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Issue 5: Social and Cultural Issues - Japan (page 2)

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

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The Digital Divide in Japan

The term digital divide is translated into the Japanese language as the "information gap. One main reason may be that Japan has one of the most developed telecommunication infrastructures in the world. Japan has wired phone lines everywhere, and high levels of Internet availability (MPHPT, 2001; Shinohara, 2001). Thus, the concept of the digital divide in Japan carries a meaning that is different from lesser wired countries. Economic and social factors play a role in all countries. However, the predominant affective (Nigate-ishiki) and linguistic factors (non-English language and non-alphabet typing) lead many Japanese to feel uncomfortable accessing the Internet through computers (Mikami, 2001, & Kaigo, 2001, Sekine, 2002, & Hashimoto, 2001).

Some studies have examined the relationship between computer attitudes and anxiety, gender, age and education. Gender and anxiety seem to have the greatest influence on computer use. The young and old show a negative relationship between computer anxiety and computer experience (Parasuraman & Igbaria, 1990; Igbaria & Chakrbarti, 1990). Chua et al. (1999) explored the relationships between computer anxiety, gender and age through a meta-analysis. This study suggested that while the relationship between computer anxiety and gender was shown to be unstable, age inversely influenced computer anxiety, and is related to computer experience. These researchers also found computer anxiety to be different in different countries because of differences in cultures.

Nakayama (2001), Kaigo and Sasaki (2001), Mikami (2001), and Kaigo (2002) attempted to define the Japanese perspective for the digital divide. Nakayama suggests that the most important reason for Japanese users' discomfort with the computer is that they have to overcome two huge barriers: making the transition from hand writing to electric communication and from ideograms to alphabet typing. In other words, the alphabet-based keyboard is a big obstacle for most Japanese. According to a computer literacy survey by UNESCO in the late 1990s, the Japanese were far behind Europeans and Americans since the average Japanese citizen had no training in the alphabet-based keyboard until high school. Thus, while Westerners had moved from hand written to electric communication, the Japanese had not. Especially for the elder Japanese, they avoided using computers and the Internet altogether.

Kaigo and Sasaki (2001) and Kaigo (2002) pointed to other ways traditional Japanese culture influenced computer and the Internet use among the Japanese. The non-alphabetic language is an obvious obstacle for the Japanese using the newest information and communication technology (ICT). Their survey found that the Japanese behavior called nigate-ishiki (a self conscious difficulty dealing with something or someone, which leads to shyness or avoidance) was useful in explaining information gaps related to gender and age. According to the research, because of a lack of adaptation to the English language, the Japanese nigate-ishiki leads to computer anxiety and lack of self confidence in using new ICT. This anxiety and exists much more commonly among adults than children. The report also found that ICT terminology has a negative influence on attitudes toward ICT.

To apply these analyses, it is necessary to look at how the current information gap is defined in Japan. Surveys were conducted by the Japanese Ministry of Public Management, Home Affairs, Posts and Telecommunications (MPHPT) and other research institutions from 2001 to 2003. The digital divide seems to exist in five layers. First, the gaps between urban and rural Internet users are not very wide. A higher percentage of users access the Internet through personal computers in major cities, Tokyo being the top, followed by smaller cities, towns and villages. However, the percentage of Internet users accessing the Internet through mobile phone is the highest in smaller cities (17.3%), followed by major cities (16.8%), and towns and villages (14.5%). In September 2002, the Japanese had the highest ratio in the world of Internet users via mobile phones (79.2%) (MPHPT, 2002; Internet Association, 2003).

Although the percentage of male Internet users (55%) is higher than female users (44.5%), the gap is also not wide. The Japanese housewives represent a higher percentage of non-internet users because they have a lower chance to access the Internet. However, the younger generation of Japanese women have become active mobile Internet users. Third, the reports show that the annual income range among Internet users is only 10 percent. Among the average Japanese household annual incomes (over US$ 50,000), the gaps are extremely narrow.

Significant gaps do exist between the different age groups. While the highest percent of Internet users (80%) are in their twenties, users over sixty have the lowest percentage (15%). In other words, elderly people rarely use personal computer communications and the Internet. Fifth, those with disabilities have very low percentage but they also have higher percentage of using mobile Internet access than those without disabilities. Therefore, the information gap in Japan is mainly divided into two groups, one is elderly people and housewives, and the other is people with disabilities (Sekine, 2001; Digital Opportunity Site, 2001). On exploring the reasons for the digital divide, all of these reports argue that neither the economy nor technology account for the main reasons in Japan.

Race is also not an issue since Japan is a homogenous country. The Japanese mentality and culture seem to play more important roles (Mikami, 2001, & Kaigo, 2001). The following figures display the reasons for not using the Internet (percentages derived from the total non-Internet users) and why non-users will not begin to use Internet.


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Figure 1: The reasons for not using the Internet (Source: White Paper on Information and Telecommunications in Japan, 2001).

issue picture Figure 2: The conditions for non-internet users beginning to use (Source: White Paper on information and Telecommunications in Japan, 2001)


These figures suggest that the largest group of respondents need someone to teach them how to use the Internet. They also indicate an important fact: Japan lacks support for new technology. The mentality and culture of Japan are reasons holding back computer and Internet adoption (Sekine, 2002; & Hashimoto, 2001).

At the same time, the same studies, including the White paper on Telecommunication (2003), the Dentsu Institute for Human Studies (2000), and Internet on White paper (2002) found that the Japanese are among the highest users of mobile phones to access the Internet in the world. Hence, there is an inconsistency. While the Japanese have access to some of the most advanced digital devices in the world and maintain a well developed telecommunication infrastructure, the Japanese culture, its non-alphabetic language and non-alphabetic typing leads the Japanese nigate-ishiki to cause the avoidance of computers and Internet use.

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