The Three Ways the Internet Empowers an Ordinary Individual: How Women in Japan Express Themselves and Their Opinions

Akiko ORITA <>
Keio University

Makoto NIIMI <>
Matsushita Graphic Communication Systems, Inc.

Jun MURAI <>
Keio University


This paper addresses how the Internet empowers ordinary individuals, especially women in Japan. If people, especially women, are not famous, it's difficult for them to broadcast their opinion or serve as advocates. As we mentioned at INET'99, women have many more chances to express themselves on the Internet than in the world outside the Internet.

As a case study, we chose women's thoughts on the Japanese marriage system. There are various personal Web sites discussing the Japanese marriage system and the movement to keep maiden names. These Web sites have a bulletin board system (BBS) and links to one another, enabling networking. We analyzed log data of the BBSs and interviewed the Web site owners to examine how this kind of community works. We also produced a Web site to join this community and to observe how an ordinary individual will become a person with important roles on the sites. Our page provided a BBS, links, and an e-mail magazine, and we analyzed all access logs and reactions from visitors.

Through this study, we found three ways in which the Internet empowers individuals:

  1. Publishing. There are fewer barriers to publishing on the Net than there are to traditional publishing. It takes much money and time to express opinions through the non-Net mass media. But Web sites and e-mail magazines are inexpensive to produce and may be published in and seen by anyone from anywhere.
  2. Being linked. It is much easier to link to each other (e.g., using hyperlinks) on the Internet than in the real world.
  3. Joining an open communication space. Anyone can join to discuss, communicate, and share experiences using BBSs and other communication spaces. One can use a nickname instead of one's real name, which makes one feel free to discuss, complain, and argue.

All of these points are related to interpersonal connectivity. Thus, being linked to a community network empowers an ordinary individual.



The Internet is often thought of as a medium with connections around the world. We can create new files on the Net, it's true, but if our files are not linked to others' files, nobody finds our files. Hyperlinks help our files be seen by more people around the world.

As we mentioned at INET'99, the Internet can help minorities enhance their lives. For example, women come to have many more chances to express themselves on the Internet than in the "real world."

This paper focuses on an ordinary individual's activity on the Net. We consider the Internet to be an efficient tool to empower ordinary individuals. We chose to study Japanese women's thoughts on their country's marriage system as a case study because this issue is often treated as a minority issue in Japan. There is a community formed by a group of linked personal Web sites discussing the Japanese marriage system and the movement to keep maiden names. There is no single central site but a community of personal Web sites with BBSs and links to one another, which make networking work. We analyzed log data of the BBSs and interviewed Web site owners to examine how this kind of community works and also produced a site to join this community.

Individuals on the Net

The purpose of using the Internet is changing in Japan. According to Internet White Book '99 [2], the use for private purposes is increasing to 81.8% and the use for business or research is going down to 47.3%. Also, 17.8% of users have their own Web sites, and 33% of users are preparing to open their own sites. So the personal aspect of Internet use is becoming more important.

People who are in the lower levels of the Japanese social hierarchy have few chances to express their opinions publicly. Only the people with social power can advocate and be treated as unique personalities, not just numbers.

According to Shin'ichi Takemura, network communication makes ordinary individuals' personalities visible [3]. On the Internet, it is much easier to seek companions who share the same interests and develop communities.

Also, one can choose which attributes to show or hide on the Net. There is freedom about which name to use and how to describe oneself because only the text represents a person. Stereotypes and prejudices are part of the real-world social hierarchy, but these can be avoided in network communication.

We think that being connected to the Internet and while on the Internet is the key to minority empowerment. It is an important way for a person to make his or her voice heard.

Case study of individuals within networked community

Survey of community discussing marriage and name-changing system

When people marry in Japan, by law they must decide which name to choose as the new family name; in most cases, they choose the husband's name because of the stereotype that in marriage the wife is absorbed into the husband's family. Now there is a movement to change the law so that people will be able to keep their original surname after marriage, but not everyone understands this movement. Although this issue is related to not only women but also men, it is often considered a women's issue only. As it's impossible to be married without changing surnames, some couples try alternatives (e.g., going by the maiden name in the workplace, not registering to marry but actually getting married).

There are several Web sites related to this issue. Some were created by organizations and some by individuals. The sites produced by individuals are more active than those produced by organizations and are highly networked. This paper focuses on personal sites, which have much more power than group sites, we believe.

Forming community

Currently, the community discussing marriage and the name-changing system has four main sites, and three of them have BBSs. We interviewed the owners of these sites and analyzed log data in January 1999.

Table 1. Profile of three main sites

Site Content Links BBS Start Year
Site P [9] Civil action 0 Yes 1997
Site A [10] Gender freedom 122 Yes 1998
Site E [11] Law 24 Yes 1999

Site P was the first. At first, Site P had a guest book for visitors' comments, but as discussion on women's issues occurred, the site changed to a BBS. Site A and Site E were created by people from the Site P BBS. Learning that other people were in the same situation or had the same interests encouraged people to start their own Web sites.

Mr. Eisaku, the Site E creator, explained why he started his site:

At first, I joined discussion on the Site P BBS from the point of law and social system, as my major is law. I studied on this issue but unless I have my own site, my comment will be only partial information. It is important to arrange all my comment as a kind of database for anyone who wants to know about marriage and law.

