The 2011 Tohoku Earthquake and tsunami that devastated northeastern Japan and triggered the worst nuclear disaster since Chernobyl revealed much about the country’s strengths and weaknesses when it comes to communications. Among other things, the disaster showed the degree to which Twitter has thoroughly entrenched itself throughout the country.
From former Cabinet Secretary Yukio Edano’s legendary post-tsunami Twitter marathon to the harrowing tweets sent from people’s rooftops, Twitter quickly became a defining characteristic of the aftermath. And in the ensuing years, much has been written about Japan’s national affinity with Twitter. A 2013 article in Mashable noted that of the Twitter accounts with the highest number of individual tweets, 6 of the top 7 (and all of the top 5) were Japanese, making Japan probably the world’s most tweet-happy country.
Japan has also set several records for live tweeting, including several tweets-per-second records—most recently for an August 2013 screening of Miyazaki’s anime classic Laputa: Castle in the Sky, which reached an incredible 143,199 tweets in a single second. By contrast, the Twitter frenzy surrounding Miley Cyrus’ notorious performance at last year’s MTV Music Video Awards gala peaked at 306,100 tweets per minute. Not even close!
Why, then, has Japanese society so thoroughly coalesced around this particular social media tool? Here are five factors in this phenomenon.
1. Early adoption of cell phones and social networking
Japan not only embraced mobile phone technology well before most of the rest of the world, but has also influenced the evolution of cellular technology to a far greater degree than is generally appreciated. Today’s smart phones are in large part an amalgam of functions originally developed for Japan’s iconic keitai denwa (携帯電話), including phone cameras and 3G Mobile Broadband.
By the time Twitter first appeared on Japanese shores in 2006, Japan had long become a nation of compulsive texters and had been accessing the Internet via their phones for nearly a decade. Moreover, the popularity of the indigenous social networking system mixi meant that the Japanese, perhaps more than anybody, were primed for Twitter. Mixi has now largely been surpassed by Twitter in Japan, but its legacy lives on.
2. Ubiquity of long train commutes
Japan’s keitai culture evolved primarily in the country’s big urban centres, places where long commutes to and from the suburbs (often more than an hour each way) are the norm. Moreover, Japan’s cultural taboo against talking on cell phones in crowded public spaces gave rise to an early texting culture. Japan’s vast armies of urban commuters were thus perfectly primed for this revolutionary mobile-friendly social networking platform, having had many years of practice over the course of countless hours on suburban trains in Tokyo, Osaka and elsewhere.
3. Cultural emphasis on privacy
Digital media commentators have often noted that Facebook, while rising in popularity in Japan, has long lagged behind Twitter. Some have suggested that the high cultural premium placed on privacy and anonymity (exemplified by the stigma against public phone conversations) is a factor in this preference. Whereas Facebook works hard to ensure users are logging in with their true identity, Twitter avatars offer a greater degree of anonymity.
4. Linguistic conciseness
In the months following the Tohoku disaster, numerous tweets from survivors were translated into English by international media sources. And in most cases, these translated tweets, often detail-intensive calls for help, far exceeded the 140-character limit imposed by Twitter. The reason for this is a no-brainer. Type "Yokohama" in Roman characters and you’ve just used 8 characters. Type it in Japanese kanji (横浜) and you’ve only used 2. A major factor in Japan’s embrace of Twitter is that the Japanese language itself is extremely well suited to the medium.
5. Social cohesion
Anyone who has spent any time in Japan can attest to the tremendous power of Japanese-style esprit de corps. From rural festivals to international travel to company staff calisthenics assemblies, the Japanese, as a general rule, love doing things in large groups. And this characteristic of Japanese society is also observable in online behaviour, and without doubt explains the extraordinary popularity of collective live-tweeting of public events.
Occasionally, Japanese tweeting frenzies have gone global. In the weeks following the 2011 tsunami, Yukio Edano, the main Japanese government spokesman during the recovery, became something of a Twitter legend, immortalized by the hashtag #edano_nero (“Edano, go to sleep”)—a commentary on his increasingly baggy-eyed, obviously sleep-deprived appearance while on national television. The hashtag not only went viral across Japan but also caught on overseas, peaking at 4th highest trending hashtag in the world (after #HelpJapan and #PrayforJapan) before the man eventually went home.
6. The Cult of Kawaii
Let’s face it: it’s highly probable that Twitter’s popularity in Japan is due, at least in small part, to the cute little birdie it has as a logo. This is, after all, a country that decorates its commercial airliners, high speed trains and ATM machines with images of Hello Kitty, Pikachu, Miffy the rabbit and other adorable icons. While the country’s wholesale embrace of Twitter and tweeting can hardly be reduced to a cute animal mascot, one has to wonder if Facebook would have caught on quicker in Japan if it had cartoon otter or meerkat as a brand symbol.
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