Japanese shy from netiquette

May 25, 2001

If you look at an average Japanese university website, you would think that the country had an acute shortage of web designers.

"In a society which prides itself on presentation, it is surprising that many university websites look so bad," said Gregory Johnson, a visiting professor at one of the country's universities.

Most sites have the president's welcome, faculty information and application details. But, compared with university websites worldwide, there is little of substance.

Many sites in the United States and Europe, for example, serve as the students' portal to the university. Students can find information on their professors, search academic papers, participate in message boards and communicate with fellow students.

But all these features may not appear on Japanese sites for a long time.

One reason for this is the way in which universities are organised. Universities, like big companies, use the seniority-based system, where promotions are based on age not merit.

The result is that most universities are headed by older men (very rarely women), most of whom do not even know what the internet is. Many professors in their 40s and 50s have never touched a computer.

"It's very difficult for subordinates to get internet-related budgetary funds since those with the final say have no experience of it," said a member of the administration staff from a prominent university.

Another internet-related technology that has not taken off is email.

Although students use it between themselves, there is little faculty-student communication.

"(Students) hesitate in making direct contact with professors. It is a cultural problem," said Hiromasa Suzuki of Tokyo University.

In a society where etiquette is all important, sending an email is a potential minefield because formal Japanese is vague and open to interpretation.

Email can also be time-consuming. Etiquette demands that an email be answered no matter how trivial. This can be a nuisance for busy professors.

Japanese websites: how do they look?

The good: Keio University http:///www.keio.ac.jp

The average: Hitotsubashi University http:///www.hit-u.ac.jp/

The ugly: Nihon University http:///www.nihon-u.ac.jp/

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