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Japan's rising Internet star preaches gospel of blogging

By Yuri Kageyama
The Associated Press

Joichi Ito, one of Japan's Internet stars, fills his blog — — with everything from thoughts on democracy to snapshots of his dog.
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TOKYO — Snapshots of his pet dog, thoughts on democracy and a recipe for bamboo shoots clutter Joichi Ito's Web journal, a lively peek into the tireless mind of one of Japan's biggest Internet stars.

After developing some of the country's hottest Net ventures, the 37-year-old entrepreneur has a new mission: Making the journals known as Web logs, or blogs, not just a thriving business but also a key element of everyday life here.

Ito's blog draws ceaseless chatter from a burgeoning cyber-community on a range of topics from Iraq to the U.S. presidential election and the latest in technology.

People from around the world swap links to news stories and humorous video footage in a crisscrossing web of friendships and streams of consciousness that shift as quickly as real-life conversations.

Blogs easy to set up

Blogs are far easier to set up than Web pages — nearly as easy as sending e-mail — so a whole new class of people can participate, Ito argues.

Bloggers can comment on and add links to photos, news articles and other blogs. Now hot in the field is mobile blogging, or moblogging, which involves creating posts from wireless devices such as camera-equipped phones.

"Web logs are doing a lot of what people were excited about the Net when it first came out — the fact that anyone can be a publisher," Ito said at his Tokyo office while clicking now and then on blogs.

Ito stands out as a rare cosmopolitan entrepreneur in a nation where the elite tend to be notoriously conservative and insular. Possessing a Westernized upbringing fairly unusual for Japanese, Ito "got" the Internet just as it began to catch on in the 1990s.

A college dropout, he is the founder and chief executive of Neoteny, a venture-capital firm that has raised $40 million. Ito has helped set up or run such companies as Infoseek Japan, the nation's second-largest portal after Yahoo! Japan, as well as Rakuten Inc., Japan's biggest Internet shopping site.

When not jetting around the world to lecture in France about mobile technology or sit on blogging panels at U.S. tech conferences, Ito advises the Japanese government and appears on Japanese talk shows.
But he draws his most attentive audience on his blog.

Known to friends as Joi, Ito keeps up an intense blogging habit, visiting 190 blogs regularly and averaging five hours a day reading and writing blogs. He's even stopped drinking — to spend more time on blogs and less in bars.

'A fantastic curiosity'

"Joi is an incredibly dynamic person," said Justin Hall, an American writer on technology culture and a friend of Ito's for several years. "He's got a fantastic curiosity. His metabolism or something — he's wired a little different."

The issues Ito and other bloggers cover are broad — human rights, cool Web sites, cooking and, of course, blogging about blogging.

Blogging is so integral to Ito's life that he recently decided against expanding Neoteny's dozen-company portfolio to focus on Six Apart, the California company behind Movable Type and TypePad, among the leading tools for blogging.

He promotes the technology in Japan as chairman of Six Apart's Japanese subsidiary.

Ito also leads the international and mobile operations of Technorati, a Web service that ranks blogs by popularity and monitors the Net for the latest buzz among bloggers.

Gaining popularity

Blogs have been rapidly growing in popularity in Japan, catching on especially in the past year at a pace that's believed to lag only the United States. At least a dozen companies in Japan provide blogging services. Internet service provider Nifty, which licenses Six Apart's software, has drawn about 25,000 bloggers.

Most of the blog services are free so far. But once blogging gains acceptance as a self-publishing medium, business opportunities such as advertising and premium photo-sharing services should emerge.

Ito has yet to launch a specific moneymaking service for bloggers, but he has created a Neoteny blogging team to feed the fad.

Blogs here look similar to those in the United States. People comment on the news and music, pass around jokes, rate restaurants.

In a society that emphasizes conformity and harmony, blogging makes it easier for people to express unpopular opinions and get tangled in emotional debates.

"The neat thing about weblogs is you find each other," Ito said. "It gives you a feeling of empowerment. For grass-roots movements and things like that, it will be great."

Junjiro Hara, who has known Ito for decades, is sold on blogging and prefers it as an outlet for his views than his real job at major newspaper Asahi Shimbun.

"Japan can't change for the better until it becomes a place where everyone starts blogging," Hara said.

Bridging cultures

For Ito, promoting blogging came naturally in a life already devoted to bridging Japanese and American cultures.

Ito was born in Japan but spent parts of his childhood in Canada and the United States because his father worked abroad. While in Japan, Ito attended international schools. He became fluent in English and Japanese while always feeling slightly outside mainstream Japanese society.

Ito joined friends from international schools in creating Japan's first Web pages.

"People thought we were crazy. But we had great confidence because we saw that it was going to be giant one day," said Cyrus Shaoul, one of Ito's international-school buddies. "The point wasn't to make a lot of money. The point was to change the world."

Ito believes blogging will one day prove as influential as the printing press.

"Blogging will fundamentally change the (way) people interact with media and politics, and provide us with an opportunity to overhaul our outdated democracies," he said.

Copyright © 2004 The Seattle Times Company

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