Izumi Aizu reached through the Net and transported me bodily to Japan. Our friendship started when an American friend of mine made a request via e-mail: Would I be interested in traveling to Japan, all expenses paid, to talk to Japanese technologists about the future of virtual communities? A Japanese friend of my American friend had organized a conference of Japanese researchers to discuss a vision of telecommunications culture they called the Hypernetwork Society. The offer sounded too good to be true, but that didn't stop me from saying I was interested.
The next day, I received a telephone call from Izumi Aizu, who assured me that it wasn't a fantasy. The day after our telephone conversation, we started planning the visit in earnest, via e-mail. The third day of this unexpected turn of events brought e-mail from Katsura Hattori. Hattori-san introduced himself as the science and technology editor of Asahi Shimbun--the second largest newspaper in Japan. He had read my previous books, and when he heard from Aizu-san that I was planning to be in Tokyo, he offered his services.
Aizu, Hattori, and I quickly discovered via e-mail that we shared some important common history, values, and interests that drew us together despite the geographic and cultural boundaries that separated us. We were all baby boomers who had participated in the political protests and cultural upheavals of the late 1960s, and we were professional communicators who spent our time trying to help the different worlds of science, citizenry, government, and industry understand the implications of new technologies. Most important, we were all believers in the potential of computer networking to help us build a better world for our children.
Aizu-san and Hattori-san literally opened a whole new world to me. I ended up visiting small virtual communities far from Tokyo, meeting a regional governor and a small-town mayor who both use CMC as part of their government, participating in social gatherings of enthusiasts from two different Japanese conferencing systems. Those face-to-face gatherings had the same kind of zeitgeist--or perhaps kansei would be a better word--as the WELL face-to-face gatherings I know so well. That feeling of strong but ineffable kinship that cut through other social barriers led me to investigate those communities more deeply, online and in person. My exploration of the Japanese online culture over the last three years has revealed both similarities and differences between Japanese and American virtual communities.
I've spent about a month in Japan in two visits. My electronic correspondence now includes half a dozen friends I met during my trips. I've stayed with Izumi Aizu and his family in their Tokyo home--a rare experience for an American visitor--and he has stayed with me and my family in the United States. We've become social interpreters for one another, translating the fine points of Japanese and American cultural codes that aren't written in books. Because of the deep cultural differences that lurk between the surface similarities, I would never have understood 1 percent of what happened to me as an American in Japan, nor would the doors have been opened for me there, without Izumi Aizu's assistance. Through him, I met several colleagues whose friendships also have endured. I never would have known him or any of the other Japanese virtual communitarians if we had not met and grown to know each other in cyberspace.
Although my travels and observations of the real communities behind the virtual communities in different parts of the world have been unsystematic and cursory--it would take many years to visit and get to know people from any more than a handful of virtual communities--I think some of the similarities that surfaced are worth attention, at the level of what scientists call anecdotal evidence.
Similarities are easier to detect because they pop out at you when the background is mostly unfamiliar. The differences between virtual communities based in different cultures are far more difficult to tease out. For that information, I have to rely on my native guides and on the informants they introduce to me. My travels with Izumi Aizu around rural Japan brought me into direct contact with key virtual communities, and many of the places we visited together, online and in real life, revealed possible similarities between American and Japanese cybercultures. These observations were mostly at the grassroots level.
The researchers and research managers I met, men at the highest levels of Japan's telecommunications companies, shared one important characteristic with their counterparts in large American and European telecommunications companies I've visited--they seemed generally unaware of the impending collision or convergence between the social revolutions at the grassroots of CMC and the high-tech communications infrastructure the big companies were installing in Japan. The telecommunications policymakers at NTT (Nippon Telephone and Telegraph), Fujitsu, and other mainstays of Japan's communications industry seem to be waking up very quickly, however, given President Clinton's plans to build a national information infrastructure in America. Ideas can move much more quickly from the fringes to the center in Japan, especially technology-related ideas. Japanese leaders, like American technology managers, find themselves forced to look beyond their piece of technological turf or the perimeter of their profit centers, to consider the larger system, the infrastructure--the social changes as well as the hardware and software involved in creating a national or international highway of the mind.
Through Aizu, I met Jeff Shapard, the cofounder of TWICS, a pioneering virtual community in Tokyo that draws half its participants from Japanese residents of the Tokyo area, and half from Tokyo's non-Japanese population, including a large American expatriate contingent. Shapard introduced me to his partner, Joichi Ito, a fast-moving, bicultural young fellow who became my friend in the United States as well as Japan. Just as Aizu and Hattori introduced me to some similarities among virtual communities at the grassroots, my ongoing dialogue with Shapard and Ito helped me perceive the significant differences between Japanese and American online cultures--and the significant cultural challenge that the worldwide Network poses to Japan's society and its planners.
In the early 1980s, Aizu and Ito were among the first people in Japan to explore the use of computers as communications media, at around the same time that U.S. pioneers such as Hiltz and Turoff, Dave Hughes, Lisa Carlson, and Peter and Trudy Johnson-Lenz were using EIES and the Source to talk about the social networks that could be grown by means of CMC networks. Izumi Aizu had been looking for a tool for social change for a long time. As a self-employed consultant and college dropout, he also needed something to give him social networking leverage.
Because entry into a top university, preferably the University of Tokyo, is overwhelmingly the most important criterion for career success in Japan, Aizu's deliberately deciding not to take the entrance examinations was a far more radical act than it would have been in the United States. Aizu was a networker in the social sense of seeking and following up social contacts to support his business, by necessity, because the lack of a traditional college-corporation network means he constantly has to build his own support networks.
