Double Byte “Internationalized Domain Names”: A Superficial Alternative (Part 2)

Japanese IDNs - How they really workThis is part two of our writeup and perspective on IDNs, especially double byte Japanese domain names. See Part One (where we went into some detail of explaining the history of the technology surrounding IDNs) before reading on. Without going into too much more history or spurting out much more technical jargon, lets explore some day to day aspects of double byte domains, how they are (or rather aren’t) used, and why they just aren’t the glowing future of Japanese internet real estate that initially they may seem to be.

As explained in part one, IDNs rely completely on your PC’s local Internet browser software to convert that Japanese domain name into a real single byte domain name. If you don’t understand what that means, it means アニメ.com (anime.com) is not actually アニメ.com at all, it is xn--cck5dwc.com. Yes, that’s right, it gets converted into our beloved combination of 37 Latin characters, even before it leaves your computer! If you are not using the latest internet browser software, then sorry, you are left at the front gate, because only the latest versions translate アニメ.com properly for you… that is, unless you are the lucky autistic one among us who is more comfortable with remembering xn--1sqt31d.com as a homepage address! (Take a look at the site 価格.jp, strangely, they display their domain name in Japanese, AND the real domain name – www.xn--1sqt31d.jp – in the title of their page!)

On the other side of the “internet tubes”, at the destination of your command (or message), it is servers that form the foundations of internet infrastructure. We are all working on servers whether we realise it or not. 70% of servers on the internet run unix. You are using unix now when you read this homepage, and likely to be when you check your email, or stream some (raunchy?) video down through bittorrent. For those who have ever dabbled in setting up their own unix internet server (or Windows server for that matter!), you know that one of the first things that you have to input when doing initial setup is the server’s domain name. A computer has to know who it is, before others can talk to it, and before it can send out information to you. Servers will not accept a double byte characters as their own name. They also will only accept the hallowed combinations of 37 characters and numbers. There is a detailed, but cumbersome JPRS guide to setting up a 日本語.jp domain name on your web server here (PDF).

So, let’s get this straight – your computer doesn’t actually look for internet servers using double byte domain names, it converts them to single byte first, (if you are lucky – this person commenting on the part one found one example where the conversion doesn’t go quite as expected), and servers wont recognize their “internationalized nickname” except for in its garbled 37 character state. But, Japanese people like using their own language on computers right? Well, it seems not so, at least when it comes to typing domain names.

The point being missed here is that Japanese people, simply don’t use kanji domain names. Internationalized Domain Names, or “IDNs” have now been around for just over 4 years. Kakaku.com (huge electronics price comparison site) was one of the first to stake their claim by snapping up 価格.com (actually xn--1sqt31d.com) in the fear that someone would take it from them. But the vast majority of Japanese computer users kept using the “romaji” – kakaku.com. Why? Well, in Japan, apart from the dying breed of post baby boomers with their yokomoji allergies, young people (the majority of computer users) here are actually extremely comfortable with typing in domain names in romaji – as opposed to the Chinese, who feel that using their own double-byte language as easier.

An interesting article on whether or not Japanese people actually want kanji IDNs found at Japaninc notes:

…Japanese who don’t use the Internet don’t do so because they are not familiar with computers, not because they are unfamiliar with English. The Internet itself is already Japanese capable — software menus and commands have long since been localized, and a universe of online information is already available in Japanese. You don’t really have to know English to use the Internet, you just need to know how to type. In fact, entering words in Japanese is often more complicated than entering them in English…

Although the article itself is not so new, the point remains. People in Japan who are not net savvy, generally the elderly, and young kids, are that way because they do not understand the concept of the Internet, and computers in general, and not because they can not tackle 26 characters of the alphabet.

For many Japanese who do consider themselves Internet capable, the factor that holds them back from IDNs is the henkan, or conversion factor. To actually get to 価格.com using its IDN, you have to type the following key strokes into your browser’s address bar:

1. “kakaku”

2. SPACE (to convert “kakaku” into 価格)

3. ENTER (to tell the computer that 価格 is actually the correct kanji out of several possibilities. Thank god 価格 was the first choice.)

