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Japan: Web visionary Umeda Mochio

While famous in Japan as a web visionary, Silicon Valley resident Umeda Mochio (梅田望夫), president of Muse Associates, co-founder of Pacifica Fund and board member of the Japanese bookmarking and diary service Hatena, is little-known overseas. His recent book “Web Shinkaron” (“Theory of Web Evolution”), in which he attempts to explain in a straightforward way the ongoing revolution in cyberspace, sold 370,000 copies and become a national besteller in Japan. Umeda blogs (in Japanese) at My Life Between Silicon Valley and Japan.

Web Shinkaron by Umeda Mochio
Web Shinkaron by Umeda Mochio

In the last few days, many Japanese bloggers and Hatena users bookmarked a recent interview with Umeda by the Japanese magazine Central Review (Chuo Koron), posted on Dec. 28th and also blogged about by Umeda himself [ja]. The following are translated excerpts from the original interview, conducted in Japanese. [Note: Due to copyright issues, the original Japanese text is not included.]

The interviewer begins by asking Umeda why, since the publication of Web Shinkaron in 2006, he has not written a “Web Shinkaron 2″. Umeda explains:

After “Web Shinkaron” was published, I was told by many editors: “You created a category, didn't you?” Certainly, books about the web which offer an explanation about technology, even just as new paperbacks [shinsho], get published in large numbers. However, the web is already flooded with information of that kind, so for me, my job was done when I created a new category.

As well, there has not yet been an event which would demand changes in the framework presented in “Web Shinkaron” since [it was published]. YouTube and Facebook are both embedded in the same framework. I think it would anyway be better if, when another major change arrives, people much younger than me write the “definitive edition”.

For two years between 2001 and 2003 Umeda blogged at CNET Japan (blog posts viewable in the CNET archives [ja]). In the interview, he discusses this experience, and reflects on his activities introducing young Japanese to Silicon Valley and to the web era:

From 2003, for nearly two years, I wrote a blog at a site called CNET. I was asked by the editor in charge over there, in his 20s at the time, to handle writing, interspersed with the theme of what was happening on the web, commentary about careers suited for young people. I did this, I got a good response, and I wrote many articles.

Also, I founded an NPO called JTPA [Japan Technology Professionals Association], and every year I am involved in a “Silicon Valley Tour” to which about 20 young people under the age of 30 are invited. Although the participants are incredibly talented kids, they don't hold solid hopes about the future. While talking, I quoted the words of [Steve] Jobs, CEO of Apple, and said: “Silicon Valley is just a bunch of people doing what they like to do. Just do what you believe in, do what you like.” [I said that] and there was one kid who started to cry. It was the first time anybody had ever said that to them. There was another student there who declared: “I'm going to study at Stanford!”

Although [these kids] have lived for more than 20 years, and must have also had discussions with their parents and teachers, I still have to wonder, what is Japan's education system doing? Is it earnestly confronting young people? For these young people as well, I felt that I had to write this book.

Later in the interview, Umeda describes his vision of the “web era”:

The phenomenon at its foundation is the creation of a giant archive of knowledge and information. This is what I call “another Earth”. This is not simply something like a library, it is connected to the flesh and blood of human beings, and it is continuously updated with daily information. It is an era in which one has the power to access, anytime, every single piece of information about individuals from across the world.

In the web era, if you want to study, in every respect you can keep studying without end. It is an era of growing difference between the people who master the web, who think of it as something that overcomes the limitations of the [human] brain, as an amplifier for [human] ability, and those who do not.

Umeda is often criticized for being over-optimistic, a characterization that he does not agree with. In the Chuko interview, asked about the severity of this fascinating new web era, he explains in more depth the upcoming difficulties facing the next generation as a result of globalisation:

Although, by making use of the web in a practical way and following your own intentionality, you can proceed in your studies as if you were driving on the highway, still as a result of globalisation, there is a huge traffic jam coming up in the road ahead. The idyllic age during which the word “global” indicated only Japan, United States and Europe is gone; the age is now one in which we are joined by many competitors from India and China, so climbing the highly-specialized “high, steep path” will involve real difficulties. Nevertheless, in order to harness your intentionality, there is no choice other than to follow the life of the “animal trail”, competing with the coordinated power of all human beings. In this book, I present a “role model thinking method” as a hint for doing this. One way or another, in free competition, finding your own intentionality becomes very important. Because it becomes a competition of how much one can immerse oneself in the subject, of how industrious one can be.

