely private Internet users. The Japanese sites let members mask their identities, in distinct contrast to the real-name, oversharing hypothetical user on which Facebook’s business model is based. Japanese Web users, even popular bloggers, typically hide behind pseudonyms or nicknames," reports Hiroko Tabuchi at the Times.

Will Japan's increasingly aging population and more private culture prevent it from being a leader again in the technological world? Or will it regain its status as a premier foundation for innovation? Old-fashioned debate is the only tool to figure this one out, folks.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.