Is Japan the model for Elon Musk's Twitter? – The Japan Times
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As news about Elon Musk’s purchase of Twitter continues to emerge, we’ll talk to Elizabeth Beattie about how the social media platform’s Japan team has been affected. Are you thinking of jumping the Twitter ship? Well, tech reporter Daisuke Kikuchi later joins us to discuss what social media services are doing well in Japan before recapping some of the year’s big tech and tech-related stories.
Hosted by Shaun McKenna and produced by Dave Cortez.
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Shaun McKenna 00:09
Welcome to Deep Dive from The Japan Times, I’m Shaun McKenna. On this week’s show, we’re going to review some of the year’s big tech and tech-adjacent stories from Japan with writer Daisuke Kikuchi. But first, you may have heard, Twitter has a new boss…
News clip 00:22
Billionaire and Tesla CEO Elon Musk now owns Twitter after finally completing a $44 billion takeover of the social media platform.
News clip 00:33
We’re following developments tonight out of Twitter, the deadline has now passed for employees to decide if they want to work there under Elon Musk. The new CEO told those who did not share his vision, or were not willing to work intense hours, to leave.
News clip 00:48
So he’s gonna keep marketing it to cause people to pay attention. And numbers are up because everybody likes a traffic accident.
Shaun McKenna 00:54
Users spent last weekend tweeting eulogies for the social media site and poking around for new platforms to move to, but on today’s program I’ll check in with Japan Times reporter Elizabeth Beattie on the problems Twitter Japan has been facing since Musk’s takeover, including a massive round of layoffs.
It’s worth noting, however, tech news website The Verge reported Monday that, during a call with employees, Musk said he was looking to hire a more central engineering team in Japan, citing the popularity and success of the app here and stating, “It may seem as though Twitter is U.S.-centric but if anything it’s Japan-centric.”
Elizabeth Beattie 01:38
Shaun McKenna 01:39
So you’re covering business for The Japan Times and one of your first assignments was about Elon Musk’s recent purchase of Twitter, and how it’s affecting the Japan office. Is everything going smoothly over there?
Elizabeth Beattie 01:51
Um, in one word, “no,” the situation continues to be very messy, very chaotic and is rapidly evolving. I think we’ve all been kind of watching these developments play out across Twitter and the Japan office is no exception. It’s continuing to experience job cuts, as Elon Musk has kind of cut the workforce in half. So Twitter has two offices in Japan — one in Tokyo, one in Osaka — and earlier this year, there’s been a bit of speculation about whether the Osaka office might be closed down. But at this stage, we don’t have any concrete information to suggest that’s happening. It’s all just a very murky picture over at Twitter Japan.
Shaun McKenna 02:31
Hmm. So this might be more significant here than in other Asian countries because Twitter is really popular in Japan, is that right?
Elizabeth Beattie 02:39
Yeah, that’s right. So Japan is Twitter’s second-biggest market after the U.S. and I think below it is India, and it’s quite a significant difference in those numbers. So yeah, it’s used here quite widely. And right away, Japan was the source of where a lot of tweets about the Twitter layoffs kind of originated from. That’s how I actually started following the story, I was watching the Twitter Japan employees tweeting about it. And you know, of course, that was happening globally. At the same time, everyone was feeling that loss, but it was very significant here in Japan. I think like a lot of other countries, that Twitter Japan also adopted that slogan of taking “love where you work,” which was a Twitter slogan, and putting it in the past tense to “loved where you worked.” Yeah, the cuts were really, really noticeable here and it was quite sad watching that play out, people talking about losing their jobs and a bit of a rough time for those employees.
Shaun McKenna 03:31
So were these sudden layoffs all above board? Like are they OK, under Japanese law?
Elizabeth Beattie 03:37
Um, this is something that we might see tested, actually. There’s a lot of discussion and a lot of kind of Twitter analysis going on at the moment, kind of around the legality of this, because Japan has fairly robust employment laws and these require companies to demonstrate they follow due process, they’ve taken steps to mitigate or avoid layoffs. And they’re also required to sufficiently notify staff. So at the moment, we’re seeing a bit of discussion about whether that due process was actually followed here in Japan, and in the U.S. a number of former Twitter employees are already kind of gathering together to challenge their termination, which has sparked this greater scrutiny and it has kind of sparked a greater discussion about how Twitter and Elon Musk’s management has handled these layoffs.
Shaun McKenna 04:21
Right, OK. Do you know if the laid off Japan staff will be seeking reparations of any sort?