Much like others working in Silicon Valley, Umeda notes in the interview that the volume of work he and others are handling has increased substantially:

If I look at myself, and also at the friends around me, we are working overwhelmingly more than we were ten years ago. The reason is that the work is information processing, so as information technology advances, because of globalisation, not only has the amount of information exploded, but the work can also be done anytime, anywhere.

Matsumoto Yukihiro, developer of the programming language Ruby, says that mails arrive from overseas even while he is sleeping, so that when he opens his eyes in the morning, 200 mails have collected overnight. What he said, intently, was: “Don't work doing things you don't like to do. You'll become sick.” I felt strongly that, even while thinking of survival, you have to work doing things that you like.

As in his book, Umeda emphasizes the importance of enjoying your work; without enjoying the work one is doing, he sees it as impossible to survive in the new globalized economy. In the interview, he outlines the background to this idea, the globalization of the workforce:

On the other hand, large corporations are increasingly becoming organizations within which the individual cannot choose their work. In BRICs [Brazil, Russia, India, China] including China, in Africa, and so on, in countries where physical strength is demanded, besides having suddenly been forced to take a new post, businesses have suddenly had to shrink, companies have merged, and crises are rapidly increasing. In order to work at a large corporation, it is increasingly necessary to have “the skill to tackle with pleasure the task you are given”. I also was once working in a large corporation without having a special quality, but nowadays that's completely impossible. (LOL)

Finally, at the end of the interview, he looks toward the future of the web era:

Where will the working style of the web era end up? There is no answer in this book either. What I can say is that, in order to survive in this difficult age, there seems to me nothing you can do but what matches your intentionality. I am often criticized for being overly optimistic, but in terms of awareness of the issues, it's not optimism at all. If you read the book carefully, I think you will understand this.

[Note: This is an unauthorized translation of the original interview in Japanese, reproduced under the terms of fair use. The article will be removed if the publisher so requests.]

8 comments

  • Terri in Tokyo

    thank you very much for this – times like this that I wish I had the fortitude to learn Japanese.

    I hope to be able to talk with Umeda-san (and you too!) someday..

    have a happy holiday!

    Terri

  • Thanks very much Terri, hope to talk to you sometime soon too!

  • Chris, first thanks very much for taking the time to translate this lengthy article, it is my first introduction to Umeda Mochio. Your translations provide a very important window for the world into Japanese culture.

    I haven’t taken the time to read the article in Japanese. Although I can read Kanji a little, it would take me a while with the dictionary open to get through it.

    I was wondering if you could explain what you think Umeda means by (what you have translated as) intentionality, as it appears no less than 4 times in the article. It seems central to his argument, yet I can only find shallow dictionary definitions or dense philosophical discussions about intentionality on the web.

    I can only guess that it has something to do with finding out what you really want to do, then doing it. Pointing out the kanji for this word would help greatly for those of us that are studying Japanese. Clarifying what you think is meant by it might help those that aren’t.

  • Hi Brett,

    Thanks for your comment, I’m really glad to hear that you liked the translation! It’s surprising that there is so little about Umeda in English since he’s such a well-known figure in Japan (in technology/web circles).

    As to your question, the original Japanese is 志向性 (Shikousei), which I believe derives from the English “intentionality” (or possibly from the corresponding word in another Western language). I think basically your “finding out what you really want to do, then doing it” is pretty much what he’s trying to say.

    I’m hoping to translate this interesting discussion involving Umeda for gyaku sometime in the next couple weeks, keep watching if you’d like to read more about his ideas.

    And of course, good luck with the Japanese study!

  • […] visionary Umeda Mochio (see earlier translated interview) announces the upcoming release on Feb. 27th of his new book, “Five propositions for a web […]

  • […] Mochio Umeda (梅田望夫) is a well-known web author of books on IT in Japan. See this translated interview for more information.] (note added August 12, 2008) […]

  • […] author of the bestselling book ‘Web Shinkaron' (Theory of Web Evolution), covered by GV here in […]

  • […] author of the bestselling book ‘Web Shinkaron’ (Theory of Web Evolution), covered by GV here in 2007. Umeda is a big shogi fan, although he doesn’t play himself – a distinction that he […]

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