"I was sixteen in 1968 and I was seriously affected by the student protests in America and Paris and Tokyo," Aizu told me the first night I was in Tokyo. Japanese houses, with their paper walls, generally are colder than American homes, so we sat up late that night, around the hori-gotatsu, a pit in the floor with a foot warmer at the bottom. Sitting with a lap blanket and our legs in the hori-gotatsu, sipping tea, talking about the values and decisions that had shaped our lives, is an experience I'll never forget. The environment was so alien, yet the conversation was so familiar. "I started to read more books that weren't on the school reading list. I started to question the meaning of life. Why should I take all these pains and go through exam hell to do something that didn't mean anything to me?" Aizu continued.
His mother supported him at first, during a period when he read voraciously. At age twenty, he went to work at a printing company. A few years later, he moved to an advertising agency as a printing specialist, and that led to his work translating sales manuals into English. By the time he was twenty-eight, the first personal computers were available in Japan. He found that the PC manuals in Japanese left a lot to be desired, so he helped start a company, High Technology Communications, in 1983, and produced what turned out to be a successful guidebook to the first Apple computers used in Japan. Then he started experimenting with using an old-fashioned acoustic modem to send text to a phototypesetting machine. He became a charter member of the Computer Press Association and joined the Source. Finding that the technical writer's forum on the Source was moribund, Aizu decided to liven it up again. After conversation came back to life in the forum, due to his transpacific verbal prodding, Aizu announced that he was coming to the United States--would any other modem-using technical writers like to meet him?
By the time the WELL started, in 1985, Aizu had begun to meet some of the key members of the then-small society of CMC enthusiasts. His history wasn't too different from my own. I didn't drop out of college, but becoming a freelance writer at twenty-two was my way of dropping out to find my own kind of meaning in life. Like Aizu, I became personally and professionally drawn into the world of personal computers and then into the world of CMC. Like Aizu, I felt that CMC had reawakened my interest in social change in a way that personal computers by themselves had not. But Aizu had been drawn directly into the use of CMC as a political tool (around the time I was just beginning to find my way around the WELL), because of events in his hometown of Zushi.
In Japan, the place you are born and raised is exceptionally important. Joichi Ito told me that in Kyoto there is an old stone with the names of twenty-four generations of his family engraved on it. That's where he is going to go. It's his spiritual home. For Izumi Aizu, that place-based loyalty was focused on Zushi, a seaside town outside Yokohama, where he was raised. Before World War II, the city limits included the very large Ikego forest, which took up one-eighth of the city. It had been preserved for a long time because an enormous underground ammunition depot for the Japanese navy existed underneath it. After World War II, it served the same purpose for the U.S. Navy. Since you don't want strangers walking around ammunition dumps, both the Japanese and U.S. military authorities had kept the area free of human interference. In 1983, when the ammunition depot was moved, the Japanese government announced they would build one thousand housing units in the Ikego forest, for American military personnel. The Japanese government and construction industry and the U.S. military were formidable foes, but the citizens of Zushi decided to fight to preserve the forest. They elected a young mayor, Mr. Kiichiro Tomino, who was one of the leaders of the grassroots movement.
"Mr. Tomino went to the same school I had attended, although he was nine years older than me. We had mutual friends, and when he heard that I was involved in computer networking, he asked me if I could use these computer networks to find international support for the anti-development campaign," Aizu recalled, the day we made the two-hour drive from Tokyo to Zushi. Turning to his modem to find people, Aizu made contact with Lisa Carlson and Frank Burns, who were starting their Metanetwork system, and met them face-to-face in Washington, D.C. As a result of that meeting, Aizu used the Metanetwork to distribute a plea for support from the people of Zushi. They appealed specifically for people to distribute the message to as many different countries as possible. More than one thousand replies came in over a period of months, from people in more than fifty countries. The message posted on Metanet had propagated through the BBSs of the world and via the networks of environmental activists--and this was in 1985, before the Net's most explosive period of growth.
When I met Mayor Tomino in his office at Zushi City Hall in 1992, he acknowledged that the computer conferencing campaign played a major part in the citizens' grassroots movement. City hall for this town of fifty thousand, a middle-class seaside resort community, includes a row of Macintosh computers in a common room on the ground floor, where citizens who do not have home computers can communicate directly with city officials. Tomino created a municipal conferencing system. "People think that ordinary citizens have little power against big institutions," Tomino told me, when I asked him what he had in mind when he helped set up Zushi's online system, "and I want to show them that citizens can help city government solve problems that involve all of us." With the positive experience of the Ikego forest movement behind them, several hundred citizens took up the mayor's invitation and used online discussions to help redesign the city library system. "The citizens here are trying to prove that they can decide their own fate by themselves. That's what the United States taught us years ago. Your military occupation policy to democratize Japan was very successful," Tomino told me, smiling.
In the early 1980s, some of the people who had been finding each other through computer conferencing began to embrace the idea of networking as a social movement as well as a way of using computers to communicate. Although the late 1980s turned the idea of networking into a new name for an old form of using social relationships to advance one's professional ambitions, the early promoters were driven far more by revolutionary zeal than profit motive. Izumi Aizu was influenced by CMC evangelists, Jessica Lipnack and Jeffrey Stamps, who were known in the online world as "J. and J." Lipnack and Stamps published a book about their ideas, Networking, People Connecting with People, Linking Ideas and Resources, in 1982. "They could have been writing it about me," Izumi Aizu exclaimed when he recalled their early influence.
As a self-selected outsider from the mainstream of Japan Inc., and a grassroots organizer, Aizu had the respect of the alternative culture. His business experience and his understanding of CMC technology, however, brought him the support of some influential insiders in the Japanese power structure. After his first visits to the United States and online explorations via the Source, Aizu wrote and distributed in Japan a report on the state of CMC and its potential. At that time, most Japanese citizens who were knowledgeable about the use of modems thought of them as a way to access information in a big database; Aizu's report concentrated on the human networking that could piggyback on computer networks. That report quickly became popular in several different circles in Japan. Computer enthusiasts saw the first road map to a whole new territory. A few of the most visionary planners in Japan's communications companies began to pay attention.
