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The emptiness of "cultural contrast" claims

Twitter in Japan

You know what's so annoying – very mildly annoying, yes, but persistently so – about "cultural contrast" discussions? It's really not so much the more elaborate made-up claims backed by laughably imaginary evidence (the "special relationship with robots" is a good example). Rather, it's the non-stop rain of little claims, the ones that paint everything in sight as a "difference" or a "unique twist" – but then just leave those assertions hanging, without any attempt at backing them up.

Below is a fine example: a piece on the impressive uptake of mini-blogging service Twitter in Japan from the Mainichi Daily in June. (I've been told that it first ran in the Japanese version of the paper, though I haven't been able to locate a Japanese original). It was picked up by news services everywhere; here's the full article, which you may have already seen:

== Twitter a hit in Japan as millions 'mumble' online

TOKYO (AP) --- Twitter is a hit in Japan, succeeding where other social networking imports like Facebook have foundered as millions "mumble" -- the translation of tweet -- and give mini-blogging a distinctly Japanese flavor.

Already there's a lot to note. First: Yes, some other social networking imports have not succeeded in Japan. But that sentence just tosses out the ever-popular "foreign services fail in Japan!" meme and runs away. We need to add an important note: Countless social networking services fail in their own home markets. (Heck, most social networking services fail in their home markets.) Is Japan unusual in its rate of failed services? Maybe so, but here we get just the insinuation, no more, and zoom, it's off to the next thing.

Next: "Mumble" is a poor back-translation of the Japanese translation of "tweet". The verb "tweet" is rendered as tsubuyaku, and the associated noun "tweet" as tsubuyaki. These refer to a low, quiet way of speaking, and "mumble" is one of the possible translations, as is "mutter" – but a third possibility found in the dictionaries, "murmur", is certainly the one I'd choose. There's no reason to say that the Japanese tsubuyaki, in the Twitter context, is meant to imply the incoherency of "mumble" or the grumbling dissatisfaction of "mutter". As you read the rest of the article, I think you'll agree that the much more pleasant "murmur" better fits how people actually see and use the service.

Finally: Twitter in Japan has "a distinctly Japanese flavor"? Really? Well, that hardly seems an impossibility, I'll happily agree. And it looks to be the core assertion of the article, so surely we'll find plenty of evidence for this "distinctive flavor" in the paragraphs to come, right?

Right?

Read on:

The arrival of the Japanese language Twitter service in 2008 tapped into a greater sense of individuality in Japan, especially among younger people less accepting of the understatement and conformity their culture is usually associated with, analysts say.

Sheesh, I can't even get past one sentence at a time without having to stop for comment. Where is this claim coming from, other than the common knee-jerk reflex to inject "individuality vs conformity" into any discussion whatsoever of Japan? What connection does Twitter have to some rejection of "understatement and conformity"? If there's something there, then great, I'd like to hear it –  but again, the author just tosses out a vague assertion and walks away. There's nothing else said on the matter.

A mobile version of Twitter started last October, further fueling the Twitter boom in a nation where Internet-connecting cell phones have been the rule for years.

Er, one could point out that Twitter began life in the US as a service for the Internet-connecting cell phones that have been the rule there for years... And now I'm wondering: If Twitter marked a rejection of "understatement and conformity" in Japan from 2008, what were texts and emails on those Internet-connecting cell phones doing differently in the years before?

But it's not a big deal. Moving on:

These days, seminars teaching the tricks of the tweet, as the micro-blog postings are known, are popping up. Ending Japanese sentences with "nah-woo" -- an adaptation of "now" in English -- is hip, showing off the speaker's versatility in pseudo-English Twitter-speak.

No. Nau, not "nah-woo".

What's this nau business about, anyway? Well, recall the original vision for Twitter: users would send tweets as updates on their current status, or more specifically, would answer the question "What are you doing now?". As elsewhere, that's still a common tweet topic in Japan – and not surprisingly, people have developed a special notation to indicate such a tweet. A simple tweet saying "Restaurant" might leave readers thinking "Restaurant? What about a restaurant?". Whereas tacking なう nau onto the end is a nice, simple shorthand that turns the tweet into "Right now I'm at a restaurant". It works for actions, too: "Driving on the Tomei Expressway nau" is a handy shorthand for "I am now driving (and suicidally texting) on the Tomei Expressway".