Elizabeth Beattie 04:28
At this stage I haven’t seen employees publicly announce that they are launching a legal challenge. But employment lawyers, they’re clearly very keenly offering their services, they’re warning people not to sign documents that remove company liability. They’ve also told people not to sign documents that have given their consent to be let go. So, yeah, legal action was kind of being discussed very quickly on Twitter quite quickly in Japan in response to the layoffs. But at the moment, it still seems to be in those discussion stages. It’s something I’ll be watching and I’m sure a lot of other people will be watching develop.
Shaun McKenna 05:03
Now, you mentioned earlier that Japan has the second-largest number of users by country. What is it about Twitter that got the Japanese so interested in it in the first place?
Elizabeth Beattie 05:12
Well there was a suggestion that the initial character limit was part of it. You know, Twitter requires you to be quite succinct with their shorts and analysis. But mostly people cite the 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake, where Twitter really served a critical role in keeping people informed. Directly following the earthquake, a lot of people were looking for information about what was going on. And the government really quickly learned that Twitter was a quick way to communicate with the population and provide them with developments on the situation as it was developing. Even nowadays, you’ll see a number of train lines still use the platform. And they’ll send out tweets to inform riders about delayed trains and the reason for those delays and so on. So it’s really, really an important source of information for people.
Shaun McKenna 05:58
And with the sudden boom in imposter accounts proliferating on the platform, it’s important to check those informational accounts are the real deal.
So, prior to all this chaos surrounding the Elon Musk takeover, our listeners may not have caught the news about Twitter and Shiori Ito, who is largely considered to be the face of the #MeToo movement in Japan. Can you catch us up on what happened there?
Elizabeth Beattie 06:22
Well, this is another significant story with online social media roots. Like you said, Shiori Ito was widely considered to be the face of the #MeToo movement here, and even internationally she has become quite a symbolic figure for sexual violence in Japan and the way it’s kind of handled here. Early in November, the news broke that the Tokyo High Court had ordered a manga artist Toshiko Hasumi to pay out the journalist Shiori Ito ¥1.1 million for defaming her in material and basically called her a liar on Twitter. And it wasn’t just Toshiko Hasumi who was penalized, but also two men who retweeted tweets without comment also had to pay damages. And another piece to this is the Tokyo High Court has also ordered a politician who liked defamatory tweets about Shiori Ito to pay damages, and this is overturning a Tokyo District Court’s earlier ruling this year. So it’s very interesting to see more of these examples of people who have bullied Shiori Ito online, maybe thinking there wouldn’t be consequences kind of end up in the courts and end up financially paying the price of those consequences.
Shaun McKenna 07:30
Right. So will these verdicts have any ramifications for the average user on the platform?
Elizabeth Beattie 07:36
Well, this is an example of something that occurred online having real-world consequences. Earlier this year, Japan made online insults punishable by imprisonment in response to cyberbullying concerns, specifically surrounding the case of Hana Kimura, who’s a professional wrestler that appeared in the show “Terrace House.”
Shaun McKenna 07:53
Right, yes. Kimura, unfortunately, took her own life in May of 2020.
Elizabeth Beattie 07:57
That’s right, and it really drove home the tragic consequences that discussion on social media can have in the real world. So these verdicts coming out, while Twitter’s working through its own problem, they’re definitely something that’s noteworthy and they illustrate the far-reaching effects that go beyond just one social media platform.
Shaun McKenna 08:16
Elizabeth Beattie, thank you very much for coming on Deep Dive.
Elizabeth Beattie 08:19
Shaun McKenna 08:30
Whenever I have any questions about the internet and social media in Japan, I often go to Daisuke Kikuchi. Daisuke is a tech reporter who started his career at The Japan Times before moving on to TechCrunch and then Diamond Signal, where he focused largely on Japan’s startup culture. Daisuke, thanks very much for coming on Deep Dive.
Daisuke Kikuchi 08:49
Thanks, Shaun. It’s great to be here.
Shaun McKenna 08:51
We just spoke to Elizabeth Beattie about what’s going on at Twitter, and I just want to get your thoughts on this. My sense is that Japanese users of the service aren’t as worked up about the Elon Musk takeover as people are in the West. Is that correct?
Daisuke Kikuchi 09:04
Well, I don’t know. Like, I think some people might disagree with me but there’s been a similar debate going on in Japan as well … with regards to content curation. So former Twitter Japan employees who’s been laid off, has been criticized on Twitter, you know, with a lot of Twitter users saying their timelines have become better after the acquisition by Elon. And that Twitter’s Japan staff has been pushing articles written by the left-wing media outlets.
