Japan's Bloggers: Humble Giants of the Web

By Blaine Harden
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, December 6, 2007

TOKYO -- Compared to the English-speaking world, the Japanese have gone blog wild. They write Web logs at per capita rates that are off the global charts.

Although English speakers outnumber Japanese speakers by more than 5-1, slightly more blog postings are written in Japanese than in English, according to Technorati, the Internet search engine that monitors the blogosphere.

By some estimates, as much as 40 percent of Japanese blogging is done on mobile phones, often by commuters staring cross-eyed at tiny screens for hours as they ride the world's most extensive network of subways and commuter trains.

Blogging in Japan, though, is a far tamer beast than in the United States and the rest of the English-speaking world. Japan's conformist culture has embraced a technology that Americans often use for abrasive self-promotion and refashioned it as a soothingly nonconfrontational medium for getting along.

Bloggers here shy away from politics and barbed language. They rarely trumpet their expertise. While Americans blog to stand out, the Japanese do it to fit in, blogging about small stuff: cats and flowers, bicycles and breakfast, gadgets and TV stars. Compared with Americans, they write at less length, they write anonymously, and they write a whole lot more often.

"Behavior is more important than technology," said Joichi Ito, a board member at Technorati and an expert on how people around the world use the Internet. "In Japan, it is not socially acceptable to pursue fame."

Technorati found that of all recorded blog postings in the fourth quarter of last year, 37 percent were written in Japanese, 36 percent in English and 8 percent in Chinese.

This was not an aberration. In the past three years, Japanese has been running ahead of or about even with English as the dominant language of blogging, according to Technorati. About 130 million people understand Japanese, while about 1.1 billion understand English.

Those numbers startle no one more than the Japanese. For even as they use personal computers, Web-enabled mobile telephones and a ubiquitous high-speed Internet network to blog anytime and anywhere, they keep awfully quiet about it.

Consider, for example, the remarkably harmonious blog that Junko Kenetsuna has been writing five times a week for the past three years about her midday meal.

With understated precision, she calls her blog "I had my lunch."

In a recent dispatch from a Vietnamese restaurant in Tokyo, Kenetsuna wrote: "The soup has a distinctive chicken flavor and the bitterness of pear, which gives you much sensation in your mouth."

In all the blog entries she has composed at home and in cybercafes over the years, Kenetsuna has never written a discouraging word -- not a single critical reference to bad food, lousy service or rip-off prices, she said. Such harshness, in her view, would be improper and offensive.

"If I think the food stinks, I don't write it," said Kenetsuna, 43, who makes a living writing advertising copy for a weekly newspaper for female office workers in Tokyo. "There is a part of me that feels sorry for the restaurant, if it were to lose business because of what I write," she said. "I don't want to influence the diners."

About 300 people occasionally read her blog, most of them friends. She gets almost no online comments or feedback from any of them, although she had hoped she might.

Still, Kenetsuna does not want to overexcite her readers or provoke comments that would hurt her feelings. "Because my blog may be read by people I don't know, I am cautious about revealing my inner thoughts," she said. "I don't want to be criticized for what I write."

To keep her profile low, Kenetsuna blogs anonymously.

None of this surprises Robert Pickard, North Asia president of the Edelman public relations firm, which has collaborated with Technorati to survey Japanese blogging behavior and compare it with that of English speakers. "There is no question that in this culture the nail that sticks out gets hammered in," Pickard said.

His company's surveys have found that speakers of English and Japanese have markedly different motivations for blogging.

About 40 percent of English-language bloggers said their primary goal was "to raise visibility as an authority in my field." Only 5 percent of Japanese bloggers said that was their primary motivation. Instead, they said they blog to create a record of their thoughts and of information they have collected.

The Japanese are about five times as likely as Americans, the British or the French to read a blog every week, but far less likely to act on what they read, according to Edelman's surveys.

"Private opinions are there, but public activism is not," said Pickard. "The Japanese read blogs more often, but do less about it."

To understand what the Japanese are up to when they blog, it is useful to understand why they bother -- and how technology in Japan makes it so easy to blog at home, on the train or walking down the street.

Before blogging became popular here in 2002 and '03, the Japanese had used personal computers to keep electronic diaries.

Before computers, there was a strong tradition -- enforced by summer homework assignments during elementary school -- of keeping pen-and-paper diaries.

The diary habit runs so deep in Japan that it transformed the craft of blogging from an American-style lecture to a Japanese-style personal narrative, according to Ito, the Technorati board member. In the process, he said, blogging exploded as a mega-fad for Japan's huge middle class, a kind of karaoke for shy people.

This is an affluent country where most families can afford home computers, super-cool mobile phones and fast Internet connections. But Japan is also rather uniform in its wealth, Ito said, noting that "few people have so much money that they have better things to do than blog."

Another important reason for the high volume of blogging in Japan is the triple convergence of sophisticated mobile phones, ubiquitous high-speed wireless networks and long rides on commuter trains.

Cyberspace and real space are merging in Japan, Ito said. Young people blogging on cellphones are often "co-present" with five to 10 of their peers, as they move through cities like electronically tethered schools of fish.

Ito predicts that in the United States, as mobile phones and wireless networks improve, blogging will, in effect, become more Japanese.

That means constant connection to one's blogging device while writing shorter but more frequent blog postings. It also means less chest thumping about wicked politicians, less trumpeting of one's expertise and more chatty postings about cats, kids and lunch.

Katsuhiro Kimura, a systems engineer in Tokyo, has been blogging in this laid-back style for two years. He writes an anonymous diary about his 5-year-old son, Shota. Photos posted on the blog never show the boy's face.

In a recent entry, Kimura wrote about how Shota had looked forward for 70 days to attending a Pokemon movie. When the big day arrived, Shota wore Pokemon socks to the movie theater and ate popcorn from a Pokemon bucket. The blog says Shota "walked out of the theater as if he were jumping."

When an American newspaper reporter e-mailed the anonymous author of "Shota's Papa" and asked for an interview, Kimura was, as he later said, "utterly shocked. I hadn't told anyone else that I blog."

Special correspondent Akiko Yamamoto contributed to this report.

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