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Japan's Former Computer Lag

At Book Off last week, I picked up an English translation of Tsutsumi Seiji’s Japan’s Consumer Society: A Critical Introduction 『消費社会批判』. Tsutsumi is, for those who do not know his legend, the man behind the Saison retailing group and its sophisticated retail chains Seibu Department Store, PARCO, Loft, Mujirushi Ryohin (MUJI), Wave, and Seed. He is also a former Marxist and award-winning poet/novelist who used his industrial power to support avant-garde artists such as Terayama Shuji.

The title of Tsutsumi’s book is a bit misleading: The volume is mostly abstract and theoretical, quoting Barthes, Bourdieu, and Baudrillard rather than talking about the specifics of Japanese consumer society. Written in 1996 — just as the Bubble had popped and the consumer market was about to peak — Tsutsumi offered many critiques to the Japanese industrial system. He, however, sounded most worried about Japan’s lag in the information technologies. When framed within the context of mobile phones and video games, this may have seemed like a silly concern. The following facts about the state of computer usage within Japan, however, grabbed my attention:

[A] 1993 study…of the diffusion rates for personal computers in the office showed Japan at 9.9% and the United States at 41.7%. Looking at Internet-connected systems as of January 1995, Japan had only 96,632 compared to the United States’ 3,179,170, and the gap is widening year by year. (174)

This data reveals a very significant difference in the centrality of the personal computer and Internet within the two perspective societies — even when held for population.

Of course, Japan eventually “caught up” and now boasts an impressive Internet diffusion rate. Thanks to highly-evolved mobile phones, even non-PC users can connect to the Internet (or its i-mode simulacra). Yet when you look at the “cultural development” of the Net, Japan still feels stunted. The most obvious example is that a very niche site like 2ch still works as the central hub for Net cultural creation and sets the overall tone, despite the core users’ non-mainstream values such as obsession with little girls and bitter neo-right-wing tendencies.

These computer diffusion numbers from 1995 help explain what is happening: Internet culture does not just rely upon the current state of usage but a compounded set of familiarities and expectations about the medium forged over a broad historical period. If less than 10% of the working Japanese population used computers in the 1990s and very few families had computers at home, that means that most Japanese people are not likely to be comfortable with computers nor communicating through them. Even those who have embraced computers in the last decade do not have a lifetime of knowledge about them from which to pull.

Personally speaking, my father’s work on math and statistics meant we always had a PC at home — from a TRS-80 to a Mac Classic II. Part of my joy of using computers and belief in the power of the Internet comes from my good fortune of being exposed to both PCs and the Net at an early age. And I do not think my case was that rare.

Conversely you cannot expect a population without these experiences to somehow make a full psychological embrace of the medium. This is especially true for older Japanese who likely never used computers at work nor saw their peers and neighbors use them with any kind of regularity. And based on the relative recentness of PC diffusion, we should expect that the top decision-makers in Japanese companies — who have always traditionally been in their 50s and 60s — do not have a deep-seated familiarity with the computer.

In this sense, I would argue that while Japan has caught up in terms of infrastructure, the idea of using computers as a social and communicative tool is still very young within a great majority of the population.