Aizu was becoming a bridge person, linking Japan and America, grassroots and corporate planners, citizens and technologies. He decided to specialize professionally as well as avocationally in combining the social and technical sides of networking and computer conferencing. He found financial backers and opened an enterprise he confidently named the Institute for Networking Design.
Hard on the heels of his successful application of CMC to both grassroots activism and municipal government, Aizu became involved in the design of a virtual community and computer network for an entire prefecture--a region of 1.25 million people spread over more than six thousand square kilometers. This time, one of the most enthusiastic supporters of the virtual community was the prefectural governor. The speech that first brought me to Japan was to be introduced by Governor Hiramatsu. The morning after my first late night in Tokyo, in the spring of 1990, I boarded an All-Nippon Airlines flight with Izumi Aizu for Oita prefecture, on the southernmost island of Kyushu. Anyplace you go in Japan that requires an hour-and-a-half plane flight from Tokyo is indeed remote from the main metropolitan centers. I remember that culture shock was still ahead of my jet lag when I arrived at the conference center on Oita's Beppu Bay.
The conference I was invited to address was attended by researchers from Japan Inc.'s biggest names in technology, but the local organizers were all members of a virtual community known as COARA, based in Oita. After the first Hypernetwork conference was over, toward the end of my first week in Japan, I went out for an evening of food, drink, and merriment with about thirty COARA members who had just successfully completed the weeks of hard work necessary to make a conference like this successful. Neither Aizu nor one of my other regular interpreters was able to join us. I don't speak any Japanese, and few people in our party spoke any English. I was treated as an honored guest, of course, and those who could speak some English did their best to inform me about what was happening. I can still feel the amazement that came over me as I realized that although I didn't understand a word they were saying, I recognized the emotional tone of the COARA gathering. It reminded me of nothing so much as the WELL's monthly parties. Here were people who seemed to know each other well, delighted in each other's company, had a rich set of mutual experiences to draw them together despite gender, class, occupational, and geographic differences. They talked and talked and talked.
Oita was as far from home as I had ever been in my life. I never expected to see it again. Two years later, I was invited back, along with John Barlow, Robert Johansen, and Peter and Trudy Johnson-Lenz. The idea of using CMC as a tool for social change on a grand scale as well as at the grassroots level was becoming popular with Japanese communications technology planners, and COARA was becoming known as a social experiment. This time, COARA members greeted me like a long-lost relative. During my second visit, they had a party that ran late into the night, every night of the conference. They had a karaoke bar set up in the conference center--a microphone and videodisk setup that plays backup music and displays lyrics on the screen, so people can take turns singing solos.
Karaoke is an important new part of Japanese professional life. People in Japan who work together all day in offices often go out together at night as a group to a favorite karaoke bar, where they drink many diluted scotch-and-waters and cut loose a little bit from the formal solidarity of corporate life by singing badly and laughing about it. COARA members seem never to tire of taking turns singing, which is interesting given that they are most accustomed to interacting strictly by means of mute letters on a computer screen. There is indeed something funny about watching someone whose serious arguments you have been reading for months step up to the microphone and do an Elvis impersonation. It puts more of the person back in the online persona you have modeled in your mind. They insisted that I sing "I Left My Heart In San Francisco."
After the second Hypernetwork conference, I stayed around with the COARA people for a couple of days after the other participants had left. We traveled together to the village of Yufuin, site of famous hot springs. We took the waters and relaxed after the days of formal speeches and informal but no less important social networking. I asked the COARA members I had met, one by one, how their virtual community had come into being and how it had affected their lives. Izumi Aizu acted as an interpreter in both directions during both the formal and the informal parts of my visit.
COARA, I learned, had been designed originally as a kind of database for a small group of local business people to provide local information about business, transportation, weather, and other civic matters, but a series of events led the founders to redesign it into a full-blown conferencing system. One of the historical roots of the strong feeling of community that emerged is the fact that COARA started out as a series of face-to-face meetings among citizens who wanted a shared information resource they could tap into via their modems, but who weren't quite sure what it was they wanted. One early event that steered COARA toward community was the involvement of Izumi Aizu. Mr. Toru Ono, a computer enthusiast and owner of an electrical contracting company in Oita, who wanted to start a community information system, had read Aizu's report. Ono telephoned Aizu in Tokyo and asked him to consider helping them design the system.
COARA was one of several experiments that started in 1985, a watershed year for grassroots telecommunications in Japan because the Japanese telecommunications industry was deregulated. Before that, it was bureaucratically difficult and expensive for ordinary citizens to use modems. There was a lot of talk in the wake of deregulation about "new media." Mr. Ono was interested in what he had heard about BBSs and other CMC systems. Many of the "new media" experiments that were springing up were modeled on the old broadcast paradigm of putting a lot of information into a central source and then allowing people to contact it remotely. Aizu had been one of the few voices for taking a more person-to-person, network-oriented approach, because he had observed in the United States that people wanted to use CMC primarily to connect with each other, and only secondarily to download information.
One COARA person who took the excursion to Beppu was Yukitsugu Fujino, a young computer science student who had been actively involved with Mr. Ono in founding the service in 1985. At the beginning, Fujino was looking for nothing more than a database to help him catalog his personal library of more than twenty-thousand books. When he began reading about PC networking, Fujino, Ono, and about a dozen other people met in Oita in 1985 with local government officials to discuss buying a computer to use as a kind of community database and public computing resource. It turned out that the Oita regional government had a computer that could be used. Fujino and Ono worked together to create database software. The first information they put up for public use was a train timetable for Oita. The thirty founding COARA members decided that they wanted to put in more information, but they weren't sure what kind of information would attract more usage, so they created a simple public forum to communicate about it. People started to communicate informally. Then something happened that seemed to precipitate the evolution of a community.
