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Internet's Influence on Social Interactions in Japan (cont.)

Bill Gordon

July 2000

Japanese Web sites directed to the interests and needs of women (for example, ("" in English) and have experienced rapid growth, with the "community building" aspect of the Internet being especially strong among Japanese women. describes itself as "a resource and safe community for Japanese women where they can comfortably share experiences, explore the Internet, and engage in e-commerce," by "providing community" with "user-friendly forums and message boards" ( 2000). According to one survey, more than half of the women respondents said they use e-mail or chat to "meet" friends either often or occasionally, but the percentage for men was much less (Howe 1999).

Although the Internet has many valuable benefits in increasing communications, there can be negative effects on interpersonal interactions when people prefer spending their time using the new technology rather than having face-to-face interactions with other individuals. Psychiatrist Edward Hallowell (1999, 59, 61) argues that many people suffer from a lack of "human moments" because of the new Internet technology. He points out that a "human moment" has two prerequisites: individuals' physical presence and their emotional and intellectual attention. Hallowell considers that people need this type of human contact to survive and to maintain their mental activity and their emotional well-being. Although surfing the Net, sending e-mails, and taking part in online chats with persons who have similar interests can be quite enjoyable, the time spent in such activity can reduce the frequency of face-to-face interactions with others. Moreover, telenetworking from home in Japan offers opportunities to eliminate long commutes, but this type of work reduces time spent with others.

Further research and time will show the extent of the negative effects of the new Internet technology on Japanese social interactions, but Hallowell's journal article has sound reasoning and provides numerous professional experiences to support his conclusions. However, some survey results do not seem to support Hallowell's concerns of reduced "human moments" in the Internet age. For example, 84 percent of the respondents to one survey of Japanese Internet users indicated the amount of time spent talking face-to-face with other family members had not changed (Ministry of Posts and Telecommunications 2000, 24). Rather than reduced personal interactions, the time spent on the Internet resulted in reduced time for other activities such as sleeping (50 percent of survey respondents), watching television (49 percent), and reading magazines (40 percent).

3. Language Issues

The Internet significantly affects both how Japanese-speaking persons communicate between themselves and how Japanese speakers communicate with non-Japanese speakers. Moreover, the Japanese written language presents unique challenges for network communications, especially outside of Japan.

The English language dominates the Internet, so Japanese people must usually communicate in English when they communicate outside of the country. The Internet Society estimated in 1996 that 82 percent of home pages in the world are in English, with German at 4 percent and Japanese at 2 percent (Economist 1997, 15). The Japanese government and most large Japanese organizations and companies provide Web sites in both Japanese and English so that non-Japanese speakers can read information. Japanese people using the Internet to communicate inside Japan use their own language, but the prevalence of English on the Internet forces Japanese, both young and old, to learn the English language if they want to effectively communicate outside the country and to obtain information from foreign Web sites. NEC Corporation explains that recent "requirements that new employees and old managers seeking promotions take a test proving a specified degree of English language skills are largely a result of the Internet" (Strom 2000, 6).

The Japanese written language, which uses several thousand Chinese characters called kanji, has character codes not compatible with non-Japanese PCs. The script used for Latin-based languages requires only one byte (i.e., eight bits with values of either 0 or 1), whereas Japanese requires two bytes to represent all of the kanji. These different character encodings result in non-Japanese PCs not being able to show Japanese characters without the use of special software. Even with this special software, very few people outside of Japan can read the Japanese language except for Japanese who have permanently or temporarily moved overseas. Some attempts have been made to create machine translation software so foreigners can read Japanese directly in English or another language, but none of these attempts have come close to effective translations that can be used on a regular basis by non-Japanese speakers.

Communication within Japan by the Internet creates some new issues in social interactions. For example, the Japanese language has several levels of politeness depending on the speaker's status relative to the listener's status. Without meeting a person face-to-face, it becomes difficult to determine the other person's status in order to know what politeness level to use in a chat room or in an e-mail message. Voiskounsky (1998) mentions that some people try to provide company or institution information as part of their e-mail messages, thereby communicating the sender's status to the receiver. As another example, U.S. and European networks have developed an extensive set of emoticons ("smileys") to express emotions by using certain symbols from the keyboard, but the Japanese development of their own set of emoticons reflects their own unique culture (Takahashi 1996). Interestingly, emoticons used in U.S. and European networks must be viewed sideways, whereas Japanese emoticons do not.

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