Is it "hip", though? True, nau is from the English "now", and certainly counts as a new bit of online slang; I guess that means you could call it trendy. But more than anything, I'd call it convenient. It adds a lot of info (as described above), at the cost of just two characters – an important consideration in the super-short Twitter format.

The kanji (Chinese character) 中 chuu, in common use to mean "in the middle of..." (as in 工事中, "under construction"), could have been chosen instead, and has the advantage of being only one character. But 中 actually takes more key strokes to input than なう does. Another choice might be the Japanese いま ima, meaning "now". Why なう over いま? Either is just as many keystrokes and characters, so maybe there's a bit of English-favoring "hipness" in there. But my point is simply to add what the article fails to mention: that the nau in tweets first and foremost constitutes practical information, and is not just a bit of empty "hip" noise, as implied.  

A TV show features characters that tweet. A Tokyo bar has screens showing tweets along with World Cup games. And pop idols, a former prime minister and plain regular people are all tweeting like crazy.

Hm, sounds like the rest of the world. Though the following is interesting:

The proportion of Japanese Internet users who tweet is 16.3 percent and now surpasses the ratio among Americans at 9.8 percent. Twitter and Japan's top social networking site, mixi, have been running neck-and-neck with monthly visitors between 9 million and 10 million but in April Twitter squeaked past mixi, according to ratings agency Nielsen Online.

In contrast, only 3 percent of Japanese Internet users are on Facebook compared with 62 percent in the U.S., according to Nielsen. MySpace has also failed to take off in Japan, at under 3 percent of Net users versus 35 percent in the U.S., according to comScore Inc.

Twitter estimates Japanese write nearly 8 million tweets a day, or about 12 percent of the global total. Data from Tweet Sentiments, a web site that analyzes tweets, show Japanese are sometimes tweeting more frequently than Americans.

"Japan is enjoying the richest and most varied form of Twitter usage as a communication tool," says Daisuke Tsuda, 36, a writer with more than 65,000 "followers" for his tweets. "It's playing out as a rediscovery of the Internet."

The great success of Twitter in Japan is interesting to see, especially when Facebook hasn't been very successful. I'm not familiar with reasons for the latter, and fortunately, the article doesn't launch into contrived explanations. A very likely explanation is simply that Facebook arrived here after mixi and other Facebook competitors had already scooped up the market. The first mover often wins; there's nothing hard to understand about that! Twitter, meanwhile, was more unique from the start; it didn't have to beat out similar, already-entrenched services in Japan or anywhere.

But is there more to Twitter's success in Japan? Maybe so:

One reason is language. It's possible to say so much more in Japanese within Twitter's 140 letter limit. The word "information" requires just two letters in Japanese. That allows academics and politicians to relay complex views, according to Tsuda, who believes Twitter could easily attract 20 million people in Japan soon.

This is a good point. The 140-character limit is certainly restrictive, and kanji are wonderful for conveying lots of info in few characters. As noted, 情報 ("information") costs you 11 precious characters in your English tweet, just two in Japanese. (Of course, you'd probably abbreviate the English to the more parsimonious "info", but all sorts of abbreviations will further save you space in Japanese too.) 

My only beef with the article here is its implication that Japanese is somehow special here. It's Chinese characters that work the magic – and I would fully expect that Chinese itself, which is all kanji, does an even more fantastic job at packing an entire short story into a tweet.

Another is that people are owning up to their identities on Twitter. Anonymity tended to be the rule on popular Japanese Web sites, and horror stories abounded about people getting targeted in smear-campaigns that were launched under the shroud of anonymity.

So Twitter users in Japan are using anonymity less than bloggers do? Quite possibly so – though if (as is often claimed) bloggers are unusually private in Japan, and Twitter users are not so, then this is an example of an aspect of Twitter that does not carry "a distinctly Japanese flavor".

In contrast, Twitter anecdotes are heartwarming. One well-known case is a woman who posted on Twitter the photo of a park her father sent in an e-mail attachment before he died. Twitter was immediately abuzz with people comparing parks.

So far, people are flocking to Twitter in positive ways, reaching out in direct, public and interactive communication, debunking the stereotype of Japanese as shy and insular, says Noriyuki Ikeda, chief executive of Tribal Media House, which consults on social media marketing.

