How Would You Describe Digital Culture in Japan Today?

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If the question was addressing the state of digital culture in the western world, I would regretfully concede that it is in a downward spiral.

An amalgamation of corporate greed, politics, special interests, and a severe lack of empathy has led the digital space in the west to grotesquely morph into a money pit that thrives off of drama, controversy, and suffering. There is a reason, after all, that bad news trends more effectively than good news.

It’s a tough pill to swallow, but the truth is often inconvenient. Fortunately, much like a pendulum in motion, it must inevitably return full swing. I believe, with absolute certainty, that the Internet is on its way to a more ethically-conscious revolution. Regrettably, it will get worse, before it gets better.

In Japan, however, the digital space still remains intact. Saved by the grace of their unique cultural and societal traits, Japan’s potential to prioritize ethically-conscious behaviors – both at the corporate and consumer levels – is unmatched in the digital sphere.

Less than two decades ago, the majority of the world received their current events and political commentary from the evening news on television, or the editorials in their local newspaper. Now, however, we are bombarded by endless swathes of content creators, celebrities, and political pundits that not only influence our digital, consumer, political, and financial behaviors, but our very way of life.

This is not all that surprising, really, considering how instant and accessible data is to the new generation of (digital) consumers. With a simple tap or swipe of a screen, today’s youth has the world at its fingertips. Never before has society been able to harness information so effectively (and ineffectively). Practically any and all questions can be answered with a Google Search, and if a solution cannot be ascertained, an expert with the knowledge to do so is merely a message or phone call away.

While this is most definitely a boon to societal progress, like social and civil movements, it often leaves young people open to sinister forms of manipulation in the private and public sectors. Unethical brands and corrupt government love chaos and discord because it drives clicks, conversions, and policy changes that pad the pockets of special interest groups.

In Japan, specifically, young people are finally embracing the bizarre nature of social media, with platforms like TikTok usurping Twitter as the country’s most active and engaged SNS platform. Big brands are slowly phasing out of traditional media and investing more in their digital brand presence. Even so, Japan may be one of the only developed countries where print, television, and radio still reign supreme.

Half a century after Toyota’s revolutionary push for quality management post World War II, Japan thrived off of its obsessive focus on product features and service propositions. Its people wanted high-quality, durable, efficient products and services. They didn’t care how it made them feel, whether or not it was inclusive, how it was sourced, or its effects on humanity and the environment. They simply wanted “the best” their money could buy.

Today, Japanese brands and businesses are slowly realizing that, due to their prolonged exposure to the media influence of the West, its youth are driving purchasing behavior that reflects thriftiness, sustainability, and honoring individual identity.  With the largest chunk of its workforce being over the age of 45, this diametrical opposition is met with bewilderment by many corporate senior management and executives. Much to their chagrin, older generations in Japan can’t keep up with Gen Z’s demands and are finding it challenging to connect and relate to the demographic controlling the modern market.

In the West, emotional triggers (like race, religion, sex, gender, etc) are at the forefront of the most effective brand marketing campaigns. Conversely, Japanese youth do not find themselves at the mercy of the same emotional triggers because of their more conservative nature. Though they’re still very much interested in diversity and the environment, their methods of pursuit are not as dramatic or extreme. To put it plainly, Japan is essentially the “PG-13 version” of what America’s digital battleground looks like today. This is culturally induced, of course, being that Japan is a pacificist nation that has stayed out of practically all international conflict after the end of WW2 in 1945. If America is considered the land of individualism, then Japan is its polar opposite – the land of collectivism.

I am hopeful for Japan’s future digital culture because it hasn’t yet become as far gone as ours in the West. In the words of Spiderman’s mentor and father figure, Uncle Ben, “With great power, comes great responsibility.” If big brands in Japan aim to stay conscious and ethical, then they’d be wise to make certain they’re not using, abusing, or exploiting their young consumers.

How is social media viewed/used by Japanese consumers? Is social media having a positive/negative impact on society, and is social media still ‘social’?

Rather than making broad generalizations like,“Social media is good or bad,” or,“The world is getting better or worse,” I’d argue there is balance. Though not transparent at first glance, there are benefits and drawbacks to social media usage by Japanese consumers.

For Japan, social networks have served as a tremendous vehicle for sharing its culture with the rest of the world. Young people in the West have been positively affected by Japanese technology, pop culture, anime, manga, gaming, and the like. Strangely, however, it was never really Japan’s intention to influence the West as much as they have. We can chalk that up to America’s ultra-consumeristic behavior and its obsession with culture due to a lack of its own. Japan exists within a microcosmic bubble, and its domestic digital presence is, today, sorely lacking, all things considered.

Japanese consumers, and surprisingly, the vast majority of Japanese brand marketers, are oblivious to social media’s effects on their own consumer behavior. This is partly due to how late to the game Japan is to the digital scene, and how little data they have to work with when implementing their marketing strategy. In fact, Japan is actually playing catch up in the social media space and is only just now beginning to really harness the power of social media marketing.

