Bit Valley Unzipped

Back to Contents of Issue: May 2000

by Tanya Clark

There is a movement in Japan that started well before some genius came up with the perfect name for it. It is called Bit Valley -- and it's Japan's equivalent of Silicon Valley.

It is a moving, rapidly growing phenomenon that few people, if anyone, can fully grasp -- as yet. But there are a few facts that are true. It is young, exciting, innovative, and happening -- today. Japan has discovered the Internet, and the reality is far more exciting than the hype.

But how to tell you the story?

It is about so many different parts of the Japan experience. It is about individuals in Japan from all walks of life finally standing up for themselves and discovering the power of the Internet to unleash their dreams. And what dreams! Democracy. Change. Freedom. Independence. Capitalism. Creativity. Altruism. New Business. Opportunity. Hunger. Chance. Greed.

The individuals in Japan's Internet dream are in full flight. Many see the potential of the Internet as their chance to change Japan, to fix its problems, to turn their own lives on their head, to get rich.

Japan -- what we like to call the old Japan -- has more than enough problems to stifle all but the hardiest individual. Its social system can be incredibly rigid. Companies can be bureaucratic and hidebound. Politics are weighed down by interest groups and an old guard determined to maintain its grip on power. Schools are only beginning to grasp the education needs of the 21st century. Individuals who have tried to do something, anything, different are frequently squashed -- battered down into submissively accepting the status quo. (Japan has a famous, very overused phrase to describe this habit: the nail that sticks out gets hammered down).

In short, these problems, and many more, have tied the nation in knots, as it heaves this way and that, trying to find new equations for economic growth without throwing out the old.

And so while Japan remains the world's second-largest economy, the country has languished, mired in the impossibility of breaking away from old habits.

But after years of economic stagnation following the collapse of the real estate and financial bubble of the 1980s, and after decades of its citizens being squeezed to fit the economic growth model proscribed by Japan's masters, there is an intense energy flowing through thousands of Japanese individuals who want change. And they are the ones grabbing onto the potential of the Internet with every facility they have.

Exciting?

It's magic.

And it is also very much in its infancy.

Japan is not about to turn into an Internet power overnight. Only a very small percentage of Japan's population "gets the Internet" -- and most of those who do understand its power are still beginners. But today's toddlers will grow up quickly, and that old adage about Internet time being a heck of a lot faster than real time holds true in Japan as well.

Already the cast and crew of Japan's Internet beginnings are well known: Softbank and its founder Masayoshi Son, Hiroshi Mikitani and his online shopping mall Rakuten, and Yasumitsu Shigeta's Hikari Tsushin. Plenty of others have gained media fame: Cafeglobe.com (Kikuko Yano & Yoko Aoki), E*Trade Japan (Yoshitaka Kitao), Monex (Oki Matsumoto), Netyear (Sonny Koike), NetAge (Kiyoshi Nishikawa), esampo.com (Meiko Towada) to name a handful.

But a revolution takes more than a few startups and big names -- it needs solid roots.

To explore the reality of Japan's Bit Valley, J@pan Inc. took to the streets and the parties of Tokyo to find out where the hype leaves off and where reality takes hold -- and to determine what tomorrow may look like.

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