When I have taught computer literacy courses to students, I like to challenge them to find what movies are playing in town while I find out what is playing in a similar sized city in the US and see who can get there first. Invariably, I finish way before other students.
Even with Japanese who are more familiar with search engines, the process of searching for often basic information in Japan can be torturous. One theory that I have heard is that because the internet infrastructure was set up by businesses in Japan, as opposed to universities in the states, the basic ethos is less making information available and more creating organized and walled off sites.
This was brought home to me when I wanted to double-check an address of a junior high school. I wasn’t sure of the kanji for the school, so I plugged in the romaji name and the city and in the search results, and there was an English search result from a website that looked interesting, www.gaccom.jp. (here is a link to the gaccom page for the JHS attached to my university)
Unfortunately, what could be a very useful site is, upon investigating more closely, a truly disheartening experience. Going back to the Japanese top page, there is no way to get to the English side of the site. Search functionality is limited, and the only way to get to the English information of a particular school is to manually enter ‘en’ within the url, so that the Japanese page <http://www.gaccom.jp/schools-35585.html> becomes <http://www.gaccom.jp/en/schools-35585.html>. While not listed for my school, if you click on the ‘school info’ tab, you get data about the student body, number of classes, number of students in the class. If you go to the link to the Japanese data, you get a lot more information.
Still, it underlines a recurring problem with dealing with the internet in Japan, in that the English information is really only there as a decoration. The site, founded in 2010(!) by Hideo Akabayashi, a Professor of Economics at Keio University, says:
Gaccom is the first comprehensive school information portal site in Japan aimed at international audience. The information covered includes current enrollment, classes, class size by grade, max class size, availability of classes for students with special needs, attendance zones, school lunch, IT environment, textbooks, seismic retrofit of buildings, and more! Some information is limited only to Japanese, but we are expanding information offered in English. The school information provided in Gaccom is based on official resources.
Some might argue that the site is designed for Japanese speaking parents to form school communities and discuss issues relating to particular schools, so one shouldn’t expect full service English. Still, what amazes me is that the site has created an entirely parallel English structure, with only minimal cross-links to the Japanese site and no way to reach the English site from the Japanese side. However, with just a little more effort, they could have made this into a really interesting resource. It seems that the only purpose to adding this English layer is to put the veneer of “internationalism” on it.
That inability to imagine a different audience is something that I wrestle with in teaching seminar and sotsuron (graduation thesis) students, but it is clear that this is really not just a student problem, but a problem baked into Japanese society.
What you can take away is taking a look at the urls themselves can often help you navigate sites in Japanese much more quickly than deciphering idiosyncratic Japanese naming of links, not to mention pale on white color schemes, microscopic kanji fonts and redone webpages where links are moved and you can’t find them.
To do this, set up your browser to show the url of the link in your status bar at the bottom of the browser when you hover over the link. For Safari, go to the ‘View’ menu, select ‘show status bar’, and a bottom-of-window bar will display a link when your cursor is over the link. For Chrome, the current version has the address appear in the bottom margin when you hover over the link. There are extensions for all browsers that either make the status bar available at all times or allow various tricks.
Being able to see where a link is taking you is really important to avoid phishing sites, but for the semi-lingual among us, looking at the urls for Japanese links to figure out if they are what you want can often save time and frustration because most links are the romaji versions of kanji content. And figuring out where to add ‘en’ or ‘eng’ to a url can often take you to a completely separate English site.
This takes us to the heart of dealing with things functionally, which is using whatever you have at hand, extracting any and all information and using it rather than confining yourself to doing things the ‘proper’ way. Some might sniff at not being able to read a particular kanji, but it’s that idea that there is only one path to the information that seems to hold the internet back here in Japan.