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Social networking, online games in Japan media’s sights

by Mark Schreiber

While much attention overseas has been focused on the ups and downs (mostly downs) of Facebook’s recent initial public offering, the Japanese media have been subjecting online gaming and social networks to increasingly critical scrutiny. The issues raised range from complaints over lax privacy safeguards and exploitation of minors by predatory businesses to reputed ties to organized crime.

“I don’t wanna become a Facebook fool,” rants Michiyuki Shimizu in Sapio (June 27). The freelance writer cites Facebook’s growing reputation as a home wrecker. It seems a survey by the American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers found that 81 percent of attorneys questioned replied that in divorce cases they had handled over the past decade, text messages sent via social-media sites were submitted as a source of evidence, with the trend accelerating over the past five years. (In another survey in the U.K., a review of divorce claims showed that in 5,000 cases, references to Facebook appeared in 33 percent.)

When such a trend becomes conspicuous in other countries, Japan is seldom far behind. Shimizu cites the unhappy tale of a 40-year-old Osaka doctor who was moved to engage an investigative agency when he noticed his spouse appeared suspiciously enthusiastic over Facebook. A computer-savvy private eye managed to hack into her account (her password was her own birthday) and found amorous exchanges between the wife and a female physician. One read, “Let’s both dump our hubbies so we can be together.” Further probing determined the two women were also engaging in clandestine romantic trysts. Data captured off the screens were submitted as evidence in the divorce suit.

“What really makes Facebook so frightening,” writes Shimizu, “is how it blurs the boundaries between public and private. You might disclose something about your company to an intimate friend; that raises the possibility it will be spread to a ‘friend of a friend.’ “

Yu Arai, a researcher on cyber security, is quoted as saying it’s becoming a common practice of industrial spies to tap into SNS relationships as a means of uncovering corporate secrets.

The May 25 issues of Shukan Asahi and Nikkan Gendai both scrutinized the social networking site called “Ameba Pigg,” whose users — some 1.4 million of whom are estimated to be under age 15 — assume the guise of cute little avatars. The avatars hang out in a virtual Shibuya and Roppongi and suavely attired males can befriend females, inviting them to accompany them to a notorious subsite called Pigg H, where private rooms are furnished with beds — presumably for a session of cybersex.

Apparently some of the girls enticed to go along by offers of gifts are minors masquerading as adults, so we may be looking at a new form of virtual enjo kosai (teen prostitution). Nor is it entirely safe because it’s confined to online. As IT journalist Toshiyuki Inoue explains, “Once the participants become friendly, they can exchange email addresses under their real names and possibly even meet in person.”

Complaints over minors running up high charges for online gaming has led the major players in the industry, including such companies as Gree and Mobage (DeNA), to adopt self-imposed restrictions designed to discourage access by minors.

As potentially traumatic as addiction may be for the younger generation, Nikkan Gendai (June 12) notes that even middle-aged salarymen can become hooked on SNSs, which can lead to serious depression.

“The first sign of trouble is insomnia,” says psychiatrist Joji Suzuki. “We need to watch out in particular for people who can’t walk someplace without constantly checking their smartphone, or who constantly interrupt whatever they’re doing to check their phone.”

Last year the National Hospital Organization Kurihama Medical and Addiction Center in Yokosuka City set up a department to treat Internet dependency.

“Nationwide, it’s estimated that 2.7 million people are addicted to the Internet. But as ‘addiction’ has yet to be defined, we don’t know the actual situation,” Satoko Mihara, a clinical psychologist at the center, told business magazine Shukan Diamond (June 2). (NHK’s website noted that if minors are included, the figure is likely to be about twice as high.)

Last August the Kurihama center organized a four-night, five-day workshop attended by 10 middle school students who sought to wean themselves from their computers and cellphones.

Those who read Japanese and would like to see how they measure up can take the 20-question self-evaluation questionnaire for Internet dependency (www.kurihama-med.jp/tiar/index.html) But be forewarned: if you score over 39 points out of a possible 100, you might need counseling.

Shukan Diamond also warns that the unsavory characters lurking on the Web may include those with ties to the yakuza.

“The newcomers to organized crime tend to be … made up of the generation familiar with cellphones, the Internet and games,” Atsushi Mizoguchi, an investigative reporter considered Japan’s top authority on crime syndicates, is quoted as saying. “To keep from being charged under the new antigang ordinances, gangs are diversifying by infiltrating these areas. In some cases syndicates that lack technological know-how may tie up with tech-savvy operators.”