Before I moved to Tokyo, I visited it in 2015, at the height of Instagram’s peaking popularity. When asked for their handle or username, most of my Japanese friends had no idea what app I was even referring to. In 2016, when Snapchat was in the spotlight, I frequently found my friends asking me what app I was recording with. In my experience, even if a social media giant opens an office (like ByteDance did with TikTok in 2017), Japan has always been a solid five to six years behind the curve in user acquisition. Even though a Western app is always available to Japan within a year or two of its debut, Japanese marketers seem to have a difficult time with localization. It’s almost as if Japan is resting comfortably somewhere in the golden years of Web 2.0 (2013-2018), with very little foresight to evolve beyond it.

Tokyo is the largest and most populous city on the planet, with over 38,000,000 people residing within the Greater Tokyo Area. If one were to walk around Shibuya Station on a Friday or Saturday evening, it would be easy to form the opinion that the Japanese are extroverted and social people. And with all of Japan’s technological marvels, one would think they’d be at the forefront of digital culture. It comes as a surprise to many then, when they learn that Japan is rather reserved, introverted, and in most cases, anti-social.

This is not necessarily a bad thing and is one of the many reasons why the country lives in relative peace and harmony. Despite its status as an absolutely gargantuan,technologically advanced metropolis, it boasts the lowest crime rate per capita in the world, making it the safest developed country on the planet. This physical law and order also manifests itself in its digital space as well.

Japanese social media content is rarely divisive, although it doesn’t exactly promote unity either. Unlike America, Japan’s social and civil movements do not control the direction of the brand market. Influencers do exist, but their take on content creation capitalizes less on sensationalism, politics, drama, hype, and mind-numbing entertainment, and more on innocent, genre-based content, like food, lifestyle, beauty, and pop culture. Japanese have a great disdain for confrontation, so they intentionally avoid controversy,because it makes them uncomfortable.

While Japan’s social media is relatively pure juxtaposed to that of America’s, there is most definitely a dark underbelly counterbalance. Bullying – or in the digital world, cyberbullying – runs rampant in Japanese Gen Z’s domain.

How much promise does Web3 hold when it comes to providing ethical, digital spaces and empowering digital communities?

As a marketer that often works for and alongside Web 2.0 beneficiaries, I’ve been observing their reactions to Web 3.0 and what it entails for centralized platforms and organizations. The general consensus amongst big corporations seems to be that Web 3.0 is a load of poppycock and that its weaknesses far outweigh its strengths.

However, I can’t call myself a professional marketer without questioning the candor of corporate interest and the veracity of the data they make available to the public. It goes without saying that Web 3.0 poses a fatal threat to the current supreme leaders of the digital space. Web 2.0 conglomerates like Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter monopolize virtually all of the read/write space. It makes perfect sense that a decentralized network of stark transparency is the penultimate defense against being exploited by global elitists with nefarious intentions.

Many digital consumers are now privy to the fact that the users are the product – not the other way around – and are not a fan of the fact that their personal data is being abused for the benefit of the one percent. I, like the vast majority, have a distaste for being taken advantage of and would love to see Web 3.0 bear fruit.

The most pressing issue for most people is privacy. The blockchain would eliminate this concern via encrypted wallets to safeguard our identities. Seamless, multi-server-monitored transactions for all to witness, seems like a great concept, in theory. Personally, I believe the main boon the blockchain gifts us is censorship immunity. We live in a digital world where more power and influence means more control over the conversation. The ability to wipe someone’s existence clear off the face of the digital landscape

A decentralized database stores everything immutably and transparently, preventing moderators from swooping in to delete offending content. Centralization? You get a real vote on decisions made by the networks you spend time on. More than that, you get a stake that’s worth something — you’re not a product, you’re an owner. This is the vision of the read, write, and own web.

I am not without concerns, however.

Much like modern-day monopolies rule the world, I fear that, while it may have noble intentions, Web 3.0 may transform into the very monster it claims to combat against – making, “already-rich people,” even richer. When the top bitcoin holders own nearly 1/3 of the entire cache, market manipulation is a valid concern for the rest of us normies. Sure, the blockchain’s transparency holds us accountable across the board, but that doesn’t necessarily mean it becomes impervious to the movements of the majority share. The exploitation wouldn’t go away, it just becomes upfront and obvious.

I like the idea of transparency. I do not like the risk that comes with it. If the blockchain makes all wallet transactions visible to the mass populace, then that means everything is visible. Your trip to the supermarket. The date you went. The services to which you subscribe. The political parties you support, etc. In our quest for privacy, it seems we must also candidly document the entirety of our tangible existence within the blockchain.

While the blockchain would theoretically prevent our identity from being exposed, it doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s infallible to human ingenuity. Transactions can still be traced back to individuals manually. As you can imagine, the capacity for society to abuse this visibility is rather unsettling. If someone is out to get us, they could identify our wallet and make that information public. The FBI has successfully, and rather easily, been identifying crypto wallets for years. One could then argue that total transparency and maximum privacy are mutually exclusive and cannot coexist.

