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Rabid right foams at the mouth over Line’s Korean connection

by Mark Schreiber

Special To The Japan Times

Internet entrepreneurism has spawned all kinds of free services and applications. Some — with names such as Yahoo, Google, Facebook, YouTube and Twitter — have emerged as wild successes and earned sizable fortunes for their founders.

But while cyberspace was intended to be borderless, closer scrutiny shows that national interests are often at odds with the concept of open systems. Clashes may arise over commercial interests, particularly intellectual property and taxation issues. And of course, e-business activities may go against the grain of government restrictions. Different countries, moreover, have drastically different attitudes toward censorship. Google, for example, was forced to cut back on its business activities in China due to fundamental disagreements with that country’s government over freedom of expression and other human rights.

The insular “Galapagos” structure of Japan’s IT business has helped hold some international friction at bay. But a bizarre struggle has been percolating below the surface for the hearts and minds of 50 million smartphone users in this country, involving a company called Line and its eponymous application.

Line, a mobile-messaging service that can be downloaded for free from the Internet, was launched in June 2011, three months after the March 11 earthquake and tsunami that devastated northeastern Japan. Whereas cellphone networks were crippled immediately following the disaster, having Line would have enabled users of telephones, tablet PCs and desktop computers to communicate via the Internet. Line’s services have expanded and presently its users can also communicate with each other for free, and — like Skype, for example — voice phone options are offered that considerably undercut the rates of the phone companies.

The problem, if there is one, is that Line Corp. is a wholly owned Japanese subsidiary of Seoul-based Naver Corp.

While Japan and South Korea are major trading partners, with a few exceptions, Korean products such as home appliances, fashion items, food products and cars have had little success in penetrating Japanese consumer markets. For instance, Hyundai, the world’s 5th-largest automobile manufacturer, sold a total of 66 cars here last year.

While the “Hanryu boom” of Korean TV dramas and K-pop enjoyed a decade of popularity and spurred expanded cultural exchanges and tourism, the deterioration of political relations since 2012 has caused the bilateral relationship to nosedive.

So while Line’s sharp growth has been reported as straight news in the mainstream media, Internet bulletin-board users and tabloid magazines here have been firing vicious broadsides at the firm.

A search using the terms “Line,” “kankoku” (South Korea) and “abunai” (dangerous) brought up 686,000 hits. The often xenophobic remarks concerning Line posted therein have been echoed in tabloid magazines. One of the more scurrilous of these, Jitsuwa Bunka Tabu (December 2013) ran a four-page broadside against Line under the headline, “Line — which is operated by a Korean company and attracts unthinking idiots — is dangerous!” It was followed by a sub-headline pleading, “Rescue Japanese people from being controlled by Line!”

Line, the article harangued, is full of annoying functions, and as examples poured out a string of mean-spirited complaints about its displays, icons, games, groups, character mascots and so on. It next devoted a page to crimes and other incidents in which unwitting Line users were involved, including a murder in Kure, Hiroshima Prefecture, intimidation, acts of vandalism, obscenity, rape, drug sales and abetting prostitution. “Soredemo Line tsukaimasu ka?” (“Even so, will you still use Line?”) the article asked in conclusion.

More recently, a five-page article in Spa! (Feb. 25) cited a survey showing that 70 percent of female company staff had no compunctions about befriending married male coworkers at the office via Line’s messaging application. To take advantage of opportunities for hanky-panky, the magazine provided the gentlemen with a “complete manual” for philandering at the office.

For instance, male readers were instructed on how to recognize a gal’s subtle “love signs” — like attaching a “Kitty-chan” character stamp to the message.

I was still scratching my head and wondering about Spa’s possible motives for running such a sleazy article when, the following week, its March 4 issue ran a second story, titled “The bad reputation of Line’s Korean parent company that Japanese don’t know about.”

The article was mostly about the activities of Naver (known as NHN Corp. until last September) in South Korea, such as the fact that it was singled out for violations of fair-trade laws. The Korean media also complained when the company allegedly provided updates of the most recent presidential election in real time.

Whatever else one might say, Line applications appear to work well, and equally importantly, they save users money. Ties with South Korea’s largest IT firm notwithstanding, there’s no evidence to suggest that the Japan organization is anything less than a solid corporate citizen. But the attacks on it are troubling nonetheless and remind us that in a negatively charged political atmosphere, multinational IT firms are by no means immune to assaults from ultra-nationalists.

If, as reports in the media suggest, Line soon agrees to allow SoftBank Corp. or some other Japanese IT firm to buy into it, the Korean connection — and the political baggage that goes with it — may cease to be a problem. Or maybe not.

  • Steve Jackman

    This article explains perfectly why many foreign companies are doomed in Japan. When foreigner companies usually think of barriers to doing business in Japan, they generally think of issues like tariffs, regulation and taxation. However, these barriers fall pale in comparison to the underhanded and insurmountable barriers faced by foreign companies in Japan which this article describes so well.

    I have seen many foreign executives who work for foreign companies scratch their heads about their failure to develop successful businesses in Japan, since they are clueless about the types of underhanded tactics being used against them. These can include their Japanese competitors spreading false and malicious rumours about them in the media or word of mouth, innuendo, and conservative right wingers attacking them behind the scenes for their own racist and xenophobic agenda.

    This is why I am highly skeptical of trade deals like the TPP, since they are powerless to create a level playing field for foreign products and services in Japan, when faced with these types of cultural and structural barriers to free trade.

    I truly hope that the smart people of Japan will wake up and realize that these types of tactics may help them in the short term, but by limiting healty foreign competition by using underhanded means they are actually hurting Japan’s global competitiveness in the long term, since it stifles innovation at home and contributes to the Galapagos syndrome.

    It would also be helpful if the foreign chambers of commerce in Japan, such as the American Chamber of Commerce in Japan (ACCJ) would take up this issue.

  • Nevin Thompson

    Beyond games, Japan does not have much of a reputation internationally for software development (although the creator of Ruby is from Japan). Software developers are not paid much compared to their counterparts in North America, and working conditions are also pretty bad (eg, no Agile or Scrum methodologies).

    So I would love to hear how Naver (the Korean company behind LINE) approaches software development in Japan.

    LINE is an interesting success story for Japan, and shows a potential way forward. If Japan can pay more attention to software development, perhaps there is a way to provide more opportunities for underemployed millenials in Japan who cannot find a good job, cannot afford a house, cannot afford to get married, and therefore cannot afford to have the children Japan needs to pay for an ageing society.

  • CheapoGreg

    Citing number of results for a search in Google?? Sorry, but that’s ridiculous. Try searching for Japan Times, Kankoku, abunai and you’ll get 85,000 results. Absolutely irrelevant.