4. HANKAKU/ZENKAKU key (to convert input method back into romaji to enter the single byte TLD, the .com part)

5. and then finally the “.com” on the end. You end up tapping the keyboard that many more times to get to the exactly the same site, not to mention that your computer then has to translate what you typed back to a convoluted single byte web address!. Less tapping is better and surely more user friendly – romaji here is clearly the better choice.

The above example using 価格.com is an easy one though. Imagine if you owned 孝治.com (孝治 is read koji, a common name in Japan). Step 2. above took thirteen taps of the space bar for me to find the correct kanji character. There are tens of thousands of Japanese words with same reading, but different characters.

What about non-Japanese people, living outside of Japan? In Western countries the hurdle is not just having to tap the keyboard excessively, or a browser compatibility issue. It is a Japanese language input issue. Without the ability to choose to input double-byte characters (IME) which needs to be installed (it is not automatically included with English windows). Even when you do have IDN support in IE6 (yes IE6 also sketchily supports kanji domain names in my tests), IE7, or maybe Firefox, if you are unable to TYPE Japanese, which is the case most English windows machines, then you cant type double byte characters and therefore you are blocked from accessing IDN websites… If you are a domain owner, it really doesn’t seem to be the brightest thing to do for your international users. This is probably a no-brainer anyway as most smart companies would make sure they have the romaji version of the site (kakaku.com) registered before they embarked on trying to woo the yokomoji-phobic generation with its double byte cousin (価格.com) or there would be no point right? Who in their right mind would try to build a business with 会社.com without also owning kaisha.com, and risking loosing a large percent of their business to Japanese users who are going to enter it in romaji first anyway.

Japanese IDNs do have a better appearance on some search results - SEO
Japanese domain name URLs are displayed intact by some large search engines

There is only one point that should be considered here. That is, that owning 会社.com along with kaisha.com would likely increase the SEO value of your content in search engine eyes, as the big names like google.com and baidu.com do appear to be indexing the IDNs as double byte words. Google search results in the picture to the left, clearly show Japanese domain name URLs in Japanese script. Whether this is beneficial for SEO (Search Engine Optimisation) remains a mystery however, with a Google search for 新宿駅shinjuku station” showing 7 romaji domain names above 新宿駅.com in my browser.

Tim Romero, a Tokyo-based serial entrepreneur, however has the final say on this topic. He wrote this piece about the dirtier side of these so called Internationalized Domain Names way back in Feb 2001, only months after double byte domain names were widely available for general registration. In hindsight, how very right he was. The bottom line – which is something that can not be ignored – is that Internationalized Domain Names are another means for the huge domain registries like ICANN (that sell domain names to companies which in turn sell them to you and I) to play on the fear of companies and individuals in order to line their own pockets with cash. They charge what the market can bear, and will sell you anything they can. .jp domain names for example, cost around 10 times more than .com ones, for no particular reason. Internationalized Domain Names are superficial eye candy, patched on top of a solid Internet foundation to lure short sighted consumers, with the proverbial corporate noose around their necks. I will leave you with Tim’s full article. Despite being old, it really is a great read considering how right his predictions turned out to be:

Last December domain registrars the world over began accepting registrations for double-byte domain names. Until now, domain names have been restricted to standard ASCII characters, but the new domains allow names in Japanese, Korean, and Traditional and Simplified Chinese characters as well.

Proponents claim that double-byte domain names will help break down language barriers, increase the amount of multilingual content on the Internet, and make it easier for non-English speakers to use the Net. I admit that I am rather cynical by nature, but as far as I can tell, these new domains serve only to line the pockets of the domain registrars and provide no substantive benefit to the Internet community.

Contrary to the claims of some proponents, restricting domain names to ASCII letters, numbers and a few punctuation marks is not a linguistic or cultural issue. It is simply a way of ensuring interoperability. Just about every international standard in existence, from ISO country designations to airport call letters, restricts itself to similar characters.