Shaun McKenna 09:33
OK, so basically, people who I guess you would classify as being on the right in Japan, believe that, you know, while Twitter Japan was running, and these people were hired, they were kind of influencing the trending topics to kind of be more what they termed as left-wing.
Daisuke Kikuchi 09:49
Exactly. I see a lot of those posts tweeted by Japanese conservative Twitter accounts.
Shaun McKenna 09:55
OK, on that, who is the average Twitter user in Japan and how are they using the platform? Are they largely conservative? Are they mostly media professionals … are they young?
Daisuke Kikuchi 10:05
Well, according to some data 40% of Japanese use Twitter and that will be about 50 million people. And most of them are young people in their 20s and then teenagers, and then people in 30s, 40s, 50s. So I write about startups and business trends here and overseas, so I follow a lot of businesspeople, startup founders and people who work for startups. So they tend to post a lot of tweets about business tips, how to scale startups and how to go through difficult times, and those kinds of advice, and they tend to get a lot of likes and retweets. And then some of the startup founders here, it’s popular to hire people on Twitter saying that, you know, this position is available, please message me if you are interested, kind of.
And culture-wise, there has been a trend of Twitter manga in Japan, where artists and creators, designers are writing manga and posting them on Twitter. I think it’s a better platform for them compared with Instagram because on Twitter content usually gets more viral than Instagram. And one of the popular Twitter manga is “Chiikawa.”
Shaun McKenna 11:32
Chiikawa, this is, like, we don’t know what animal it is, right?
Daisuke Kikuchi 11:37
Nobody knows. I think it’s a teddy bear, kind of? And we feel sorry for him because everything he does, he fails. But, you know, he has a lot of friends who support him and, yeah, he’s going through tough times with them. So it’s like a really adorable manga, but even adults can really relate to it.
Shaun McKenna 11:56
OK, I know that Chiikawa actually won the Japan Character Award this year, and it was kind of a surprise … um, came out of nowhere.
Daisuke Kikuchi 12:05
Yeah, so everything’s started on Twitter.
Shaun McKenna 12:08
Besides Twitter, what other kinds of, like, social media sites were popular in 2022?
Daisuke Kikuchi 12:13
Well in Japan, Line message app is quite popular here. You use it right? I use Line to message you.
Shaun McKenna 12:19
Daisuke Kikuchi 12:21
Yes, and, yeah, I use it, to, you know, message my parents and my friends and my wife and all that. But besides that, similar to the rest of the world, social media like Instagram, YouTube, TikTok is really popular here. So, recently the younger generation instead of using Google search, they look for restaurants and fashion on TikTok. Yeah, so like, they check their favorite influencers and their friends and, you know, their favorite accounts, on what kind of restaurant they’re going to. And, after that they go to restaurant websites, like you know Tabelog, right?
Shaun McKenna 13:00
Yeah, Tabelog is a restaurant review site with user-generated pictures and so on.
Daisuke Kikuchi 13:04
Yeah, exactly. The Gen Zs, the younger generation, they go to Tabelog only to make reservations or to look at the menu. But they actually find the restaurant on TikTok.
And do you know about Zenly?
Shaun McKenna 13:19
OK, so I do know that Zenly was around? Was it popular in Japan?
Daisuke Kikuchi 13:24
Yeah, it is. Zenly is a social media app where users share locational information to their friends and it’s very popular among Gen Zs here in Japan. They would open the Zenly app and see where their friends are at. And then, you know, if some of their friends are close by they say hi and, like, meet up.
Shaun McKenna 13:44
Is Zenly still around?
Daisuke Kikuchi 13:46
So Zenly is an app that’s developed by a French startup called Zenly, and it was actually acquired by Snap that runs Snapchat. And, unfortunately, Snap is not doing too well recently, and they announced a massive layoff back in August. And they also announced that all Zenly staff will be laid off, and that the app will shut down soon.
Shaun McKenna 14:07
So basically, Snap, which is in charge of the Snapchat app, bought this company Zenly, which is really popular in Japan, and, uh, when they took over, they ended up laying a lot of people off who were at Zenly and instead of trying to kind of like bring it back, they just kind of let it die. Why would Snap do that?
Daisuke Kikuchi 14:30
I think it’s because Snap wants more users in Japan to use Snapchat instead of Zenly because Snapchat has a similar function to Zenly where users can share their location or information to their friends. So it’s easier for Snap to just shut down Zenly in order to do so.