It’s also well-documented that Web 3.0 is far from being sustainable and environmentally sound. Growing up in Hawaii, the most isolated and expensive state in the United States, I’m especially passionate about initiatives that prevent wasteful habits and excessive energy consumption. For this reason alone, I cannot support it in its current form. Fortunately, Web 3.0 coders and developers have dramatically increased in the last few years, and I am looking forward to hearing about sustainable server solutions that do not wreak havoc on the planet. Where there’s a will, there’s a way.

That said, it does seem like digital nirvana. To think that the average digital denizen can read, write, AND own, would be a dream come true.

How important is it for digital spaces to delight, and harness their full immersive power?

I believe it is vital for digital spaces to feel warm and inviting. The user should leave feeling better than they did upon logging in. If there is one thing that brands should be investing in, it’s the digital integrity and wellness of its consumers. Unfortunately, this is not the case in the digital realms of today.

Globally, people average 6 hours 58 minutes of screen time per day. The average American spends 7 hours and 4 minutes looking at a screen each day. Almost half (49%) of 0 to 2-year-olds interact with smartphones. Gen Z averages around 9 hours of screen time per day. Corporate marketers know this information. They leverage it when calculating their next move in the brand market. Anything they can do to keep the user shackled to their screen translates to a higher conversion rate with every passing minute.

It doesn’t take a professional to look at the data and recognize the problem here. The consumer IS the product.

Most brands capitalize off of negativity and division, rather than positivity and unity. Because of its capacity to be spread and be seen, corporations are more invested in harnessing the anger and despair of their users to drive clicks and conversions. Over time, this has detrimental effects on its users, and we’re starting to see it manifest into mental illness at an alarming rate.

Japan has the highest suicide rate among the G7 nations, with a staggering 90 suicides per day. Considering it houses a population that is less than half of the United States’ total population, it is shocking to learn that America’s suicide rate is only forty-odd counts higher. This means that Japan’s suicide rate is exceedingly higher per capita. It is the leading cause of death of people ages 14-39 in Japan.

Additionally, Japan leads the world in one of the most dismal birth rates. Fewer births means less sex. Less sex means fewer relationships. Fewer relationships means less dating. Less dating means less interest in romance. Less romance means there’s a serious problem with today’s youth. Statistically, depressed and suicidal people don’t date. They’re far too deep into their own struggles to allocate any bandwidth to someone else. Young Japanese people are not pursuing relationships like their predecessors.

Japan’s societal pressure to excel in school and join the workforce with collegiate prestige is the primary contributor to its young people not pursuing romantic interests. This obsessive work culture, while admirable on its face, drives its people into a life of superficial servitude. For whatever reason, long hours of face time at the office, to the point of suffering, are perceived as devotion and loyalty to one’s employer. This is diametrically opposed to attitudes in the West, where productivity, ingenuity, and resourcefulness are coveted as invaluable traits in the workplace. Because Japanese society is set up for its youth to conform and be “a cog in the machine”, there is little they can do to break the cyclical chain of events that inevitably prevent them from balancing their personal and professional lives.

The digital world has become a refuge for modern-day escapism. It has developed an irresistible power and allure that draws us in and holds us prisoner to our consumption habits. A decade ago, innovators dreamt of the day when technology possessed the capacity for one to fully immerse themselves in the user experience. That day has arrived, and it’s honestly terrifying. If digital spaces do not start investing more in the consumer (not the product), I believe digital society is in for a reckoning.

Where do Japanese consumers stand when it comes to sharing personal data online? What kind of experiences need to be offered to encourage exchange?

I’m half-Japanese, half-Irish. My mother is a third-generation Japanese immigrant.

If there’s one thing I’ve learned from my own upbringing, it’s that the Japanese are incredibly private people. They do not discuss their lives publically, nor do they disclose personal information without severe scrutiny and distrust upon request. Even in the media, the most popular Japanese celebrities refrain from sharing anything about their lives.

When it comes to sharing their data, this is no exception. The issue at hand, however, is that many Japanese consumers are oblivious to the fact that their personal data is the price they pay for using the digital spaces they know and love. It took years for the mainstream media in the west to acknowledge that large corporations and government organizations were monitoring their people via their personal data. Since Japanese consumers are living in their own little world, it’s safe to say that what they don’t know, can’t hurt them.

When it comes to their government, Japanese people are rather docile and submissive. They take a passive approach to politics and almost never engage in political debate in an open forum, especially on social media. So when topics surrounding privacy policy and personal data come up, the default answer is that they wouldn’t have an opinion to share, even if they wanted to. They’d much rather avoid the conversation entirely.

It may sound naive, and perhaps even downright ignorant, but Japan unconditionally trusts its government. Besides the right-wing nationalist vans that drive by the Tokyo Police Department Head Office in Shinjuku blasting traditional war chants from its speakers, or the far-left progressives that protest outside of the busy stations with their signs and megaphones, there really isn’t much noise when it comes to these kinds of platform issues. If the government claims that sharing their personal data is safe and secure, Japanese consumers are inclined to believe them.

I’m sure that if Japan was more connected to the rest of the world, physically and digitally, they’d opine more on such pressing issues. Unfortunately, the ones in the know are the minority and are often met with the same distrust that foreigners often receive.

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