Communication = culture?

Living in a foreign country can really open your eyes to the differences between two cultures. These differences have become a part of my daily routine and will probably end up causing a bit of confusion upon my return home. In the case of Japan, many people would instantly focus on the use of chopsticks in daily meals or driving on the left side of the road. While these two examples can certainly be startling for an outsider, I’d like to take it a step further. What about the differences between the platforms we use to communicate? What do these say about a culture and its people? I know that this might sound sort of philosophical – just bear with me.

Normally I would take my own picture of this phenomenon, but I feel fairly rude disturbing people in the cramped space of a train. Photo credit goes to NPR.

Normally I would take my own pictures, but I feel rude disturbing people in the cramped space of a train. Photo credit goes to NPR.

Let’s start off by taking a look at internet access, since Japan is pretty advanced in that department. As Forbes points out, Japan has the second fastest internet speed in the world. This has actually been a noticeable difference for me. My landlord continually apologizes for the speed of the wireless internet at my sharehouse, while I try to convince him that it’s much better than my atrocious connection at home (curse you, Comcast!). Internet penetration rates are also fairly high at 79.5% in 2012, according to Web Japan. Still, it’s difficult to generalize about how truly connected the country is as a whole. Being in Niigata, I am only minutes away from the Japanese countryside of rice fields and humble farms. I am skeptical that digital communication is universal in these areas, particularly among the older population.

When it comes to mobile communication, it only takes a short train ride to see that smartphones are ubiquitous in Japan. I am frequently impressed with how standing passengers are able to browse with one hand and make sure they don’t fall with the other. I’m not quite that coordinated. Despite extensive usage, I was surprised to find that free Wi-Fi isn’t very prevalent here in Niigata. I’ve been told that an increasing number of cafes and restaurants (for example, McDonald’s) are beginning to offer wireless. However, I haven’t had very much luck in finding these spots, and as previously mentioned, the services require payment most of the time. Outside of the Wi-Fi network, my coworker noted that many Japanese people are able to get by just fine with the mobile data that accompanies most smartphone plans. She also mentioned that companies are offering more options to make device ownership easy and affordable. I am curious to see what the Wi-Fi situation will be like during my time in Yokohama and Tokyo in the next month, as I’ve planned two separate excursions on my free weekends. When I visited Japan in 2012, I decided to shut my phone off completely to avoid any potential roaming charges and to enjoy my experience from an unplugged perspective. I definitely suggest this approach to others, because my companion and I ended up setting off on a true adventure. This time around, I will be traveling alone and Wi-Fi might make me feel a little more comfortable in terms of navigation. I’ll keep you posted regarding my findings on that front.

So what are people doing with these phones? From what I can tell, gaming and social media, especially when it comes to the younger generation (under 30). I don’t mean to be nosy, but it’s pretty easy to take a glance at phone screens over the shoulder of fellow train passengers. In terms of gaming, casual games seem to be very popular. Casual is kind of a broad classification, but I’m mostly referring to titles that are comparable to Candy Crush Saga. I’ve also noticed a decent number of young women playing romance or dating games, which would be considered much more of a niche market. Still, social media reigns supreme with Twitter and Line being the most common for young people. I talked extensively about Twitter usage in Japan for a previous blog project, so feel free to take a look here. If you aren’t familiar with Line, it’s a messaging app that allows users to share stickers (large emojis) as a form of expressive content. I had heard of Line before coming to Japan but didn’t realize the full extent of its popularity until being immersed in daily society.

While social media appears to be a powerful form of communication in Japan, I’m not convinced that a purely digital strategy would lead to success for an outside organization looking to reach the Japanese audience. Here’s why: a surprisingly large portion of the Japanese population prefers physical correspondence. I believe that this preference is where you really start to understand how communication platforms can define a culture. For example, we are using two different approaches at my company to engage potential clients. Western clients will receive a digital newsletter via email and Japanese clients will receive a physical newsletter in the mail (the messaging isn’t identical but tailored to each specific market). It initially shocked me to hear that a company (especially a tech company!) would be issuing anything in physical form, since mail newsletters in the US are almost instantly thrown in the garbage can. However, I quickly learned that this is common and best practice. People seek tangible information when doing business in Niigata in order to build trust. I would argue that this can be tied back to Hofstede’s cultural dimensions and uncertainty avoidance. According to this scale, Japan is “one of the most uncertainty avoiding countries on earth,” which means the country leans toward tradition, ritual and predictability in life. Since the digital world is basically synonymous with unpredictable, it really opened my eyes to the appropriateness of connecting with Japanese clients using a physical platform.

It was particularly interesting to see how Western films are marketed in Japan!

It was especially interesting to see how Western films are marketed in Japan!

I stumbled upon another example of this phenomenon during my first visit to a Japanese movie theater. I wasn’t actually there to see a film but quickly found myself exploring the premises. Just outside the theater, I noticed a long counter of pamphlets – movie pamphlets! These brochures featured tons of images and extra information on the various movies that were released or soon-to-be released in Japanese theaters. I probably looked like such a silly American, because I instantly grabbed a whole stack of them. While this practice is commonplace in Japan, I haven’t seen anything like it back home. Many American moviegoers would simply look up this sort of information online. And apparently, these pamphlets aren’t the half of it. I was informed that companies also publish extensive hardcover press books loaded with behind-the-scenes coverage. As a gamer, these remind me of the content you might receive when preordering or buying a special edition title. I think we could view this tactic as another form of marketing that relies on trust building. By giving the Japanese film audience something tangible to take home in their hands, the industry builds anticipation and gives a preview of what to expect, therefore eliminating any uncertainty.

Keep in mind, these few examples are just what I’ve noticed so far. I’m excited to further explore the communication technology in Japan and find out if, why and how culture plays a role in a particular methods’ success. I imagine that my findings will become even more interesting once I hit the pavement in Tokyo!


*I just wanted to briefly note that the opinions expressed in this blog post are not necessarily a definitive reflection of communication technology in Japan or the United States. I believe that generalizations can be harmful, but I also think it is important to document my observations during this summer experience.


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