Shaun McKenna 14:47
Right, they’re trying to eliminate the competition, OK. What are some of the apps that we should look out for in 2023?
Daisuke Kikuchi 14:54
Yeah, so BeReal is an app that might become really popular here in Japan in 2023.
News clip 15:01
BeReal, the so-called anti-Instagram social media platform, which sends users one simple notification per day.
Daisuke Kikuchi 15:10
So it’s an app where you have to “be real.” You have no filters and you have to post a picture within three minutes after the notification.
Shaun McKenna 15:18
OK, so the app sends you a notification and then no matter what you’re doing you need to send a shot of yourself. So if you’re just sitting there eating cereal, then you have to send that picture out.
Daisuke Kikuchi 15:28
Exactly. It takes a picture with both cameras, in and out. So yeah, selfie and then also what you’re looking at. So it’s really, really real.
So just like Zenly, BeReal is developed by a French startup called BeReal. It was launched in 2020 and it’s really popular among Gen Zs in the U.S. and France, and in Japan it’s ranked #22 in the app store’s social media ranking right now. But it might climb up the ranking next year.
Shaun McKenna 15:58
Are there any kind of up-and-coming Japanese social media apps?
Daisuke Kikuchi 16:01
Yeah, there’s a social media app called Yay! that’s used by mostly the younger generation in Japan.
Shaun McKenna 16:08
And that’s Yay, spelled “Y-A-Y” not “Ye” as in “Kanye”?
Daisuke Kikuchi 16:12
Yeah, yeah, exactly. So people use it to kind of talk while they play video games and watch TV shows together.
Shaun McKenna 16:20
OK, that sounds a bit like Clubhouse
Daisuke Kikuchi 16:22
Kind of, yeah, it’s really similar.
Shaun McKenna 16:25
In addition to all this social media news, one tech world obsession that
sparked some backlash this year was generative AI. That’s where you feed text or images into an application and the app creates a new work from it. I think some people may have encountered this through Dall-E.
News clip 16:38
It seems like everyone is talking about these websites that use artificial intelligence to generate images. It’s all because of a tool named Dall-E, which comes from a startup named OpenAI, you type in a description of something you want to see, and a computer creates realistic images to match.
Daisuke Kikuchi 16:55
Yeah so, if you text for example, “Shaun eating sandwich,” the AI will generate a image of you eating a sandwich, right?
Shaun McKenna 17:04
Sounds great. Andrew Deck wrote a great piece about the backlash around generative AI for the website Rest of World, we can put a link to that piece in our show notes. But can you tell us a little bit about how this conversation is playing out in Japan?
Daisuke Kikuchi 17:16
Yeah, so um, like the rest of the world generative AI got really popular here this year, thanks to open source AI’s like Midjourney and Stable Diffusion, which were released to the public this year. So that debate is quite the same here in Japan as well, with concerns that, you know, AI could take over artists’ and designers’ jobs. So when I interviewed Emad Mostaque, the CEO of Stability AI, the startup that developed Stable Diffusion, he said that in the future the company would make it possible for an artist or designer to make a request to kind of restrict the AI from replicating their styles.
But on the other hand, he says like, just like how Microsoft Excel changed an accountant’s job, and how, you know, all these softwares like, for example, Photoshop, those kinds of tools are changing how people work, right? So it’s happening with designers and artists’ jobs as well. So it’s maybe time to rethink what the artist’s job is and if it’s about making money then their business model might need to change since now, you know, anyone can become an artist by using generative AI.
Shaun McKenna 18:43
Daisuke, you write a lot about startups, a beat that’s closely connected to the world of tech. There have been two ongoing startup-related stories in Japan this year. One has to do with the challenges the Softbank Vision Fund is facing amid a broader tech downturn…
News clip 18:57
Softbank shares plunged on Monday. Investors were spooked when the Japanese lenders Vision Fund reported another heavy loss for the third quarter running.
Shaun McKenna 19:06
The other has to do with the Japanese Government. So this year Prime Minister Fumio Kishida’s administration decided it was going to step in and help Japanese startups by creating a new Cabinet post to oversee them. And Kishida put Daishiro Yamagiwa in charge, but he resigned in October over his ties to the Unification Church. He’s been replaced by Shigeyuki Goto, is that going to make much of a difference?
