Monday, December 2, 2013

The Eastern Connection

When people first start hearing about the "depths of the Internet", they inevitably start hearing about 4chan. 4chan has recently passed its tenth birthday, and is one of the biggest social hubs that exists on the Internet.

And then some!

However, the website's concept was never original. 4chan's founder borrowed the website's format and style from 2channel, an imageboard in Japan. 2channel is just as big in Japan as 4chan is in America, if not even bigger.

As it turns out, we can trace a lot of online phenomena to the Far East - particularly Japan and South Korea, who have been functional on the Internet for as long as the West has. Today, we'll explore how Japan and South Korea have impacted our online culture, and how the tide for cultural dominance may be shifting in the coming decade.

Unlike China, a lot of East Asia has been online for a very long time. If you look at archives of Alexa's top 500 websites from 2002, you'll spot a lot of Korean websites in the top 100 alone. In these early days, Seoul - South Korea's capital - was called the "bandwidth capital of the world". That position has yet to be conceded - in 2009, South Korea topped the world in Internet speed, with Japan coming second, and the United States coming in 18th place.

From our faraway perspective, the online landscape of these countries mirror our own. The Japanese have their own online personalities, social networking services, video hosts, and online hubs. South Korea's most visible websites are Naver and Daum, which are comparable to our Google and MSN, and offer a familiar scope of features.

I wouldn't be able to say anything interesting about their online culture, though. I face the same conundrum as I did when trying to talk about China's Internet. I don't participate in it and I don't know anyone who does, so I couldn't possibly do it justice. I can, however, talk about how their online cultures have colored our own. To do that, we have to start with Japan.

Pastels of collective embarrassment.

Even before the rise of the Internet, Japan had already been exporting its culture to the West. The NES came out in North America in 1985, and set the foundation for modern gamer culture. Other media like anime and manga grew popular through the '80s and '90s. There consumer goods were coming during a time that was very crucially shaped by increasing consumerism. A whole generation was defined by it.

This generation - my generation, the Internet generation - would grow up to learn that these beloved consumer products came from this faraway little island country. They act different, they have their own history, and their culture is wildly different from our own, but they're producing all these amazing things that we like to consume! The result is a genuine fascination with Japanese culture and its many quirks. To many, Japan is this strange "other" world, where the pop culture is an intriguingly different flavor than Western pop culture and the technology seems wildly ahead and wildly imaginative.

There are a staggering number of nerdy subcultures that revolve around the consumption of Japanese media.  Any gaming news outlet is going to have some portion of it devoted to Japanese news. Hell, one the more famous gaming news sites is named Kotaku - you don't need too much imagination to wonder where the inspiration for that name comes from. It's a Western-made site, too!

You can also find a number of online hubs with heavily Japanese inspired content. 4chan was mentioned above, but we see the same general fixation on Japanese culture in places like DeviantArt, where every other submission is some hackneyed attempt at anime. TV Tropes has sections upon sections devoted to trope entries in anime, manga, and video games. The Anime News Network is a website that is devoted to all things anime. Gaia Online is an anime-themed forum that would get millions of unique visitors in the mid-2000s.

Have you forgotten what it was like to cringe?

It is no stretch to say that a lot of online culture during the 2000s was defined by a fixation on Japan. There was even some reactionary backlash to its prevalence. The term "wapanese" was coined to describe white people (of which there are a lot on the Internet) who were obsessed with all things Japanese. Eventually the term evolved to "weeaboo", and is almost always used pejoratively.

For a lot of people, Japan seemed like this place where their nerdy consumer habits were not only accepted by greater society, but encouraged. Lots of Japanese consumable exports during a time of heightened consumerism meant that some of those consumers were going to try to find an identity through Japanese media, just like any other nerd.

There are some problems (besides the shallow consumerism) that come with that - some regressive aspects of Japanese society begin to leak into our own. Japan's gender roles come in a different flavor than Western gender roles, and it can be seen in their media exports. Japan also currently has a problem with hikikomori, young Japanese people who withdraw from society and stay holed up in their room all day. Perhaps as a result of Japan's own societal problems, you see a lot of strange products that seem to encourage personal isolation and objectification of other people. These products suddenly find an audience in the West, and suddenly these people have products that encourage their bad behavior.

