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A Chat with Nobi
Pages: 1, 2

CS: Back to MacWorld, are there other big stories here?

NH: Well, this expo is not as interesting for Japanese people as it is for Americans. While Apple TV is nice, in Japan, since the iTunes Store only sells some music, there are no TV shows. So maybe it's good for showing pictures, for sharing them, and listing to some music, but there are no TV shows, no movies, no nothing, so...the only announcement from this show of much interest is the Airport Extreme Base Station. Again, the way people see iPod and iTunes in Japan and their use is very different. They each have a totally different base.

CS: Is TiVo available in Japan?

NH: Well, not yet, and it's not exactly TiVo, but Sony is now working on something similar to TiVo, and this year will be big for TV in Japan.

I haven't even written about this myself, but I've seen some devices in development now that can record every single show on every single channel for a week, for example. These are multichannel recorders with 2-3 TBs of storage. I think a device like this will really change the viewing habits of a lot of people, who'll find that even though a lot of Japanese TV is crap, there are actually a few programs worth watching.

The great thing is that all the shows are tagged. So, if I wanted to watch something on, say, Macintosh or Paris, I could search on that and they would show up grouped together in the same folder. And we can give ratings, and that information is then shared with a community like with YouTube. Actually, there are now two or three companies making these kinds of devices.

CS: So have any of these devices been released yet?

NH: No, so I can't really say much more about them.

CS: And that brings me to the topic of broadband in Japan. I know it's very advanced there...

NH: Yes, it is very advanced. So much so that whenever I leave the country I feel so frustrated. At my home, for example, I have a symmetric 100Mbps fiber-optic connection--I actually get about 40-60Mbps from it. And that costs me about $40/month. With it I can, for example, play back from my office a DVD that's mounted on my home server.

CS: Wow, how typical is that there?

NH: It's becoming typical. Some people have ADSL, but even that is usually over 10Mbps. And theoretically, that go can up to 26Mbps.

CS: You're in Tokyo, then. How much of the rest of the country has access to that?

NH: I think more than 80-90 percent of Japanese households now can get fiber.

CS: I could see how that could affect the lifestyle there, changing the culture even. Are a lot of people using that?

NH: Well, the digital divide is a lot bigger in Japan than here. The people who use computers will have broadband, but a large percentage of people just use their cells phones, since they are also advanced. They can do all their mailing with them. And those people don't know Google, or Yahoo--though most phones now can access sites like that.

But that's improving as well. Recently "au by KDDI," one of the fastest-growing carriers here, has teamed with Google, so now Google search is at the top of the menu of all the "au"-phones. And because Softbank, the parent company of Yahoo! Japan, has purchased Vodafone Japan to create Softbank Mobile, now all the ex-Vodafone and -Softbank Mobile phones show "Yahoo! search" as top menu.

NTT DoCoMo, the largest among the three carriers, are staying neutral and hosting their own search service while also providing Google and Yahoo! Search as options.

CS: I know there's a growing blogosphere in Japan...

NH: Yes, it's big. Someone did a study on which languages are most popular on the blogosphere, and Japanese was one of the very top. So there are many, many, many blogs in Japan. The first commercial service started in 2003 and usage went straight up from there. But I see some difference in the culture of Japanese bloggers and American. In American blogs, there are many serious discussions, journalists who blog, and it's very opinionated. But in Japan, most blogs will just point out something interesting, or say "I ate sushi today." And that difference is probably just due to the cultural differences.

CS: Do you think the increase in blogging could in time change the culture?

NH: Well, there's already a negative example of that, a very big underground BBS called "ni channeru" ["2Channel"]. This site has already had much influence on Japanese culture.

Japanese people, in my perception, are such a big crowd of "village people." They don't take responsibility for what they say, and if they remain anonymous they become bold and say whatever they feel. On 2Channel, they don't disclose their identity and they'll say things about their companies, for example. In fact, two or three years ago 2Channel had a lot of effect on the Tokyo Stock Exchange because so many people disclosed a lot of important secrets about some companies. There were really a lot of fiascos caused by 2Channel. These days there's even a new business of people paid by companies just to watch 2Channel and report back any damaging comments about those companies. Since 2Channel is under so many lawsuits now, if you ask them to remove a posting, they will do it. That's what these new businesses do.

People also use it to attack their business opponents, and also there have been several illegal activities spawned on 2Channel. There have been group suicides planned, and things like that.

CS: And so because of things like this it's gotten kind of a dark cloud around it, kind of like MySpace has here?

NH: Yes, it's like the darkest side of MySpace. In any case, I really hate the 2Channel thing, and I'm always expecting that the blog culture would change it. But it still hasn't happened, and there are lot of people still into 2Channel.