Daisuke Kikuchi 19:31
Well, I don’t think it really matters. I think how much budget is going to the startups is really important, and the deregulation that the government is pushing. So Kishida following Abe’s passing has been really keen on helping startups here and the government is trying to increase the number of startups by tenfold in the next five years. And the budget is aimed at around ¥1 trillion. So the budget is big but we need to make sure that the money is going to the right startups, to the startups who actually need it. The government is pretty conservative, so the fund could be given to the later-stage established startups that may not require, you know, extra help with regards to cash. And we need to make sure that early-stage startups are backed by enough funding. And on top of that, I think the government should consider deregulation in various fields, so that there’s enough business chances for the future startup founders.
Shaun McKenna 20:30
Have there been any, like, successful startups this year?
Daisuke Kikuchi 20:33
Yeah, an E-scooters startup has been successful this year.
Shaun McKenna 20:36
Daisuke Kikuchi 20:38
Yes. So E-scooters is like a shared service of the scooters. It’s been popular in the U.S. and Europe, and it’s coming into Japan. So this year, there’s a couple of startups here in Japan that operate E-scooter services, and they are like Luup and Mobbyride and so on. So they work with the government toward deregulation, and they actually started service here in Japan. It’s still in DLC, but they did launch the service here in Japan this year.
Shaun McKenna 21:07
Have you tried an E-scooter?
Daisuke Kikuchi 21:08
Not at the moment, because they did start the service but it’s still considered very dangerous.
Shaun McKenna 21:15
Ah right, OK.
Daisuke Kikuchi 21:16
Because the speed limit is really slow, and for car drivers, taxi drivers, it’s very annoying, the E-scooters.
Shaun McKenna 21:25
Ah, so the E-scooters are going really slowly.
Daisuke Kikuchi 21:27
Yes, and there was a fatal accident that happened this year. Uh huh. So the operators are really trying to keep the scooters safe. But in order to make the service safer, I think the government and scooter operators should work together more to establish a new regulation that is better than the current situation. Right. So one of the Japanese E-scooters startup, Luup, is trying to expand nationwide in 2023. Which means that a scooter might become even a bigger thing in the next year.
Shaun McKenna 21:59
Right, so, we’ll be looking forward to lots of people slowly making their way around the cities.
Daisuke Kikuchi 22:05
Yeah, it’s actually convenient, right? Because like taxi prices got higher. Yeah. And I think it’s convenient for people who’s making short distance, you know, travel —one kilometer, two kilometers — so I think these services would have a potential of becoming bigger.
Shaun McKenna 22:23
Right. So I know it’s hard to make predictions, but where do you think that the startup scene will go in 2023?
Daisuke Kikuchi 22:30
I think this year was a year where, you know, a lot of Japanese citizens knew about startups because, you know, Kishida is pushing startups and the fact that there was a TV drama based on startups called “Riding a Unicorn.”
Shaun McKenna 22:48
Daisuke Kikuchi 22:49
And I think there are some services and some startups that are potentially going to other markets, for example, in the U.S. and Asia. It’s hard to make predictions. But I really want these startups to, you know, do well overseas, not just in Japan. But for the startup to become even more big, to become huge. I think they should go to the global market. And another thing is that they need to learn English.
Shaun McKenna 23:17
Daisuke Kikuchi 23:18
I’m hoping that more investors from overseas will show interest in Japanese startups. Because there are so many, you know, unique ideas here that could potentially do well overseas.
Shaun McKenna 23:29
Gotcha, and the yen is kind of low right now so it’d be a good time to invest.
Daisuke Kikuchi 23:33
Shaun McKenna 23:35
Thanks very much for coming on Deep Dive.
Daisuke Kikuchi 23:37
Thank you very much.
Shaun McKenna 23:42
Big thanks to Daisuke and Elizabeth for joining me on this week’s program. Don’t forget to check out the show notes for links to their stories and the different social media sites and startups that Daisuke mentioned.
Elsewhere in the Japan Times this past week, Prime Minister Fumio Kishida had his first in-person talk in three years with Chinese President Xi Jinping on the sidelines of that APEC summit in Bangkok, a chat whose topics included North Korea amid fears that the country may be gearing up to carry out its first nuclear test since 2017. At home, Kishida had to deal with the resignation of yet another scandal-plagued Cabinet minister, which is causing him to end the year under a cloud of concern about his ability to exercise firm and consistent leadership over his government. And Japanese documentary filmmaker Toru Kubota returned to Japan after being released from prison by Myanmar’s junta leadership last week, he told a crowd he was grateful to be free despite facing a 10-year sentence for filming an anti-jiunta protest in July. For more news and analysis, check out japantimes.co.jp.
We can thank Dave Cortez for production on today’s episode. Our theme music is by LLL and the outgoing track was produced by Oscar Boyd. Until next week, podtsukaresama.
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