I have a tomato stuck in my nose, what do I do? (... or Yahoo! Chiebukuro is the biggest site in Japan you don’t know about)
Many of my friends in the UK and US read the American community question answering site Quora. Most recently, I used it to ask about baby pigeons. As of June, nearly 51 million questions had been asked on the site – an impressive number for a site created only a decade ago. That number pales in comparison, however, to the over 200 million questions that have been asked on Yahoo!‘s Japanese answer service, Yahoo! Chiebukuro, despite being only six years older than Quora.
Unlike Quora, where participants are required to use some form of their real name, Yahoo! Chiebukuro is anonymous. The questions asked are also a bit different. People have asked why goldfish aren’t really gold and if people who smoke are stupid, but they’ve also asked for advice about family situations, baseball, home repairs. Fittingly, Chiebukuro translates to ‘bag of knowledge.’
A few of you might be surprised that Yahoo! is still cool in Japan. Yahoo! is the second most accessed site in Japan for reasons that I won’t explain here because someone has already eloquently explained on Quora. But that is not what makes Chiebukuro significant. What’s important is Chiebukuro’s cultural impact which reaches far beyond any Q&A site in English.
A question from the site has been turned into a movie. Japan’s National Institute for Japanese Language and Linguistics’s comprehensive sample of contemporary written Japanese relies in part on Chiebukuro. One of Japan‘s oldest department stores is now selling a skirt for short women with young children (big data is coming for you, very specific customer segments!) with a design based on information mined from Yahoo! and Chiebukuro.
During the six years I lived in Japan from 2011 to 2017, I also often turned to Chiebukuro, reading up on the finer points of Japanese grammar or looking for answers about the polite way to answer the phone.
The ability to ask potentially embarrassing or intimate questions in a safe, anonymous space is one of the draws of all internet message boards but is especially a appealing in the Japanese context. People are often afraid to stand out. Many are concerned that something done online could be used by their employer to shame an employee or as grounds for firing. There are also concerns that Internet “mobs” could go after individuals. Topics such as mental health are still taboo.
As a result, Japan’s internet culture puts a high premium on anonymity, which has only started to change in the last decade as Facebook gained popularity. Twitter still handily outstrips Facebook and Instagram usage in Japan, in part because of the ability to participate under an alias.
The preference for anonymity also stems from significant scepticism towards the Internet in its early days in Japan. The Internet was the world of subculture message boards; mainstream content such as news outlets were slow to sign up. The talent management company for some of the country’s biggest pop acts, Johnny & Associates, didn’t let websites publish photos of their stars online until 2018. The ban was used to force fans to buy printed material to get photos. One of the country’s only $1 billion+ tech companies, the online marketplace Mercari, Inc., keeps buyers anonymous – through the clever use of QR codes, you will never see the address of actual name of the person you are sending something to.
Japan’s proclivity for anonymity on the net dovetails perfectly with the specific kind of Q&A site Chiebukuro is. Chiebukuro’s users are not so much looking for categorizable intelligence as they are for opinions. On the other hand, Quora’s stipulation that identities are specified makes sense for the knowledge-based focus of the platform. Authority is what makes knowledge useful and helps users pick the most accurate, informative response.
This is also why Google search has not put Chiebukuro out of business. Google’s goal is “to organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful.” Chiebukuro’s describes itself as a “useful, fun wisdom sharing service that we create together.” We want Google’s information when we are trying to find how to get to the airport; we want Chiebukuro’s wisdom when we need advice about mental health or relationships.
(As a side note: this of course means that there are quality issues on Chiebukuro, just like any such forum. Chiebukuro has done much to weed out “grey” content – answers that don’t actually answer the question or adult content not posted in the adult section. In 2018, Yahoo! Japan‘s supercomputer Kukai was used to help with policing.)