Here, cringe some more.

But lately, tides have seemed to shift. The Internet in the 2000s may have been marked by Japanese culture, but I get the feeling that the 2010s Internet have been increasingly shaped by South Korean culture.

Th eSports scene is a subset of gaming culture that describes video game competitions in organized tournament settings. Through the 2000s, eSports were a very niche interest in the West, but were extraordinarily popular in South Korea. The non-governmental organization KeSPA was founded in 2000 to manage South Korean e-Sports. The video game Starcraft, released in 1998, had sold 9.5 million copies by the time of Starcraft II's announcement, with South Korea accounting for half of those sales. South Korea was the undisputed eSports capital of the world, with prominent eSports athletes commanding massive resources and cults of personality.

Nowadays, eSports popularity has begun shifting to the West. Games like League of Legends, DotA 2, and Starcraft II are all very popular in the West. The company behind League of Legends, Riot Games, has been very public about their desire to push eSports to new levels of accessibility. The website Twitch has brought eSports spectating to new levels worldwide. The US visa bureau even recognizes professional League of Legends players as professional athletes for visa purposes, as of July 2013.

Korea remains the leader, and stands as a mecca of eSports. This puts Korea in a uniquely powerful cultural position as the West increasingly embraces eSports. Large American companies like CBS Interactive have begun putting stakes on eSports success. As they embrace the new medium, they will find a lot of wisdom from the already-established Korean eSports scene.

Aside from all that, let's talk about Korean pop music.


Psy's Gangnam Style was the surprise meme of 2012. As of this writing, it sits at 1.8 billion views on YouTube. Somehow this Korean pop song has managed to top every individual Western pop song in online viewing and penetrate into mainstream Western society. There's more where that came from, too - several other Korean pop groups are finding global popularity. In 2011, one such group - Girls' Generation - became the first Korean group to perform in the Late Night Show with David Letterman.

There has been no Japanese pop equivalent to Gangnam Style or any of these bands. South Korea is wholeheartedly embracing a role as an exporter of popular culture, a role that seemed to firmly belong to Japan only ten years ago.

So what's going on here? Did we collectively get bored of Japan's quirks? Has Japan's international audience stabilized into niche subcultures that hardly get any public attention? Is liking Japan too stigmatized with the pejorative "weeaboo" label?

Asian nations have long been known for their "soft power", or their ability to influence foreign entities through the allure of their culture. Japan's worldwide cultural contributions span a long and colorful list dating back decades. It isn't as though their influence is suddenly waning, either - people are still excited for Pokemon and the PlayStation 4, and big names in anime can still get big Western names like Disney to back anime releases. Manga sales are dropping, but that may reflect a change in publishing trends than it does a change in interest. And of course, things like sushi are still going strong.

Perhaps Japanese culture has become a "normal" thing to us Westerners. Japan might not be the conscious focus of our attention right now, but it's still there, in the background, providing very important components of our culture. For a little while, with the Internet allowing us to talk about shared interests in Japanese products, we started placing Japan on a pedestal of novelty. But the novelty has worn thin, and Japan has reverted from being the shiny new thing back into the old reliable thing. Weeaboos still exist, but perhaps we're too used to their brand of consumerism to care.

Korea is the new novelty. Perhaps the 2010s will be marked by increased imports of Korean culture.  What lessons can we learn from the Internet's former love affair with Japan, as Korea enters into our public conscience?

Compared to Japan, Korea's got a homophobia problem. The culture around K-pop promotes this, and I'd be willing to bet that the eSports scene in Korea doesn't have particularly progressive views on the subject, either. For anecdotal evidence, I've known homosexual Koreans who are here because they were no longer accepted in their own country because of their homosexuality. If we've had to contend with problems in Japanese media, then we'll certainly have to contend with problems in Korean media as well, and homophobia is very likely to increasingly be in the spotlight.

But, in the meantime, maybe we'll have to come up with a new pejorative to make fun of white people obsessed with Korean culture. Worean sounds weird, and "gorean" is already taken by a really creepy fanbase around some mediocre science fiction. What would you suggest?

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