More than a dozen COARA members I interviewed mentioned that the community really began with the advent of online autobiographical reports from a high-school student named Masahuru Baba, a very skilled computer programmer. "But when he started writing online about what it was like to be a high-school boy," Fujino told me, "COARA became much more interesting. Hearing about the real life of a high-school student was more exciting than publishing a lot of dry information. People started to log on more regularly to find out what was going to happen, and to talk about it with each other. We began to realize the value of people-to-people interaction. We decided we wanted to be able to write more personally."
Fujino created an informal public discussion area, a virtual caf‚, called Caf‚ COARA, without asking permission from anyone. This isn't the way things are done in Japan ordinarily, but everyone involved agreed that it was good. At that point, Aizu became involved, and they rewrote the software, added more modems and incoming telephone lines, and set up a regional conferencing system at about the same time the WELL was starting up in the San Francisco region and TWICS was starting in Tokyo. The Oita Junior Chamber of Commerce became involved because they thought a new information service could be useful to small-business operators. The online population began to grow.
The kinds of people I got to know from COARA's core group seemed to me more diverse in several ways than traditional Japanese social groups, and the individual members confirmed that when I asked. For one thing, the community appeared to cut across class and professional lines. Ono-san is the owner of an important industry in Oita. Fujino-san was a salesman in a construction company. A prominent member of the community, Mr. Masato Kubaki, who eventually visited me in California, is a pottery teacher at the local university. Several housewives, whose children are grown and out of the nest, and whose husbands have not yet retired, became the social organizers of the face-to-face events. The presence--the very vocal presence--of so many women was also unusual for Japanese society, where many activities are gender-segregated. The usual boundaries of profession, class, age, and gender appeared to be significantly looser in COARA than in other Japanese social groups.
Like the WELL, some of the use and some of the myth of COARA is its courtship function. When people can watch two members of their group meet and marry, it seems more like a real community--and Fujino-san was one of the community's founders. Fujino-san and his wife met and courted via COARA, and their wedding was one of the early bonding events of the community. One of the younger women in COARA told me that joining COARA gave her a much larger range of choice when it came to meeting eligible young men in a socially acceptable way. Young women in Japan usually meet their future husbands through introductions by family members or by employers. COARA was both liberating, in that it enabled people whose families or employers might not know each other to meet in a properly chaperoned manner. If it is true that older housewives and younger working women can use CMC in Japan to transcend traditional constraints on their social behavior, then the new medium poses a potentially formidable threat to gender relations--one of the mainstays of Japan's core social structure.
One of the most energetic members of the thirty to fifty people who always can be counted on to show up for a COARA event is a housewife who started learning to use a computer for word processing. "Although after I found COARA," Mieko Nagano told me, "I learned that the computer can do more than word processing. It can help me interact with people's minds and hearts." Just as the autobiography of a high-school student turned out to be fascinating to the mostly older community, the strongly stated point of view of a housewife with grown children turned out to win attention by the mostly male COARA population. Her husband, in his fifties, works in the Nippon steel manufacturing plant in Oita. Husband and wife logged on daily for about an hour each. When I asked him what continued to attract him to COARA, he told me: "See those sick forests outside of town? The ones where all the trees die are where they planted just one kind of tree. The forests that survive and do well are the ones where many kinds of trees grow. I think it is like that with people. I enjoy many different opinions. It keeps my mind healthy."
Not everyone in any society enjoys many different opinions, and in that sense, the strongest similarity between the WELL and COARA--the willingness of the online population to tolerate wide diversity of opinion--might turn out to be a limiting factor of the medium's growth. The present state of porosity between the boundaries of different online groups on the Net might be an artifact of the early stages of the medium--fragmentation, hierarchization, rigidifying social boundaries, and single-niche colonies of people who share intolerances could become prevalent in the future.
I spoke with young professionals--an insurance salesman, an employee of an auto leasing firm, a city hall employee involved in the department of education--who had left Oita for college in one of the larger cities, and had started using COARA to stay in touch with people in Oita while they were gone. When they returned to their hometown, as many college graduates do, they still had connections to the social life that had been going on in their absence. I talked to another couple who were passionate about COARA's parenting conference. I told them that I understood them exactly when they emphasized how important the support and advice from other COARA parents had been when their child ran a fever that temporarily puzzled the doctors. Another woman, a housewife in her fifties, told me that she received a very detailed personal reply from Governor Hiramatsu when she sent him electronic mail about government compensation for typhoon damage, and that impressed her enough to get more involved in the online discussions of local politics.
When Governor Hiramatsu became a COARA member in 1986, and began talking with other community members about the medium's potential, COARA experienced another period of rapid growth in its population and expansion of its vision--and considerable excitement among the community members. This was not just an honorary membership. The governor actually participated in online discussions, actually replied to electronic mail.
"Governor Hiramatsu is a very interesting person," Aizu told me, before I met the governor in Oita. He explained that Hiramatsu had been a powerful member of MITI--Japan's influential Ministry of International Trade and Industry--and had been one of the planners of Japan's success in computers in the 1970s. Like his American counterparts at ARPA, Hiramatsu was known as a technology manager who found breakthrough projects and supported them, rather than trying to advance technology through top-down design. After leaving MITI, he returned to his home province to fulfill his vision of high-tech economic development that would not make the mistakes of overcentralizing industry and destroying the natural environment. He was one of the architects of the Technopolis vision of technology-linked regional economic development. As governor of Oita, a resource-rich, largely rural province far from the centers of power, he had an opportunity to start from scratch. Beppu Bay, where the city of Oita is located, is a rich source of seafood and includes some still-unspoiled coastline. The countryside is agricultural, with some local crafts and light industry.
