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Japan versus South Korea: Can you export OhmyNews?

Inkyu Kong, a citizen reporter for three years with OhmyNews, has some fascinating perspectives on the success of OhmyNews in Korea as opposed to in other parts of Asia. His presentation offers some background thoughts on social forces in Korea, and case studies of OhmyNews versus JanJan, a Japanese citizen media site, and on the success of the domestic PC market in South Korea.

South Korea has branded itself as a wired nation – more than 70% of the population has access to broadband. The president is considered the “Internet President”, and there’s been a focus on eCommerce for job creation. South Korea has some unique phenomena – PC bangs, cybercafes where people get together and play computer games, as well as gaming leagues, whose matches are televised live. (Below is a screenshot from my hotel room TV earlier today, featuring a televised Starcraft match.)

(Kong has an excellent explanation for the broadband penetration in Korea – it’s not just national will, it’s also geography. Getting to 70% penetration required 14,000 miles of optical fiber in Korea. In West Virginia, by contrast, it required 20,000 miles.)

In this environment, OhmyNews’s success makes some sense, though is still impressive. It’s now the 6th most influential news medium, with 40,000 “news guerillas”. It’s no surprise that a Japanese company, Janjan, tried to mimic the model. But Janjan hasn’t had nearly the success of OhmyNews. One possible explanation is that Japanese broadband penetration is 45%, versus 70%. But there’s a social explanation as well – Kong argues that, in Japan, people are reluctant to express opinions while Koreans feel freer to speak out. In Korea, young people – the wired people – are very politically active, while in Japan, the politically active are the people over fifty. The Confucian respect for learning translates into a respect for journalism and the written word, another advantage for OhmyNews.

South Korea and Japan also differ in the adoption of the PC. South Korea’s Chaebols – conglomerates – advertise that they produce everything “from chips to ships”. And they very aggresively promoted the PC as a learning tool, taking advantage of a Confucian respect for education and learning. Ad campaigns had children saying “I cannnot afford not to have a computer, Dad”, and showing the child’s dreams fading away without a machine.

Of course, Korean kids used the machines for games, as well as for study. In Japan, gaming took place on Gameboys and Playstations – there was no educational overlap as in South Korea. The presence of PCs was a catalyst for the spread of broadband. Kong sees Japan and Korea as connected to two different internets – a Keitai (mobile) internet versus the PC bang internet, with the latter being more conducive to citizen journalism.

Hideki Hirano, the managing editor of OhmyNews Japan appears on behalf of Shuntaro Torigoe, the senior editor for the new property, which is slated to launch in late August. Hirano has recently finished a book on how business leaders can motivate and persuade through storytelling – before delivering Mr. Torigoe’s speech, he offers his own story: a move from skepticism about citizen media before deciding to join the firm. With 20 years experience as a financial journalist in the US for Japanese publications, Hirano had to be convinced by Mr. Oh, an article in the Economist and a speech by Dan Gillmor before he came on board.

With this as preface, he offers Mr. Torigoe’s slides, which start with a history of his 41 years of experience as a journalist, with major Japanese papers, a US newspaper and as a war reporter in Iran and Iraq. His enthusiasm for journalism has led him to enthusiasm for citizen journalism, but some caution about whether the model will work in Japan.

Democracy, he notes, is new to Japan, introduced after WWII. And it’s still not very popular – despite Koizumi’s popularity, only 67% of people voted in the last election. (This would be a phenomenal turnout by US standards!)

Citizen – “shi-min” – sounds a little odd in Japanese. It calls up implications of “taxpayer”. But it’s important that citizen reporting include housewives, students, and foreigners living in Japan. But there are differences between Korea and Japan that may make the OhmyNews model difficult to replicate:

– South Korea had a succesful democratic movement in 1987, which generated a great deal of political will and power. In Japan, a dominant political party has ruled for over 60 years. Thus politics in Japan tends to be covered as a horserace or a baseball game, not a participatory phenomenon.

– There’s a strong distrust of mainstream media in South Korea, but great respect for mainstream journalism in Japan.

– The relationship to the Internet is complicated in Japan. Yes, there are 8.6 million bloggers, many of them writing expert blogs on esoteric subjects. But there’s a lot of resentment of this culture, largely based on the culture of “Second channel”, a Japanese site that shows much of the worst of the participatory internet.

– Many Japanese aren’t comfortable connecting their names to their opinions – they’re more comfortable in a culture of anonymity.

In bringing OhmyNews to Japan, these questions and disparities will need to be addressed and bridged.

Dan Gillmor was kind enough to ask to reproduce my OhMyNews articles on the blog for the Center for Citizen media – feel free to check them out there as well, with some commentary from Dan as well. And check out my South Korea flickr photos, if you’re so inclined.

6 thoughts on “Japan versus South Korea: Can you export OhmyNews?”

  1. Pingback: Japan Probe

  2. Pingback: usmediaweb» The CC Anthology » links for 2006-07-16

  3. I find there are a couple of inaccuracies in this article:

    “Democracy, he notes, is new to Japan, introduced after WWII.”

    No, it was democratic (to some extent) since 1889.

    “Citizen – “shi-min” – sounds a little odd in Japanese.”

    Citizen is “kokumin”, which is roughly “the country’s people” and refers only to those of Japanese nationality; “shinmin” is “City dwellers” (and tax-payers by extension!), and covers foriengers resident in Japan too, whi cannot, of course, vote.

    However, it was an interesting article.

  4. It’s biased to account the success of public journalism in South Korea. Just as we cannot praise the democratic quality and participatory opinion expression in SK’s OMN as an indicator showing SK’s democracy is superior to U.S. It’s also inaccurate to connect the failure of public journalism in Japan to democratic culture.

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