body top image
Issue 5: Social and Cultural Issues - Japan (page 1)

Social, Cultural and Economic Issues in the Digital Divide - Literature Review and Case Study of Japan

Shuho Otani
Ohio University


The definition of the digital divide generally refers to unequal access to digital and network resources, including the Internet, and opportunities to learn using information and communication technologies. The gaps are usually concerned with economic, social and cultural issues, such as income, age, education, gender, ethnic background, and physical handicaps.

In the real world, however, there is an essential confusion as to what the "digital divide" is. There are substantial differences in the definition of the digital divide between "digital have countries" and "digital have not countries." The purpose of this paper is to use the case of Japan to demonstrate that even in one of the most technologically advanced countries of the world, with satellites and wired infrastructure networks reaching everywhere, the digital divide still exists. The key factors affecting the digital divide differ much from unwired countries. This paper illustrates how Japanese culture plays a more fundamental role in shaping the impact of the digital divide rather than either economic, racial or technological factors.

First, I will discuss what the differences in the definitions of digital divide between "digital have countries" and "digital have not countries." Then, I will show what the current situation with the digital divide is in Japan, and how cultural factors affect the form it takes. I will argue that, unlike developing countries, the digital divide in Japan depends on individual choice. Japanese cultural factors, especially, the Japanese users' difficulty with the English language and a non-alphabet typing culture has led to active avoidance of computers and the Internet. The result is a distinct "information gap" in Japan. Finally, I will discuss possible solutions, including the contributions of satellites in closing of the information gap.

Understanding the Digital Divide

Researchers began examining the problem of information inequality within the media in the 1970s but paid little attention to it as a social issue. When the Internet began to be widely used, leaders of international organizations, such as the World Bank, the European Union, the United Nations, and the G8, and as well as international scholars began to look at the different factors affecting the information gap (Mun-cho and Jong-kil, 2001). The term "digital divide" became popular when U.S. President Bill Clinton raised his concern about this issue, and submitted a new national plan to bridge the "digital divide." Basically, economic factors - income and related social factors, such as race, gender, and class were thought to have created the digital divide that existed in most countries of the world (OECD, 1999; Norris, 2001; Mun-cho and Jong-kil, 2001).

Norris (2001) is one of the researchers who has focused on the economic and political aspects of the nature of the digital divide, and has distinguished three hierarchical levels: the macro-level, the technological and economic resources available and their distribution, the meso-level, the role played by political institutions, and the micro-level, individual resources and individual motivation.

Norris suggests that the digital divide is a mixture of circumstances which need to be considered from global, national, and democratic perspectives. Having examined the digital divide within developed countries, this study argues that "the heart of the problem lies in broader patterns of social stratification that shape not just access to the virtual world, but also full participation in other common forms of information and communication technologies" (pp. 91-92).

Compaine (1998; 2001) concludes that the many kinds of gaps that exist among societies are associated with the state of the economy. Compaine thinks that the digital divide has been ill-defined from the beginning. The author is skeptical of the whole concept, and believes that the digital divide is not a real issue: as a result, the digital divide will fade away as costs go down and ease of use increases. Hence, Compaine's work pays most attention to the economic, technological, and political factors influencing the digital divide.

Often, studies claim the definition of the digital divide has been confused. In From Digital Divide to Digital Opportunity (2003), Kuttan and Peters state, "the term has become a favorite phrase for academics and pundits, educators and politicians. Unfortunately, it has been misused and overused so often that it has become just another amorphous catchphrase that has clouded the real and pressing problem that it represents." These authors conclude that the digital divide is at least a technological problem having to do with IT training, personal computers, and access to broadband Internet. Consequentially, they choose to divide society into suburban and rural communities, minorities and the majority, and rich and poor which are separated into the technology "haves" and "have nots."

While most scholars focus on economic and social factor within countries, a few have pointed to essential differences in the definition of digital divide between "digital have countries" and "digital have not countries." For example, in "digital have not countries," 90% of the population is said to lack even the choice to access digital resources, and would find it difficult or impossible to get access to digital resources even if they wanted to (Foulger, 2001; Nua survey, 2003). The total Internet bandwidth in Africa is the same as in the Brazilian city of Sao Paolo, and the total bandwidth in all of Latin America is the same as in Seoul, South Korea (UNDP Human Development Report, 2001). Thus, individual choice cannot be an issue in these countries because people have little real prospect of using digital resources.

By contrast, people who live in "digital have countries" have greater access to a variety of communication media and information. While Internet access may or may not be ubiquitous, it is certainly set up in most schools, companies, and communities in order that people who want Internet access can get it. Therefore, the digital divide is really a continuum of choice. The choice is a fundamental issue informed by psychological and social concerns, not just economic concerns. Some people choose to make extensive use of digital resources. Others do not. Most people fall somewhere in between (Foulger, 2001).

For "digital have countries", Foulger (2001) says that "The digital divide is the continuum of use of Internet and other digital media that separates those that choose, for whatever reason, to use such media from those who choose not to use such resources." On the other hand, for "digital have not countries," he writes, "the digital divide is the cliff that separates the five billion people who cannot, for whatever reason, choose to use Internet and other digital media from the half billion or so people who can choose to use such resources." In this sense, the key difference is divided by choice and the lack of choice.

A study by Min-cho and Jong-kil (2001) defines three stages of digital divide: information accessibility, information utilization, and information receptiveness. At the first stage, information accessibility is closely associated with the economic factors under which the user can have access or not in terms of digital opportunity. The next stage, information utilization is related to obtaining and creating added value in using the information. Both are linked to the expansion of life expectancy. Information receptiveness refers to whether the user can use the information to enrich quality of his/her life. In this stage, cultural capital plays an essential role, such as in the cognitive and the emotional dimensions which influence people's decision making. As the information society develops, the focus of the digital divide will shift from economic factors to social factors, and then to cultural factors.

page 1 | page 2 | page 3 | top  

filler image
body bottom image