Hiramatsu's vision, as he explained it when I interviewed him in 1990, was to "find harmony between this special environment and the high-growth, typically high-tech industries we want to attract to this area. We want to make sure these high-tech businesses do not weaken the agriculture and fishery businesses and the natural beauty of the region. The third element of this vision is to provide education and skill training, so the high-tech companies can transfer their technology to local industries." To do that, Hiramatsu had believed from the beginning, it would be necessary to overcome the centralization of information as well as population and industry in Tokyo. The Oita region would have to create its own information pool. When COARA came along, Hiramatsu jumped right in. He attended the face-to-face get-togethers as well as the online forums. He pushed the idea of involving ordinary citizens as well as the captains of industry and local business people and the natural constituents among the younger computer enthusiasts. He particularly advised an outreach effort to involve more women.
With Hiramatsu's support and vision, and the continuing growth of the COARA population into the hundreds and then thousands, it became possible to upgrade the system's hardware and software to accommodate the users' needs. Many more online forums, to discuss books, restaurants, entertainment, parenting, local politics, art, and philosophy, began to open. A core of COARA members started having monthly face-to-face gatherings. They began to think of themselves as a community. Another key member of the community was drawn into COARA from far-away Tokyo. Shumpei Kumon, a distinguished scholar and adviser to high government officials, had become very interested in the role that information technologies might play in the larger social transformation he foresaw. COARA turned into a conversion experience as well as a source of direct observations to test his theories. The Hypernetwork vision that emerged from the collective enterprise of COARA and its founders, Governor Hiramatsu's office, and Izumi Aizu was given a strong intellectual framework by Kumon, whose theories gave form to their collectively evolving vision of CMC-assisted social change.
Shumpei Kumon, who is always addressed in Japan with the honorific "sensei," because he was once a professor at the all-important University of Tokyo, is a maverick of a different kind. In his fifties, he looks every bit the modern Japanese government adviser that he is, but he started out as an orthodox leftist in the 1960s. He lost faith in the left and began looking at the way civilizations like the United States and Japan and those that had gone before had managed the large-scale transformations triggered by technology. He became a professor, and his colleagues introduced him to some of the brightest, most open-minded members of Japan's powerful Liberal Democratic Party (LDP). When he realized that the time was not ripe to achieve deep political reform, Kumon concentrated on developing his theories in history, economics, and cybernetics. He was coming to see Japanese-American political and economic relations in the 1990s as the linchpin of a social transformation triggered by new information technologies.
In Kumon's framework, the three most important stages in the history of human civilization are most usefully seen in terms of the social games that governed those civilizations' sources of power: first the Prestige Game, then the Wealth Game, and finally the Wisdom Game. The Prestige Game was triggered by militarization, the use of force and the threat of force to gain and maintain power over other actors. The idea of nationhood came along and the use of force was abstracted on a higher level, in which national economic and cultural power challenged raw military power for importance. The industrial revolution made possible the most recent era in which technologically produced wealth rather than either prestige or military power alone became the most important marker in the world's highest-level social games. The older games continue to exist, but the center of attention moves from royal courts to national elections to virtual, transnational, communication-mediated relationships as the system evolves.
The current trigger for a transition to a new stage, in Kumon's theory, is the world telecommunications network, and the next game will involve information, knowledge, and folklore-sharing cooperatives around the world that will challenge the primacy of traditional wealth the way industrial wealth challenged the primacy of military and national power and prestige. Today's virtual communities, Kumon came to understand firsthand, offer a small-scale model of a society in which people communicate in a way that creates collective wealth. A kind of wealth that includes the existence of Parenting conferences is more than a cold-blooded exchange of information, hence his characterization of the coming social framework as the Wisdom Game, in which the source of power is "consensus-formation through information and knowledge sharing." He saw it working on a regional level. Would it scale up? For a student of history, the temptation to seize a social lever, once his intellectual exploration led him to discover it, was very great.
Kumon decided to make a move almost as radical as Aizu's decision to drop out of the college examinations--he decided to leave his professorship and devote himself to studying the economic and sociological consequences of the computer networks that came to enthrall him. But he intended to do more than study. Along with activists such as Aizu and Hiramatsu, he had an opportunity to demonstrate in real life the social potential of networks he had been writing about in his books. He cofounded an institute, GLOCOM, devoted to the study and implementation of the Wisdom Game. I met with Kumon and his colleagues in Oita and in Tokyo on both my trips to Japan, and they have visited me in the United States.
Kumon's interest in economic and social change had led him to learn the basics of computer technology with the eyes of a beginner. When he understood the power of networks, he wrote books and articles about Japan as a "network society" in a social sense, which it is in many ways, with its overlapping circles of formal and informal association that weave Japanese social, professional, political, and cultural institutions together. But the whole world is not as racially and historically homogeneous as Japan. One chief criticism of Japanese culture as a model for other societies is that the social networks in diverse societies such as the United States and other parts of the world lack the shared ethnic and historical context that strongly guides people's social communications in Japan. When he came across the computer concept of "emulation," Kumon believed he had found the solution to the most vexing problem in his theory--the way Japanese and American cultural approaches are integrated in a global context.
Emulation in computers is an answer to the translation problems caused by the great diversity in computer hardware. Because a computer can simulate the operations of any machine, it is possible to write a program that causes a computer from one manufacturer to behave the way a computer from a different manufacturer behaves. Each computer contributes a portion of its resources to emulating another computer, which means that data and programs in a network environment can be shared, thus enriching the network's computational collective goods.
