The Internet, Media, and Public Opinion in Japan


A Japanese perspective on media in the Internet age, considering how public opinion is formed today.

A Tarnished Dream of Free Debate

In the second half of the 1990s, when the Internet began to establish itself as a mainstream channel for societal interaction, there were high hopes that the online world would become a new public sphere. It provided the opportunity for people to engage freely in debate, liberated from their existing personal relations and socioeconomic status and unfettered by time or location. In Japan, considerable public funds were spent to construct online venues where citizens could raise and deliberate issues, exchange opinions, form social consensus, and contribute to the decision-making process.

However, anonymous online communication greatly restricts the normal social cues of conversation, such as facial expressions. Some use the veil of anonymity to make irresponsible or inappropriate comments, and heated disputes and flaming are common. If a web-based forum restricts debate to registered members, on the other hand, most of its users will migrate elsewhere.

As well as being a good place to sound off, the Internet allows users to hear what they want to hear. It is easy to find people with similar tastes and values. Shared interactions and emotions lead to amplification of opinions and ideologies in an echo-chamber effect. This can shift individual beliefs to the extremes and lead to group polarization, tempting people to make more radical decisions together than they would as individuals.

There is growing recognition that public opinion forms differently online than it traditionally has in the offline world. This is accompanied by concern that the new public sphere is a hotbed for enjō (mob flaming attacks)—as with the Tokyo Olympic logo plagiarism accusations—and the spread of fake news, “alternative facts,” and other untrustworthy information.

I have conducted numerous research projects on the Internet and attitudes expressed online since the 1990s. Below I introduce the structure of online opinion in Japan and show that it is neither extreme nor exceptional. Rather, it reflects broad societal movements that are shared to some extent by all developed countries.

The Japanese Media Ecosystem

Online opinion is formed in the media ecosystem, where news is created and shared by both online and traditional sources. Figure 1 illustrates the ecosystem as it exists in Japan.

Traditionally in Japan, public opinion has been shaped primarily by the mass media and organizations with strong political power to influence it. Individual citizens who make up the media audience have only had an indirect influence.

In the Internet age, however, it is no longer a case of the mass media simply delivering news to readers, listeners, and viewers. Audience members can contribute to the process by disseminating their reactions on Facebook, Twitter, and other social media, or blogs, message boards, and comment sections on publishers’ websites.

Between the mass media and social media stand the “middle media,” which include online news sites, such as BuzzFeed Japan and J-Cast News, and aggregation portals like Naver Matome. The interaction among these three spheres creates a platform for the development of online opinion.

Yahoo News an Online Giant

In Japan, Yahoo News plays a huge role in shaping online opinion. Figure 2 shows the results of a survey I conducted in July–August 2016. There were 1,100 respondents aged 16–69 in the Kantō, Tōkai, and Kansai regions. The results illustrate the high proportion of Internet users who encounter the day’s headlines through Yahoo News. Additionally, a Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications survey conducted in January and February of the same year found that Internet usage was over 96% for citizens aged from their teens to their forties, 91% for those in their fifties, and 77% for those in their sixties. Accordingly, as Japan’s biggest online presence, Yahoo News is a key news outlet for Japan as a whole.

Figure 2  User Engagement in News-Related Online Activities

Digital Natives Digital Immigrants Total
16–24 25–35 36–50 51–69
Reads Yahoo News 60.0 76.5 78.2 72.4 72.5
Reads other (middle media) online news sites 32.5 37.0 39.9 33.8 35.8
Uses news apps 30.0 31.0 17.4 20.2 23.2
Watches news on video sites 42.5 34.5 31.9 29.1 33.3
Uses aggregator sites 47.0 46.5 31.2 11.9 29.8
Reads 2channel Matome (aggregator) 39.5 31.5 23.8 11.9 23.7
Reads 2channel (discussion site) 33.0 32.5 25.2 13.9 23.8
Reads newspaper sites 26.0 29.5 35.6 39.1 34.0
Rates, reviews, or comments on products and services 29.0 33.0 28.2 26.6 28.6
Shares content online 21.5 12.0 4.0 2.7 8.2
Registers and contributes to message boards or comment sections 13.0 14.0 10.4 9.7 11.3
Writes on 2channel 11.5 11.5 5.4 2.0 6.4
Contributes to anonymous message boards 10.5 8.5 4.7 2.2 5.5
Takes part in enjō online attacks 10.0 8.0 3.0 2.2 4.9
Reads news on Twitter 43.0 27.0 16.1 7.9 20.0

Survey conducted by Kimura Tadamasa in July–August 2016. There were 1,100 valid responses from men and women aged 16–69 in the Kantō, Tōkai, and Kansai regions.

Around a third of users of all ages access other middle media news sites, while almost a third of digital natives (under 35 years old, or those born in 1980 or after) use smartphone news apps. Nearly half of digital natives use aggregator sites, and around a third watch news on video sites and use 2channel, Japan’s largest discussion board site. In other words, net users in their teens, twenties, and thirties are firmly incorporated in the daily cycle of news within the media ecosystem described above.

It is also becoming more usual to write reviews and comments, particularly among young people. Around a third of people write reviews of products and services, no matter what their age. Generational differences are seen, however, in the proportion of users writing on 2channel and other anonymous message boards, sharing content, and taking part in enjō mass flaming attacks. Some 10% of digital natives engage in these activities, rising to 20% for content sharing by users aged 16 to 24.

(Part 2 of this essay will be posted shortly. Originally published in Japanese on July 4, 2017. Banner photo © Aflo.)

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