No presses need to be stopped to inform you of the growing number of women on the Internet in Japan. And the sizes of our headlines won’t increase to tell you that number will continue to rise steadily, if not dramatically, over the next few years

Cyberia logo

If you don’t believe me there are the head-counters. Take the DSA Analytics’ reports on Japanese Internet trends. Release 1999.2 noted that “one of the strongest trends in Japanese Internet demographics was the ‘feminization’ of the Japanese Internet.” It estimated that the number of new female Internet users could approach half by mid-1999.

While this is good news, it’s not big news — it’s inevitable. The better news is that more Web sites are responding to the needs of women coming online. And what’s interesting is how they will respond.

This month is proving to be an eventful one for Japanese women on the Net. In my last column, I profiled the collaboration between one of the biggest U.S. portals for women, Women.com Networks, and Sankei Living Shimbun’s Ladies Living Network. Also registering high on the local Net scene was the Sept. 2 launch of WomenJapan.com.

At first glance, one might be tempted to call it a Mary-come-lately in the Web sweepstakes, but the simple fact is, there still remains a need for these sites. “Josei no tame” Web sites are definitely out there, some may be thriving, but most seem to be a far cry from the sophisticated metropolises of Women.com, iVillage.com, Oxygen.com, or even the wonderfully low-budget sites under the umbrella of ChickClick.com.

There’s a sophistication and maturity at WomenJapan.com rarely seen at other such sites in Japan. Its tone and look is light yet not saccharine, bold yet not somber. It doesn’t condescend to its users with cloying graphics, nor does it reinforce the usual clichs with features such “How to land a dream man.”

At a press conference to launch the site Kumi Sato, WomenJapan.com K.K.’s president, explained that the impetus of the site sprung from the lack of an infrastructure for women who wanted to continue their careers after childbirth. Sato realized the Net was probably the best medium for not only dispensing helpful information, but also for nurturing a community for like-minded women.

In a separate interview, Sato noted another inspiration for the project: “Many sites have been created by men for women. They talk about the life of a woman from a man’s perspective of how men think women should feel. WomenJapan.com is by women for women.”

WomenJapan.com operates as a “big virtual team,” employing 10 in-house employees and numerous outside partners — content providers, freelance writers, Web consultants, and so on.

For the time being, WomenJapan.com is running on money put up by Sato, who is also president of Cosmo PR, and content from corporate partners Warner Home Video and J-Wave. Also, IBM Japan is working with the site on what could be the golden egg: an e-commerce Bazaar, due to be unveiled this January.

A Web site’s design isn’t everything, but it does often reflect the philosophy and attitude of the creators. WomenJapan.com has obviously gone the extra mile and put a lot of thought into first impressions. The top page is a collection of modules, such as Interviews, Self-Improvement and Entertainment, with new and featured articles highlighted on the side.

The site has only been in operation for a few weeks, so the content is still rather slim. In fact, most features are rather bite-size. The topics, however, cover all the bases. For example, the freedom of choice offered by the Pill is discussed in the Heart and Body section. Interviews range from the president of Body Shop Japan to heartthrob Hugh Grant. One informative section offers detailed requirements for particular jobs.

The “Ask the Experts” module also offers a wide range of informed Q&A’s on everything from aromatherapy, wine and movie gossip to finance, legal matters and health. In time, it could become a valuable resource (though I have to question the relevancy of naming who is or isn’t rumored to be gay in Hollywood).

While such information is the staple of many women sites, Sato emphasized that the community should have a large effect on the content. “Our editorial policy is to stay close to the users. We will get what the users want. I think that is the key to successful content-building.”

Indeed, a lot has been discussed about the importance of women’s communities on the Web. The Userspace of WomenJapan.com — which incorporates a bulletin board and a chat area — already gets all kinds: the pleas for help (“Where can I learn about PCs and how to build a home page?”); shared advice (where to get snacks for children with skin allergies); and yes, lonely foreign men looking for Japanese brides.

The Userspace is perhaps the most interesting and dynamic part of WomenJapan.com; it’s also the least efficient. This may sound like a niggling complaint, especially given that the Web alone doesn’t automatically lend itself to efficient public forums. But there are forums that work, partly due to the technology behind them. Look at the high ratio of signal-to-noise in the discussion areas of popular Web sites (Salon.com or Utne.com, for example). They attract certain kinds of users, but they also have the kind of interfaces and technology that facilitate a higher form of communication.

It’s fairly easy to produce engaging content that inspires ongoing discussions. The tough part is organizing the multitude of threads that evolve. In a cutting-edge Web forum, you can easily find most recent or earliest posts. At some sites you can even call up the postings of one individual. Without some type of architecture, it’s like walking into a lively party without knowing anyone, without any context, and getting none of the jokes.

Everyone knows that if you build it, they’ll come. Womemcom.com merely has to find ways to make them stay.