Could cultural co-emulation be an effective social metaphor for finding ways for Japanese and American sensibilities to meet on the Net? "The best way for Japan and other nations of the world to deal with the information age is to co-emulate other's civilizational components that each lacks and that seem to cope with the demands of this new phase of modernization," Aizu and Kumon wrote--which explains why I was invited to Oita in 1990, and why Barlow, Johansen, and Johnson-Lenz were invited to join me there in 1993. Recent efforts to put this cultural co-emulation theory to the test have led to meetings between Kumon's GLOCOM Institute and Mitch Kapor of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, to Izumi Aizu's continuing presence on the WELL, to GLOCOM jumping the political hurdles to become an Internet site, and to a stream of young Japanese CMC enthusiasts who make sure to visit those of us in the United States whom they met when we were their guests in Japan.
The Hypernetwork Society was the vision that led Japanese communications researchers to begin gathering every other year in Oita. Although Kumon and Aizu spent most of their time physically in Tokyo, the developing vision remained rooted in COARA. Their vision of COARA as a testbed for future international communities was supported by the core members in Oita, who were hungry to communicate with people in other parts of the world. If CMC could help local people cut across social boundaries that normally separated them in rural Japan, it made sense that citizen-to-citizen communication could help overcome some of the national differences that lead to conflict. One thing I didn't understand until I visited Japan in person is that while Japan is important to Americans and America, America is almost all-important to Japanese and Japan.
With Japan seen as a dangerous economic competitor by many in the United States, and a strong, vocal contingent of Japan bashers who see Japan as an outright enemy of the United States, ordinary people in Japan seem frustrated by what they learn from their own media about what is going on in the United States, and what American news media seem to be telling Americans. The citizens I met in Oita were eager to use CMC to bypass the mass media and communicate directly with their counterparts--the housewives and professionals in Santa Monica and elsewhere--to show that there is more to Japan than the picture painted by the American media.
When COARA members first wanted to expand the community to include more people from the villages and agricultural regions, the telecommunications costs for long-distance modem calls made that impossible. Governor Hiramatsu, however, decided in 1990 that it would be good for Oita prefecture, good for his Technopolis vision, and good for COARA to sponsor the first government-supported free regional packet-switching network in the world. Special routers were located in key cities, and the prefecture and city governments paid for the installation of a network that would enable people in twelve other cities and towns to make an inexpensive local call to connect to COARA and other information services. Ultimately, COARA was also linked across the Pacific, to Santa Monica's PEN (Public Electronic Network) system. Not only the countryside, but other parts of the world, became parts of the plan: members of PEN and COARA eventually were able to communicate in a shared forum. By the time they started inviting CMC evangelists from around the world, COARA had become more than a successful experiment--it was a testbed for the idea of citizens' movements and regional governments working cooperatively to create virtual communities.
In 1992, Governor Hiramatsu addressed a small invitational forum of technology developers, including Apple Computer's John Sculley, and top managers from NEC and other Japanese companies:
I see the toyonokuni network as being an "information road." Just as the automobile society wasn't built on the development of motor vehicles alone, it also required a network of roads. I think the true information society will require this kind of social infrastructure as an essential building block. As a rural area, Oita prefecture does not attract a great deal of private sector commercial investment; that's why I judged it necessary to allocate government funds to provide a service which I believe will be regarded as a social necessity in the future.
Since Oita, a paradigm example of a mature virtual community, was the first place I visited in Japan after my first night in Tokyo, I was in for a shock when I visited telecommunications research centers in Kyoto and Tokyo. Although I had met a provincial governor and a mayor of a small city who were well aware and actively involved in many-to-many communications media, I discovered that the higher-level research managers in Japan's telecommunications companies were just as uninformed as American telecommunications managers regarding the explosive grassroots growth of the Net. Like American and European telecom managers, they were interested enough to listen to my tales of grassroots culture-building. It was as if I were telling them that a colony from another planet had found a way to occupy the telephone network.
The odd irony of this nearly global ignorance of the person-to-person potential of CMC among telecommunications managers is that the technologies they are very good at creating--the ultra-high bandwidth fiber-optic networks, wireless communicators, digital video compressors--have the potential to amplify the power of today's grassroots experiments by orders of magnitude. Japanese researchers in electronics and computer technology had decades to develop their body of collective knowledge and accumulate expertise. Those who would learn how to build virtual communities in Japan were discouraged until the mid-1980s. In Japan, because it was illegal to use a modem until 1985, only a few pioneers began to dabble in Netsurfing before that. If the pattern in Japan repeats the evolution of new technologies in America, those few intrepid pioneers who started using modems when you had to pay a hefty fee to an unsympathetic government ministry will end up influencing the shape of Japan's Net culture as it catches up. The hundreds of thousands of Japanese Netheads today will diffuse what they have learned to those who will follow the pioneers. NTT has committed itself to delivering broadband fiber-optic cable to every home in Japan by the year 2015.
At the same time that Japan's industrial planners are building on the hardware of telecommunications as the core of their strategy for the twenty-first century, Japanese students are not on Internet in the same growing numbers as the Americans or Europeans, because government policy makes it very difficult to get an Internet account. The main data-communications link between Japan's networks and the worldwide Internet is a relatively slow, relatively low-capacity channel. Japan's powers-that-be have always exercised strict control over citizen communications with the outside. That control is directly challenged by the prospect of widespread access to a high-bandwidth international network. This conflict could be the fulcrum for major changes in the entire culture in the near future.
Herein lies the dilemma. Japan's continuing economic success depends on continuing success in technological research and development, and, increasingly, access to information about what your colleagues are doing and what is happening in different but related fields is the key to scientific or technological success. To open the Net to its citizens might be necessary to continue to compete; that same simple act of letting people drink what they choose from the Net's great gushers will inevitably change both Japanese culture and Net culture. Whether Japan joins in the Net in a big way is an extremely important question that has not, until very recently, attracted much attention at the highest levels of Japanese or American decision making. The race to build the most successful fiber-optic networks, high-definition televisions, or hand-held wireless communicators is more concrete, more easily understood. The need to keep up with the evolution of a worldwide intellectual communication medium is more abstract, but no less vital to an innovation-dependent economy like Japan's. A collision or a convergence seems likely very soon.
