90 million Japanese wired

Internet users in Japan topped 90 million at the end of 2008, the Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications reported earlier this month. That means three out of four Japanese are communicating, shopping, reading or hanging out on the Internet. With Japan’s advanced broadband and fiber-optic connections, the Internet is running at speeds and expanding to an extent unimaginable even a decade ago. Using the Internet might be the one thing that most Japanese have in common!

With more people here using the Internet than in all of Africa, the Internet has become a defining characteristic of Japanese society and economy. Only China and the United States have more total users. Yet, as with all technological advances, the impact on the lives, minds and feelings must be weighed and considered. The question remains whether the Internet has made all these 90 million people happier, better or more prosperous.

Japan’ high literacy rate suggests that most of the millions are probably spending time reading more, and more widely, on the Internet. That information flow must be welcome for most Japanese. It is quick, confidential and cheap. Reading may not make everyone happier, but it seems a more substantial activity than shopping. Online retail, which has exploded in recent years, may help the economy and save people time, but it encourages a materialist outlook at a level up from the present.

If not reading or shopping, most Japanese probably lose themselves in fantasy sites, video games or other escapes. Fantasizing is quite human of course, but when the fantasies are delivered pre-formed without the active work of the imagination, there is cause for concern. Young people especially need face-to-face time with real live human beings, not just with uploaded photos and lines of text. If not learned and practiced, the social skills of intuition, empathy and body language, all with their unique Japanese patterns, may start to fade away.

The Internet will continue to change our society in fundamental ways. Whether those changes will be positive or negative is one of the most important topics to consider as the Internet continues to capture the hearts and minds of so many Japanese.