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Japanese users remain aloof on Internet social networking sites

September 27, 2008|Jay Alabaster | The Associated Press

TOKYO — Like a lot of 20-year-olds, Kae Takahashi has a page on U.S.-based MySpace, and there is no mistaking it for anyone else's.

It's got pictures of the Tokyoite modeling the clothes she designs in her spare time, along with her name, personal details and ramblings in slightly awkward English about her love life.

Switch to her site on Mixi, Japan's dominant online hangout, and her identity vanishes.

There, Takahashi uses a fake name and says she is an 88-year-old from the town of "Christmas." Her profile is locked to outsiders.

Takahashi is far from alone: The vast majority of Mixi's 15 million users don't reveal anything about themselves.

It's not just Mixi. It's Japan.

YouTube is wildly successful here, but rare is the user who follows the site's enticement to "Broadcast Yourself." Posting pet videos is far more popular and has bred a generation of animal celebrities.

On large matchmaking sites like Match.com, the whole point is to open up and meet strangers. But fewer than half of Match's paying members in Japan are willing to post their photos, compared with nearly all members in the U.S.

Welcome to Japan's online social scene, where you're unlikely to meet anyone you don't already know. The early promises of a new, open social frontier, akin to the identity-centric world of Facebook and MySpace in the U.S., have been replaced by a realm where people stay safely within their circles of friends and few reveal themselves to strangers.

"There is the sense that, 'My face just isn't that interesting,' or, 'I'm not attractive -- there is nothing special about me to show people,' " says Tetsuya Shibui, a writer who follows the Internet in Japan.

The Japanese virtual world has turned out just like the real one.

People rarely give their first names to those they don't know well. Spontaneous exchanges are uncommon even on the tightly packed trains and streets of Tokyo. TV news shows often blur faces in the background of video and photos to protect their privacy.

The penchant for invisibility has made it difficult for Western social networks to establish themselves. Belated forays into the Japanese market by Facebook Inc. and News Corp.'s MySpace, for instance, have failed to generate much of a buzz.

Google Inc., which operates YouTube, has tried to persuade the Japanese to loosen up, running events in Tokyo in which girls in miniskirts roam the streets with giant picture frames and video cameras, asking pedestrians to frame themselves and record a clip for the site.

But it has since eased back on such efforts. YouTube's latest campaign in Japan involves people uploading pictures of their pets.

"We can't change the mind-set of Japanese people," says Tomoe Makino, in charge of partner development at YouTube's Japan site. "It's the uniqueness of Japanese culture -- anonymous works in Japan."

It wasn't always like that. When Mixi was launched in early 2004, many people registered with their own names and photos.

"It was all friends, or friends of friends, so you could easily search using real names, and it was easy to be found," Shibui says.

But Mixi quickly grew in popularity and was heavily featured in the media as it sped toward a public stock offering in 2006. New members can join only with invitations from existing users, but some people began to send out invites randomly. The circle-of-friends concept was broken, and users began to lock their profiles and withdraw behind anonymous user names.

Naoko Ito is a typical denizen of Japan's online scene.

The office worker's video clips of her cats running amok at her house are among the most popular on YouTube Japan. Her blog features daily pictures of the feline antics and is popular enough to have spawned a book deal. But she doesn't post her name and in five years of uploading images has only rarely shown her face.

She says Japanese are just not used to putting themselves in the spotlight, and in the rare cases she has uploaded her picture it has been to show she is like everyone else.

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