COARA was the first of several virtual communities I came to know in Japan, but I learned that there was an even older one. Before I left the United States, I obtained an account on the TWICS system in Tokyo and started introducing myself to members of that community. I had heard a great deal about Jeff Shapard and Joichi Ito, cofounders of TWICS, and people on the system seemed to be arguing and communing in ways that reminded me of the WELL. When the time came, after a few weeks of discussion about virtual communities as they looked from both sides of the Pacific, the TWICS people I had met decided to hold one of their monthly meetings to coincide with my visit.
The TWICS office in Tokyo is right downtown, in the office of its parent organization. The night I showed up I met most of the people I had already met online, plus about thirty others. Eventually, we traveled en masse via subway to a raucous underground sushi parlor where the management had a section reserved for them regularly. One force that keeps virtual communities in Japan from coalescing quickly is that Japanese homes are small, so people do most of their socializing and entertaining in their version of "third places." This virtual community liked to crowd together around a few tables in a working-class restaurant, and eat, drink beer, and talk, for four or five hours at a time. Before we went out to socialize, we gathered in a meeting room in the TWICS office building so I could talk with them as a group about their virtual community, and so they could ask me questions about the other communities I had visited.
Jeffrey Shapard somehow wandered from his native Montana in 1981 and ended up in Japan. He became an English teacher, "stumbled into electronic networking in 1984," he said, and has been involved "nonstop and more than full-time in this medium ever since. Some have described me as a raving mad lunatic obsessive workaholic passionate believer in a solution looking for problems to solve," he added, wryly. It makes sense that a Tokyo resident with a Montana accent and an interest in CMC would be a perfect partner for a young Japanese with the sensibilities of an American teenager. Joichi Ito got Shapard involved in a project aimed at providing opportunities for continuing education and international communication, sponsored by the International Education Center, where the TWICS office is now located. They built a small BBS, in the days when that wasn't easy, one of the first half-dozen such experiments at the time. From the start, TWICS had a strong purpose determined by its mission: "We were oriented more toward people and communication rather than data and information. From the beginning, we made it clear we wanted something more than just another place to talk about computers and exchange software."
In 1985, TWICS became a multi-user system and "we discovered that conferencing was what we were really doing." Before COARA or the WELL opened as a regional conferencing system, TWICS was up and running. In 1986, they upgraded their system hardware and found a way to plug into the rest of the world, albeit at slower-than-Internet speeds. International telecommunications companies often provide cheap data communications during their normally slower hours, and these commercial data services enable systems like the early WELL and TWICS to provide cheap communication costs to reach their system. In 1988, Shapard and Ito attended the Electronic Networking Association conference in Philadelphia, where Shapard met John S. Quarterman, cartographer of the Net (which he calls "The Matrix"). That opened Shapard's eyes: "I felt like we had been living in some electronic version of the Middle Ages, building little villages off in remote regions, trying to figure out ways for people to get to us and for us to have routes to our neighbors, thinking we were really doing something new and hot, and then discovering China, with a vast, complex, and ancient civilization." After that, TWICS found a way to get a full Usenet feed.
The people who had joined TWICS before it became a full conferencing system were able to participate, through the original BBS, in designing the shape of their virtual community. Shapard proposed that the metaphor of their place would be very important in determining what kind of place it would be, and, through a process of community design, created the metaphorical electronic island called Beejima: "Since we wanted to build a place where people would feel like they were members of something more than just another information service, we decided to use the metaphor of a community as the basic organizing principle for the new computer conferencing system we were going to install. The image of Beejima was a friendly little island community in the electronic seas of Japan, close to Tokyo but accessible from anywhere, a Japanese system modeled on Japanese context, with an international and multicultural outlook."
The questions that the TWICS members asked me, after they told me about themselves, began to surface some similarities with other online systems. In fact, the first question touched off a discussion among the TWICS people that could have been a word-for-word transcript of a discussion on the WELL or CIX. I was asked: "Do people in other virtual communities think that words on a computer screen are capable of hurting people?" I said that I personally felt that to be the case, but that others raise the argument that it is really a matter of choice when it comes to determining how you feel about what a stranger might have typed on one computer and sent to another computer via modem. One fellow, an American who participated in a lot of Usenet discussions as well as TWICS (which may explain his attitude), volunteered: "All you have to do is turn off the computer. If you don't like a BBS because people are argumentative, log into a different BBS." A Japanese woman stood up and said that some people do feel that you can be hurt, and maybe that means that only "the thick-skinned stay around."
That familiar discussion veered into another familiar discussion about how easy it is for misunderstandings to become conflicts because of the lack of social cues. "How do you avert your eyes online, how do you bow?" was the way one TWICS member put it (all-important nonverbal components of polite Japanese conversation). Another TWICS member replied that CMC is attractive precisely because it is different from everyday life. "Why duplicate the face-to-face world in a new medium? It isn't polite to communicate with three people at the same time in physical conversation, but you can do that online." The ensuing discussion reminded me of what Elizabeth Reid said about the community-building function of creating a shared imagined context for a virtual community.
Then it came down to the nature of community, as these discussions always do. So Jeff Shapard stood up at the blackboard and asked the TWICS members to name as many attributes of community as they could come up with. Some of the responses were "shared taboos," "a common forum for social interaction," "a means of banding together against a common threat," "shared culture," "familiarity and respect," "mutual sustenance," "shared joy and pain," "rites of passage." As it turned out, the Beejima face-to-face meeting I attended was a rite of passage for the TWICS community. Jeff Shapard stood up before the group and delivered a speech that brought tears to his eyes and a few others: after twelve years in Japan and nine years with TWICS, he was returning to the United States.
