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Japan’s techies strive to bridge culture gap

by Rick Martin

In November, more than 100 people met in Yokohama for a daylong “unconference” on technology and the Internet. Attendees addressed each other on topics of their choosing — the roster of speakers determined solely by whoever signed up fastest for time slots on a whiteboard.

This was Yokohama Barcamp, the latest incarnation in Japan of the international Barcamp phenomenon, a network of user-generated meetups that began in California in 2005 and have since been held in 350 cities worldwide.

It is also representative of a number of technology-centered networking groups in Japan that form the hub of a growing tech community starting to span different areas of knowledge and expertise and move past linguistic and cultural barriers.

The free event, held at Yokohama International School, was attended by expatriates and local Japanese, and both groups were encouraged not only to network with each other but also to discuss and to cooperate together on presentations and projects.

It is not easy to coordinate events attended by both Japanese and non-Japanese speakers, but by encouraging attendees to work together, rather than just talk with one another, a bridge between the two groups has begun to form.

But building this bridge has been daunting.

“I think most of the communities are completely separated between Japanese speakers and English speakers,” says Japanese blogger Fumi Yamazaki, who is fluent in English. “The language barrier is the biggest issue, but I think there is a cultural barrier, too. It is not easy or comfortable for foreigners to join Japanese-only events, and vice versa.”

One event, Tokyo Startup Weekend, has already moved to eliminate the language barrier by cutting the talk.

The event last month gave participants (ranging from managers and marketers to developers and designers) one weekend to start a business, Web site or computer-based service.

Organizer Jonny Li points out: “A lot of the events are focused on talking. . . . What I want to do is hopefully get people to be active and do something. . . . A lot of the tech events that we have here, we’ve got events where Japanese people and Western people are very separate, and most Japanese people feel like a Western- organized event is too difficult to get into. I want to eliminate that barrier.”

When Tokyo Barcamp began in May 2009, it was a daylong event rich in brainstorming sessions and tech lectures. Japanese participation was not as high as organizers had hoped, but the event spawned a Tokyo-based version of an another global initiative, HackerSpace. The group is quick to clarify that hacking is about do-it-yourself projects and solving problems in unexpected ways, rather than engaging in nefarious coding or malicious attacks. They emphasize making use of others’ expertise and sharing your own knowhow when possible. Since Barcamp, Tokyo HackerSpace has grown to number more than 25 members (though so far only a handful are Japanese), and they’ve also acquired a work space. The monthly cost is shared among members.

Where the action is

Tokyo’s tech community is spreading faster than a YouTube clip of a kid high on dental anesthesia. Here are some groups that are booting up across town:

Barcamp
Mobile Monday Tokyo
Tokyo Startup Weekend
Tokyo HackerSpace
Tokyo 2.0
Tokyo Linux Users Group
Tokyo PC Users Group
Tokyo English Language Mac Users
Hacker’s Cafe
4nchor5 la6
Open Solaris User Group
Tokyo Girl Geek Dinners
Tokyo Drupal User Group

Tokyo has seen more than a few technology-related events over the years, but these newer groups show some real progress. In the past year, they have started attracting more participants from outside close-knit communities. As technology becomes increasingly accessible for the average user, the number of people who count themselves as tech enthusiasts has naturally grown.

One long-standing tech event in Tokyo is Mobile Monday, an organization that brings together people who are either involved in or interested in the mobile industry in Japan. The initiative was first launched in Helsinki in 2000, but Momo Tokyo, as it is often referred to, was the first chapter to launch outside of Finland. It now has more than 80 chapters around the globe. A typical Mobile Monday event includes some tech presentations followed by casual networking, where participants can rub elbows with like-minded individuals who share their love of mobile technology. Speakers usually give talks in English, unless doing so in Japanese would make them more comfortable. The event’s organizer, Lawrence Cosh-Ishii, acknowledges that one of his goals is to make Japanese tech better understood by observers beyond Japan’s borders.

“Realistically, it’s a global community,” says Cosh-Ishii, “so if everything happens in Japan in Japanese, how do people in Boston or Vienna have any clue what’s going on? “Bridging the gap between Japan and the rest of the world has always been a challenge, but it’s something that’s required. I think Mobile Monday, as a community site, as a community effort, has done a lot. There needs to be a warm, central fuzzy kind of place, in that hyperlocal sort of way, where birds of a feather can get together.”

Tech enthusiasts are also flocking to the popular Tokyo 2.0 event. Group organizer Andrew Shuttleworth saw the emergence of Web 2.0 sites such as Facebook, Twitter and Flickr as an opportunity to launch a community focused around a common interest in the Internet.

Shuttleworth says that bringing Japanese and non-Japanese together is a core focus of the group, but he readily admits that it is a challenge, especially when preparing for bilingual events.

“Organizing an event can be complex and time consuming, and when you add another language to that, it almost doubles the effort,” he says. “You’ve got announcements to think about; a Web site to think about; you’ve got to make sure you’ve got a translator. It really does add quite a lot of complexity.”

Shuttleworth also points out that it is important to be “integrated with Japan and have a good exchange of information, because with a limited foreign audience, you often end up with the same people and it’s hard to keep things fresh.”

The extent of success these groups have in their attempts to connect with Japan’s tech community is still uncertain. No single group is likely to build the bridge on its own, but the important thing is that more and more people are trying. Their efforts have already create a kind of “scene” in Tokyo that goes beyond the stereotype of bespectacled gamers meeting up in Akihabara, Tokyo’s technology hub. Despite linguistic and cultural barriers, it is encouraging to see more niche groups forming. Now people in search of such a niche have a much better chance of finding a place they can really call home.