I'm not sure what the point here is about "positive" tweets, or how (or whether) that differs at all from the world at large. It is interesting to see note of a goofy stereotype about "the Japanese" being debunked; that, again, would point to an aspect of Twitter which does not carry "a distinctly Japanese flavor".

"Twitter is turning out to be like a cocktail party," he told The Associated Press. "Japanese see how fun it is to network and casually connect with other people."

Like the rest of the world.

Twitter is also proving a good business tool. Companies are exploring Twitter as a way to reach consumers and get feedback, a function that holds potential in Japan where broadband connections are widespread and cheap, and mobile phones outnumber the population.

Retailer Tokyu Hands uses Twitter to answer queries from customers, while clothing-chain Uniqlo has used Twitter in marketing by setting up a virtual queue where people tweet with each other and get freebies.

Again, that sounds like Twitter around the globe. It's becoming an important part of business communications everywhere.

Motohiko Tokuriki, chief executive of consultant Agile Media Network, who has nearly 200,000 followers, believes Twitter is on its way to be chosen the hit new word of the year, a coveted honor that draws great publicity here.

"It's telling that Twitter was translated as 'mumbling' in Japanese," he said. "They love the idea of talking to themselves," he said.

It's not "telling" at all. Tsubuyaki – better translated as "murmur", not "mumbling" – is a perfectly reasonable word for a bit of speaking that's short and quiet ("quiet" in that a tweet is a little blip on a feed, not a big flashy web page). That mention of "talking to themselves" doesn't even make sense when put up against everything else claimed in the article. First the article tells us that Twitter users in Japan are more open and talkative, that they're networking in casual and friendly manner, that they're throwing away conformity and anonymity – and now this guy says that Twitter is about mumbling to yourself? Which is it??

Further, I always look askance at trying-too-hard attempts to read deep meanings into simple things, like the word that some small group of persons chose as the translation for "tweet". If that choice is deeply "telling", then what is the original US choice "tweet" telling us? Do we need to look into a "special relationship", perhaps, between Americans and birds?

Twitter may even offer Japan's web entrepreneurs global opportunities that had so far eluded them because it's the first digital "global-standard" outside of search engines like Google or Yahoo! to catch on here, says Toru Saito, chief executive of Loops Communications, which specializes in social networking businesses.

That means software applications Japanese develop for Twitter could win acceptance from a global market. Japanese mobile software products have tended to be for Japanese up to now.

"I'm getting so many queries, including those from abroad," Saito said.

Rocky Eda, corporate communications manager for Digital Garage, which supports Twitter's Japan operations, is thrilled people are embracing Twitter.

"In finding fulfillment in expressing what's on your mind for the moment, Twitter is like haiku," he said. "It is so Japanese."

(Mainichi Shimbun; June 19, 2010)

So. We have an article on the great success of Twitter in Japan, which is certainly an event worthy of comment and scrutiny. We even have at least one piece of generally interesting insight: the fact that Chinese characters greatly mitigate the restrictiveness of tweets' short length. That doubtless boosts the appeal of tweeting in Japan and China.

But as to the central claim, that of "a distinctly Japanese flavor" to tweeting, I ask: Were you actually able to detect this "distinct flavor" in the article? I sure wasn't. As I said from the start, there's a dogged determination in pieces like this one to paint a "cultural contrast". Yet here, all the author does is toss out assertions with no further backing, including assertions that don't necessarily have clear connection to the story, and assertions that don't even agree with each other. The central claim is never supported. It's left hanging and empty.

Sure, there are a few interesting details to be found in the local story (like that nau). But putting aside what the article says it uncovers, what is actually reveals is this:

A US-born Internet service, which has been a huge hit in the US and around the world, is similarly a huge hit in Japan, where it's being used in the same spirit of open and fun networking as everywhere else, and is even becoming an important business tool as it is everywhere else. 

All of which the article chooses to summarize with these closing words: "It is so Japanese."

And that's why I'll never understand culturology.

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Any time someone uses the

Any time someone uses the phrase "uniquely Japanese" without irony, God kills a kitten.It's one of those things that has an innately pompous tone to it and makes people sound like jackoffs.

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