Another site, OhMyNews, is a Korean citizen news website that started a Japanese site last year. At that time, the editor in chief of OhMyNews Japan said in an article that they want to be more journalistic in their reporting and want to get away from the 2Channel culture. When the 2Channel users saw the article, they started attacking OhMyNews, and they had a really rough start in Japan because of that.

I don't know exactly how many people are using 2Channel, but something like 10 million. And anything that's against Japanese culture, they like to attack. Usually, Japanese people, when they're alone, won't say anything critical. But when they get together...there's a Japanese saying, Akashingou minna de watareba kowaku nai which means, "it's not frightening to cross on a red light if everyone goes together." And that's the same mentality here. If someone starts attacking one blog, and another person notices and finds it funny, thousands more people will soon follow.

CS: Yes, I see. There's a lot of that here, too, I would say. I see that on Digg, for example. Once the ball starts rolling, people will jump on. But maybe until 2Channel, Japan didn't have a vehicle to express things that way, for better or worse.

Speaking of culture, have you seen MAKE magazine before? It's become kind of a reflection of some of the culture here, a "Makers" culture. Is there anything like that in Japan, a "do it yourself" kind of geeky culture?

NH: Well, in Japan, a publisher called Gakken has a long tradition of things like this. Do you know Gakken's Gakushu and Kagaku? They are books for kids, but each comes out with interesting projects that you can make using just the parts included with the book. Now they have come out with Otona no kagaku, which is a version for adults. And I've always said to them that they should come look at the U.S. market, since there are big opportunities there. But they have been satisfied with just the great success they have had in Japan. Unfortunately, a lot of Japanese companies don't look outside of Japan, and are usually just satisfied with being successful in the Japanese market.

CS: Are they aware of the Japan boom, here? Japanese culture, manga, and things are very popular here.

NH: Well, yes, and I always talk about it in Japan. They'll say, "Yes, that sounds good, we'd like to do that but we don't have the connections, it would be too much work," those kinds of things. It's such a shame...

So, let me show you the latest Otona no kagaku. Their projects are so well thought-out and interesting. The best-selling one was a home planetarium kit. The latest issue has a pinhole camera. And the next one will be a film projector. The previous issues had the Da Vinci Helicopter and a kaleidoscope.

CS: So, I think here, the MAKE culture is seen as a bit outside of the mainstream culture. Is that what Gakken is, or is it more part of the mainstream?

NH: No, Gakken is such a strong brand in Japan. Many people in my generation and earlier grew up with it. And that's why they're targeting us.

CS: Finally, I wonder if there's anything you have to say for Mac developers who are interested in entering the Japanese market?

NH: Well, I have talked to a lot of developers here at MacWorld, and they do ask about entering the Japanese market. Back in the 90s there were more than a dozen distributors in Japan, so most developers went through them since they had no knowledge of the Japanese market. But now there are only two or three distributors in Japan, so it's more difficult for developers here these days.

There are a lot of developers who had a presence in Japan, but now that most of the distributors are gone, they've lost contact with the Japanese market. A lot of them who want to return to the Japanese market ask me if I know a good distributor, and I can give them a couple of names. If they are lucky, they can talk with Apple's WWDR [World Wide Developer Relations] people, and they can help, but they have limited resources and can't help everybody.

The best way, though, is to have an online presence. Then you can find a Japanese fan of the product and have a web page translated and do your business that way, independently. There is a group of people who translate English software into Japanese voluntarily, so as a developer maybe you can get free localization and free documentation.

Also sometimes when you go through a distributor, they charge too much and it can actually kill the product. For example, some products that go for $20 here can go for $40 or $50 in Japan, and that doesn't make sense. So try to be as independent as possible, try to have as much control over your product as you can for the Japanese market. That would be my advice.

One thing, though, that I really do miss is when Apple, in the mid 90s, gave marketing sessions at WWDC [Apple's World Wide Developers Conference]. They would talk about how to go into different markets, like the Japanese market, for example. But they no longer do that. I would really like to see more Japanese developers coming to the American market, and more American developers coming to the Japanese market. But it's difficult to promote that. Nobody knows how big the Japanese market is, how many magazines there are to advertise in, but that information would be really important to developers coming into Japan. Maybe this article could be helpful for some of those developers even.

I do have a very good feeling, though, about the cultural issues. Among the younger generation of Japanese, a lot are very Americanized in their way of thinking, and in America a lot of people now have grown up watching Japanese animation and things. So, I think the younger generation is a big common base. It's amazing, your kids and my kids can be talking about Pokemon together.

CS: Indeed, and that's a hopeful note to wrap up with. It was great talking with you, Nobi--thank you very much!

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