PC Bang? More Like Poof

Back to Contents of Issue: March 2001

You'd think that the hyper-wired Net cafe so big in South Korea -- PC bangs -- would be huge in Japan, too.

by Michael Thuresson

JAPAN AND SOUTH KOREA may soon share another passion besides cellphones, steak, and baseball: PC bangs.

In South Korea, PC bangs are huge. What are they? Net cafes on steroids, basically. (See "Fast Country," December 2000, page 32.) Recently, E-Samsung Japan subsidiary InterPia introduced them here under the brand name Necca (a play on "Net" and "mecca").

Maybe the message is getting lost. Literally. Try to find out the right sign.
I decided to check out the first Necca, which opened in December 2000 and is a five-minute walk from Tokyo's Shibuya Station. In the heart of a youthful, social playground, the front entrance attempts to entice the nearby idle throngs -- and their vast amounts of disposable income -- with buzz phrases like Music Download, Net Phone, Visual Chatting, Job Hunting, Cafeteria Zone, and Shopping Zone.

But the top draw, says Han-Ki Jeong, the Korean director of Necca Business Group, is networked games. Multiplayer titles like Diablo, Age of Empires, and Quake are featured on most of the 80 PCs throughout the 330-square-meter café.

"That's our best customer -- students and young businessmen who come here together for the games," says Jeong. Accordingly, rows of networked PCs with joysticks have prominent space in front of a large-screen TV and stereo system.

Necca (www.interpia.ne.jp) is a true landmark in Japan's fledgling broadband scene. It boasts Pentium III computers (with sleek Samsung LCD monitors) connected to five 1.5-Mbps SDSL lines provided by Tokyo Metallic. (Also in the house: a 1.6-Mbps T1 hook-up provided by NTT Communications.)

neccaThe Net Phone is the most practical activity here: international calls are free (outside of the ¥500 hourly rate at Necca) using the installed software and telephony hookup. Jeong took a short break from touring me around to chat with his wife in Seoul -- and mock traditional telecommunications.

Despite all these technological wonders, the café was, well ... pretty empty. Jeong says it's particularly dead during late night hours, which in Korea is prime gaming time.

Here's what I saw:

Two graphic artists sat down and hooked up their laptop to a Net outlet. They had some pizza and coffee and started running graphic applications. While testing the download speed of their company's online photography studio, one observed, "Look, not so fast." Both first-time customers, they were pleasantly surprised when downloading a Shockwave movie took 10 seconds.

A group of university students were engrossed in an hours-long gaming session -- the vision of Japanese wired tech culture in action.

A couple sat closely together and surfed the Net in one of the intimate, comfortably cushioned, semi-enclosed terminals aligning the walls.

A New Zealander dropped in and seemed puzzled. "There's all this hype about Tokyo being so high-tech," he said. "Look, this place is empty."

What's the problem? Who knows. Perhaps Shibuya has too much eye candy for a PC Bang to seem interesting. Maybe it's the Net cellphone thing. Certainly the success of any cybercafe in Japan will depend on the emergence of bandwidth addicts -- the kind who haunt Korea's PC Bangs 24 hours a day -- but it must also appeal to the peculiarities of the Japanese. "The coffee is very good," one of the graphic artists remarked. "Style is very important in Japan."

Perhaps the government's e-Japan initiative will drive a public need for Net speed and bring flocks of twitchy PC gamers, bored teenagers, and company salarymen to places like Necca. Or maybe Japan's traditional gambler, the pachinko enthusiast, will someday cross over to online gambling and investing and make Necca a popular trading floor, precisely the scene at Korea's PC Bangs. For now, Shibuya's 24-hour Necca is an uncrowded tech luxury -- a late-night option for anyone stranded after missing the last train.

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