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JAPAN IS GETTING CAUGHT IN THE NET--SLOWLY (int'l edition)

It began a few years ago as a weight-watcher's forum open to all subscribers of NIFTY-Serve, Japan's biggest online provider. But then the club got exclusive. Wary of online hucksters and uneasy about baring their problems before strangers, members of the group last year decided to pay NIFTY-Serve $56 a month to move their talks to one of NIFTY's private ''patios.'' Now, members gab daily online and gather in person twice a month to coax one another to abstain from alcohol and eat lots of green vegetables. ''Public forums are too large to be comfortable,'' said Yasuo Kawabata, a 30-year-old advertising executive who moderates the conference. ''We've got about 60 or 70 members, so I know everyone's name.''

As in the West, many Japanese surfers long for their own beachhead on the sprawling Internet. NIFTY's 2.3 million members, for instance, have set up more than 600 open-access discussion groups on topics ranging from factory automation to tea drinking to the popular pinball game Pachinko.

In addition, 20,000 other patios with controlled memberships have sprung up on NIFTY. Outside NIFTY's system, a popular new chat site on the Web is dedicated to the electronic gizmo Tamagotch, the ''virtual pet'' that is beloved by most Japanese teenage girls. And with America Online Inc. just coming to Japan, more Japanese will be lured into sampling the life online.

It's a promising start, but the Japanese still have far to go before reaching the critical mass of Web-based communities in the U.S. The number of Japanese using the Internet is about 7 million. But only half of these have ventured onto the World Wide Web, according to Nikkei Business Publications Inc.

Costs are perhaps the biggest barrier. In the U.S., local calls are cheap and many Internet service providers offer unlimited access. But in Japan, the majority must pay providers several dollars an hour once their monthly time allotment runs out. Phone costs are also high: Nippon Telegraph & Telephone Corp., which monopolizes local service, charges $1.44 for an hour of local calls. ''NTT is a huge obstacle,'' says Bunichiro Fujii, chief engineer of Sony Communication Network KK, an Internet provider that began an experimental Web-based chat room in February.

Given these barriers, it will be several years before Japan's online community grows and matures enough for the Web to replace subscription-based, proprietary platforms as a common meeting ground. But the signs of life are there. Online advertising in Japan, for example, is tiny but growing fast. Internet-related advertising totaled a mere $12.8 million in 1996 but will expand to $32 million in 1997, according to Dentsu Inc., Japan's biggest ad agency. Japanese cyberspace will develop--but into something uniquely Japanese, not a clone of what exists in the U.S.

By Steven V. Brull in Tokyo


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Updated June 15, 1997 by bwwebmaster
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