BBS as communication station

Each site has a BBS for communication between authors and visitors or among visitors. A BBS itself can form communities, as forum or Netnews, but in this case, there is connection and communication among these BBSs. Participants can move from BBS to BBS because the BBSs are linked to each other.

Messages and visitors

The longer the BBS has existed, the more messages it gets (fig. 1).

The two charts below show who posted messages. We categorized BBS participants into four groups:

  1. Owner of BBS (alpha, beta, gamma)
  2. Related-site owner (A)
  3. Nonowner (B)
  4. Nonowner and flamer (X)

The most active participants are from the B and X groups, people who do not own the Web sites. Related-site owners (group A) accounted for only 5% (fig. 2-1). According to Ken'ichi Ikeda, it is difficult for Web site visitors to communicate with each other because they cannot feel the existence of others [1]. But the results show that the communication on BBSs is mainly from visitors, not owners.

The BBSs' most active participants also belonged to group B (fig. 2-2), and most of them described themselves as women. When members of group X joined the discussion, the number of messages rapidly increased as discussion became argument. Flaming increases BBS activity, but it can be hard for BBS owners to settle the argument. Ms. Miyashita, owner of Site A, said that opposition makes discussion lively but that owners should control flaming.

Who forms network

The most active group (group B) plays an important role in connecting each BBS. Group B members join each BBS to form a triangular network (fig. 3). Actually, when we did this analysis, it was the first month for Site E. It is often said that it's hard for a new site to attract visitors, but in this case, visitors to the existing sites accessed the new site easily through BBSs and links.

Site identity

Each site has different characteristics. When a topic is raised in a BBS, not only Web site owners (group A, alpha, beta, and gamma) but also nonowners (group B) introduce or refer people to the proper sites. All owners said that they are aware of the importance of role and identity in this community, especially in communications on BBSs.

Joining the community

We produced our own site on the issue to examine the process of joining the community [12]. This site contained a BBS, links, and essays, as the existing sites do. We also added an e-mail magazine, something the other sites did not have. E-mail magazine service is provided by Internet Publisher for free. Distributing magazines via e-mail to readers makes it easy for anyone to be a writer [13].

The process of producing our site was as follows:

  1. Prepare the content of the essays, the BBS, and the e-mail magazine.
  2. Send an e-mail to Web site owners in the community asking them to link to our site.
  3. Introduce our new site on each existing BBS.
  4. Publish the e-mail magazine introducing the content of our site.
  5. Register with major search engines such as Infoseek and Lycos.
  6. Search for related sites and link to each site.



We counted the number of visitors to the site for three months (fig. 4). The number of visitors rapidly increased during the first 30 days, when we asked to be linked to other sites. Also, there is a correlation between number of visitors and the e-mail magazine (fig. 5).

Where visitors come from

The graph below shows where visitors to our site came from on the Net (fig. 6). At first, we thought that search engines would send the most visitors, but actually other BBSs sent the most visitors. This is because anyone can join communication on a BBS, whether one owns a Web site or not, we think.

Appearance of new community members

We looked for related sites that our community of sites had not yet found. After we discovered new sites, we linked to them. Visitors to our site followed links to the new sites. Thus, we helped newcomers gain entrance to the existing community.

Conclusion: How does a person get empowered on the Net?

We found that there are three ways for individuals to get empowered on the Net:

  1. Publishing. There's no high cost or other barriers to publishing one's own message on the Net. Web sites and e-mail magazines may be seen by anyone from anywhere.
  2. Being linked. A site that is linked to well-known sites will have many more visitors than sites that are not linked. Connections among related sites help create a community of information in which different sites have different roles.
  3. Joining BBSs, etc. Even if a person does not have a Web site, that person can join the community and play an important role through communication spaces such as BBSs, chat, and Netnews. One can use a handle instead of one's real name and can hide any profile, which makes one feel free to discuss, complain, and argue.

All of these points are related to interpersonal connectivity. Thus, being linked to a community network will empower an individual.


  1. Ken'ichi IKEDA (1997):
    Networking Community, Tokyo University Publishing
  2. Internet Association of Japan (1999):
    Internet White Book '99, Impress
  3. Shin'ichi TAKEMURA (1998):
    Zigsaw Puzzle of Feelings/School of Information, NTT Publishing
  4. Nifty Network Community research group (1997):
    Appearance of Network Community (Den'en Ko-kyo syugi), NTT Publishing
  5. Sherry TURKLE (1995):
    Life on the Screen: Identity in the Age of the Internet
  6. Seigo MATSUOKA, Ikuyo KANEKO, and Shin YOSHIMURA (1995):
    Internet Strategy, Diamond Publishing
  7. Tim Roy JORDAN (1999):
    Cyberpower: The Culture and Politics of Cyberspace, Proceedings of "3i/3i_1.htm", INET'99
  8. Akiko ORITA, Shoko MIYAGAWA, and Makoto NIIMI (1999):
    Network Communication Brings Opportunity for Minority: Identity of Woman at Home, Proceedings of "3c/3c_4.htm", INET'99
  9. Hiroko MIZUSHIMA and Satoshi HASEGAWA:
    Recommendation to "Paper Divorce" to Keep Original Name (Paper risaikon no susume)
  10. Takaaki ANZAI and Emi MIYASHITA:
  11. Eisaku W.:
    Law of Marriage and Surname (Fu-fu bessey no Houritsu gaku)
  12. Akiko ORITA and Yusuke DOI:
    Penguin's Nest
  13. Bookstore on the Internet, MAGMAG: