The University of Tokyo

Invitation to Science

Digital Natives as a Reflection of Japanese Society: Cultural Anthropology Taking on Cyberspace, Humanity’s New Frontier

From the forests to the plains, from the land to the sea, from the sky to outer space ― for humanity, which has expanded its activities to conquer all of these realms, a new sociocultural space to explore has appeared: the virtual realm of the Internet. What kind of world lies within this new space, as perceived through the lens of cultural anthropology? We sought the expertise of one such cultural anthropologist who is on the verge of finding an answer to this question through his research on how the use of digital devices and social networking services has changed through the years.


* community sites accessible via mobile Internet through which users post their self-introductions and make friends; they are primitive in terms of user interface due to the limitations of cellphone capabilities

Cyberspace. Cultural anthropology. The connection between these two fields may not be readily apparent. For many people, the term “cultural anthropology” probably conjures up images of journeying to the remote depths of the Amazon region to conduct fieldwork on people who spend their lives far removed from civilization.

Cultural anthropology is an academic discipline that was originally born out of and developed from the desire of Western society to understand the different Others found in the non-Western world. However, the concept of “understanding different Others” can also refer to the exploration of the limits of the diversity and possibilities of human beings regardless of geographical boundaries. By visualizing this concept in such ways, the networked virtual realm known as “cyberspace” is without doubt a new space of sociocultural activity for humanity as well as a captivating topic to examine from the standpoint of cultural anthropology.

To that end, I have been continuously conducting research on cyberspace ever since use of the Internet started to become widespread, and one of the themes I have turned my focus to in recent years is that of “digital natives.” All people born since around 1980 are called digital natives. In essence, this term signifies that these young women and men have had access to videogames and other digital devices that are indispensable to an information society starting from when they were young children. My research interests have led me to study this group of people as understanding whether (and how) they are different from the previous generations of “(analog to) digital immigrants” and “analog inhabitants” in terms of communication, ways of looking at interpersonal relationships and behavioral patterns has become an issue in this day and age.

One characteristic of digital natives in Japanese society that my research has made clear is that this large group is subdivided into a number of generations based on the points in their lives that they experienced changes in their digital environments. For instance, how people interact with the Internet differs greatly depending on whether they first encountered mixi (a Japanese social network service) as university students or working adults. Similarly, the online behavior of people who began using unlimited Internet plans for their cellphones as junior high school students are dissimilar from those who started using these plans as high schoolers. With such variances in mind, I proposed that Japanese digital natives be divided into four generations, as shown in the diagram to the right: (1) born in 1982 or before; (2) born in 1983 ∼ 1987; (3) born in 1988 ∼ 1990; and (4) born in 1991 or after.

What is important to note here, however, is that dividing Japanese digital natives into these four groups does not imply that generational gaps exist between them, nor does such categorization signify a gap between digital natives and the preceding generations. Rather, these four generations are formed due to the characteristics of communication and relationships with others inherent to Japanese society combining with the different technologies, services and stages in an individual’s life.

At this point, I would like to discuss one of these characteristics of Japanese society: “uncertainty avoidance” and a strong sense of mistrust towards cyberspace. Uncertainty avoidance refers to the behavior in which one exhibits a low tolerance for uncertainty and thus tries to avoid it, with such actions being based on a vague feeling of anxiety experienced during one’s life as a member of society. In contrast to warnings like “Danger: High Voltage” and psychological conditions such as claustrophobia, where the “dangers” and “phobias” are clearly defined, the anxiety intrinsic to uncertainty avoidance is ambiguous and inaccessible. Through the existing cross-national research on the subject, we understand that this sort of vague sense of anxiety is strongly felt in Japanese society, and that Japan’s uncertainty avoidance is high. Taking such previous studies into consideration, I have proven through my research that in Japan, there exists a strong correlation between uncertainty avoidance and anxiety regarding Internet usage. In comparison with people in the United States, China and Canada, what is striking about Japanese people is that they display a strong tendency to “worry about being worried” as they exhibit anxiety without having hardly experienced any trouble at all.

The widespread utilization of information networks is an indispensable aspect of globalization. At the same time, the strong force of uncertainty avoidance is at work in Japan, delaying the expansion of interpersonal relationships through cyberspace and impeding society’s adaptation to globalization. However, I believe that overcoming this uncertainty avoidance can lead to the University of Tokyo and Japanese society as a whole playing active roles in global society. From such an internationally-conscious viewpoint, continued research into the future of digital natives bears profound significance.

Tadamasa Kimura

Contributed by Tadamasa Kimura

Professor, Graduate School of Arts and Sciences

XXXXXXDejitaru Neitibu no Jidai (The Age of Digital Natives) (Heibonsha)