But what really is the point of going to the Internet to ask questions and rely on the thinking of others to solve our problems? The technology writer Nicholas Carr has written about how our use of the Internet has impaired our ability to rely on “more attentive, solitary modes of thinking - contemplation, reflection, introspection“ and says that “we’re increasingly defining intelligence as merely the act of gathering – as a matter of “accessing” as much information as possible.”
Perhaps more introspection is needed by the person who asked the Chiebukuro community at 12:09 on August 10, 2008: “I have a cherry tomato stuck in my nose hole. I need to leave the house soon. I’m in trouble. What should I do?”
Fujiwara Tomomi, an award-winning Japanese novelist who has written extensively about the Internet and smartphones has also expressed the opinion that the Internet has impaired our ability to solve problems by ourselves through reflection:
“To put it in extreme terms, the philosophy of connecting for the sake of connecting doesn’t require individuals to grow. It used to be that when you had a worry, you would think about it, write in your diary, read books, and agonize about it, but now you can ask the Internet. Humans should have to – in the end – solve problems by themselves, but now we have connected problem solving. But if two individuals don’t have power when they connect, they won’t be able to solve anything. Nothing will be created.”
When I was having trouble with an abusive boyfriend in Japan, it was hard to talk about it to the people around me. I looked for answers on Chiebukuro and read dozens of these entries both driven by the impulse to find one of these particular stories that most closely mirrored my own, but also by a feeling of vindication. At the same time, reading those posts didn’t actually help me solve my problem; I probably could have spent that time talking to someone or actually breaking up with him. This supports the idea that Q&As might not be appropriate to solve our deeper problems and questions.
However, I would argue that in the case of Chiebukuro, the real value of the service is not in the advice given, but in the social network effects of the site. This is illustrated by the case of a blogger and former “hikkikomori,” one of nearly 700,000 people in Japan who have isolated themselves from society, who wrote about his experience on Chiebukuro:
“Instead of searching for ‘depression’ and ‘adjustment disorder’ on Google, I started searching on Chiebukuro and got absorbed in reading absolutely every question. I realized that there were a lot of people who couldn’t go to work, just like me. It’s a relief for a human to know that she has friends out there.”
This person ultimately decided to create a blog to share knowledge and encouragement with other hikkikomori after this positive experience on Chiebukuro.
The social network aspect of Chiebukuro evolved organically with the site itself. According to a 2014 interview with past and current members of the Yahoo! Chiebukuro team, the site was originally called Knowledge Search, and focused on factual questions. But the team soon found that users were posting things like “Good morning.” They changed the name and allowed those interactions to continue.
Like anonymous forums that have also become a kind of social network, Chiebukuro’s community has its own unwritten rules. One of which is to embrace ridiculous questions. The answers to the tomato-in-nose query are proof of this kindness to idiots. The “best answer” (which came 10 minutes after the question was asked) reads, “How did such a thing get in there? ... In any case, please calm down. Try and get it out without forcing it…Did you get it out? I’m worried.”
Scrutiny of big tech giants have brought over data protection and our online identities, and content policing to the forefront of social debate in the English-speaking world. When we’re all disillusioned by the Internet, Chiebukuro offers a wonderful example of why the Internet excited us in the first place. Where else can we anonymously interact with millions and be at once free and vulnerable, and playful and absurd.
One Chiebukuro employee in the aforementioned article put it well.
“You can never tell if the post is a joke or not. A question like, ‘Can I use udon as a shoelace?’ might look like a joke at first, but it might be completely serious. There are lots of things that are even harder to tell…But what’s incredible about Yahoo! Chiebukuro is that while there are jokes, there are many people who respond genuinely to questions where that line isn’t clear. It gives you faith in humanity.“
Eleanor Warnock covered macroeconomics, monetary policy, and space for five years at Bloomberg and The Wall Street Journal in Tokyo. She has been published in Tokyo Review, Huffington Post Japan, and Forbes Japan, and writes in both English and Japanese. She is @misssaxbys.