Not until I too returned did I meet Joichi Ito, the other founder of TWICS, a person whose name comes up no matter whom you talk with about the history of CMC in Japan. His business brings him close enough to my location for us to meet face-to-face once in a while. I learned that he was born in Kyoto, one of the most conservative Japanese cities in terms of tradition--it was the capital for a thousand years before a little fishing village called Edo grew up to become Tokyo. His mother was from a ruling-class family going back eighteen generations. His father was from an old merchant-class family. Both families disowned them when they married because of the contradiction of such a marriage. "Now they like us again," says Ito. His mother and father moved to the United States when he was three, so Joichi was brought up mostly in the suburbs of Detroit when Detroit was going through a financial crisis precipitated by the success of Japanese automobile imports. He and his sister spent summer vacations with his grandmother who "indoctrinated us with the values of traditional Japan." When he was fourteen he moved back to Japan, where he attended Nishimachi International School and later the American School in Japan "and learned Tokyo street language, street smarts, and computers."
As a teenager in the early 1980s, Joichi discovered computer networking as a "means of communicating with people beyond the confines of a high-school reality. Computer networking expanded greatly my understanding of society as I dealt on a day-to-day-level with classes, Judo, varsity wrestling, girlfriends, and stupid teachers." He got so involved with a group of people he met on the Source that he and others from different parts of the world traveled to Toledo to meet each other face-to-face at the wedding of two group members. He remembers how most of his online friends were shocked with the physical evidence of how young he was, despite his cultural sophistication.
Ito was a bit of a hacker in his younger days, so he found ways to keep down his communication costs while sampling online cultures around the world. He even discovered the original MUD, MUD1, at the University of Essex in England; MUD1's founder, Richard Bartle, still remembers the one early enthusiast who logged on all the way from Japan. Ito remembers the night he sat in his room in Tokyo and wept because his MUD character had been killed. Later, he attended Tufts and the University of Chicago, but like Izumi Aizu, he felt the cultural and professional opportunities in computer networking in Japan were more important, so he dropped out in his senior year to work part-time with the Metasystems Design Group, start a virtual community in Tokyo with Jeff Shapard, and work nights as a deejay in nightclubs.
In 1985, at nineteen, Ito found himself back in Japan to develop and distribute the Japanese version of Caucus, one of the leading computer conferencing software packages. "At the same time," he recalled in conversations with the author, "I produced nightclub events trying to create cultural and artistic synergy between contradictory cultures, something that I had learned to do since my childhood." He currently works as a negotiator for problematic U.S./Japan negotiations for American and Japanese companies, develops and coordinates Pan-Pacific technical and cultural projects, and is a member of Japan's Ministry of Post and Telecom's Computer Networking Subcommittee of the New Media Committee. If anybody understands the challenges Japan and the Net pose for each other, particularly among the younger generation now in their twenties, it's Joichi Ito. He believes that most Japanese underestimate the potential for social change inherent in new communications technologies simply because Japanese culture has evolved such a sophisticated mechanism for resisting externally imposed change.
"Japanese culture doesn't change and since it's so comfortable with the fact that it doesn't change and it's so secure with the absolute core of Japanese culture, it's very comfortable changing on the surface," Ito explained. I had asked him about the impending collision of values and technology that seemed likely as the Net grows in Japan.
The cultural immune system reacts at a much higher level in America. Americans stay away from dangerous things. Whereas the Japanese immune system is so well adapted to change, they can talk about hypernetworking or about cyberspace or robotics. They don't think that it's really going to bother them. When punk rock came into Japan and you could bump into a punk kid who wore a "fuck off and die" button on his shirt, that looks pretty rebellious, there was still a significant difference. You bump into him on the street, he's going to say "excuse me, I'm sorry." And that doesn't change, you see. But I have a feeling that computer networking and the global culture right now could change the Japanese system for the first time in thousands of years. A lot of people don't get it yet. So you'll see a reaction coming, a kind of allergic reaction in Japan that no one's ever seen before in Japan. I think we'll see the day that happens.
Ito believes that several of the cliches about why Japanese citizens might not embrace cyberculture have a basis in reality. For example, Japanese are reluctant to debate in an argumentative sense in public forums. The Net could learn something from Japanese conversational etiquette, and Japanese Netheads are going to have to learn something about the virtues of public debate. "Debate is not a part of the culture," Ito claims. "Litigation is rare, group therapy doesn't work well," he points out, adding, "I think it is difficult to get Japanese to relax in front of people and thus it may be difficult to get a sense of community in a group of invisible strangers unless they have something significant in common such as being outcast from society in some way, or sharing a strong common interest, or common physical location."
"I know it is difficult for Japanese to participate in the Net culture as it exists today," says Ito. "It wasn't designed for the Japanese. I just don't know what is going to happen when the next generation network Nintendo game with all of the quirks, aesthetics, communication needs, and timing of Japanese culture designed in is developed and deployed with the high-bandwidth networks the big companies are planning." The Japanese written language, with its ideographic calligraphy, is an important part of the visual culture in Japan that resists the starkness of alphabetic characters on screens. The experiments at NTT, Fujitsu, and elsewhere on highly visual media may take an interesting turn when communication on the Net includes a more visual element. This may be a place where Japanese communication aesthetics might take a leadership position. "I think the Japanese will make their own version of online communication media and the Net will grow to include it," says Ito. "I think that the product of such a fusion may be the greatest transmission of Japanese culture to the West yet. Americans have begun to use Japanese quality control techniques in their business management. Imagine what might happen when the West begins to use communication tools based on Japanese/Eastern ways of communicating."
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