The characters in question can be entered using almost any computer system on the planet and, as such, they represent a least common denominator. The characters do, of course, come from English alphabet, but you would be hard pressed to convince any Japanese that “Mitsubishi” is not a Japanese word, or that entering www.mitsubishi.com into a browser is anything but trivial. In fact, to enter Mitsubishi’s double-byte domain requires that it first be entered in ASCII letters and then converted to Japanese characters. The new domains are actually harder to use in that sense.

Japanese domain names - scam to line the pockets of registrarsThe winners here are not non-English-speaking Internet users, but the domain name registrars. Companies who held ASCII domains are now forced to register multiple double-byte variants to protect their brands. As a result, the registration of these new domains has proceeded with all the clam and order of a gold rush.

Over a million domains were registered in the first month at prices ranging from $35 to $100/year. Keep in mind that these figures are not a one-time charge. The domain holders will have to pay a like amount each and every year to maintain the rights to those domains. And, if that were not enough guaranteed annual revenue, Network Solutions has announced that it will soon be accepting domain registrations in Portuguese, Spanish and Arabic. More languages will follow whenever they feel the need to add a few hundred million dollars in recurring revenue to their bottom line.

It’s rather tempting to shrug this whole thing off as one big corporation squeezing other big corporations for relatively paltry sums. However, there is a bigger issue here. We might be seeing the beginning of the Balkanization of the Internet.

Removing the least common denominator requirement effectively partitions off portions of the Internet. I can’t even give examples of the new domain names because most of my readers’ will be unable to display them, let alone visit them. Sites using a double-byte domain will be effectively unreachable by the majority of Internet users.

It can be argued that this is not a problem since a web site with a Japanese domain name will be in Japanese, but current trends speak against that claim. More and more sites are multilingual. I suppose a different domain could be used for each language supported, but I fail to see any advantage in such a scheme.

The Internet, however, is more than the Web, and it certainly seems likely that employees of a Japanese company with a double-byte domain name will need to communicate with a someone whose computer does not support Japanese. Likewise, there will be those outside Japan who will want to download a file from a Japanese FTP server. Double-byte domains will make this difficult. Fortunately, for the moment, the new domain names do not work with email or FTP.

The most amazing aspect of the Internet, that from which all else springs is ease and freedom of communication: The ability for a person in Minsk to communicate with someone in Osaka, Dallas, Seoul or Johannesburg. Double-byte domain names hinder this ability since they can only be entered by computers running a specific language. Extensive use of these new domains will effectively prevent communication between individuals who find themselves behind the walls of their national domain name schemes. Hardly the World-Wide Web we have come to know.

Any questions or comments are welcome below. I am especially looking forward to people in the other side of the Japanese IDN fence to tell me why they think I am wrong. Apart from the potential SEO value of IDNs (mentioned in the article), what else do Japanese Kanji domain names have going for them? Can they be used in email addresses yet? I couldn’t test this, as my email client (Thunderbird) told me that the address I entered as invalid when I tried to send a mail to info@ヒルズ族.com to get some pricing information.. :)

87 thoughts on “Double Byte “Internationalized Domain Names”: A Superficial Alternative (Part 2)”

  1. Bramiozo: “most japanese do have access to japanese input methods”

    Yes absolutely. But first stage Japanese input method = romaji (not kana or kanji). Kana input is possible but not popular. Kanji input is impossible (for all practical purposes).

  2. Ok, so romaji offers broader and easier accessibility at the expense of using a less popular alphabet and kanji/kana/hiragana gives a stronger brand placement and better SEO and the expense of being harder to access.

    What I haven’t understood yet; if romaji gives ambigious results. how do you handle the ambigiuty without a dropdown menu ? Pinyin has numbers to indicate the different pronounciations, what about japanese ?

  3. QUOTE
    Ok, so romaji offers broader and easier accessibility at the expense of using a less popular alphabet…
    QUOTE

    I think, considering you are non-Japanese speaking, writing or reading Bramiozo, you have hit the nail on the head of your misconceptions. Romaji is NOT a less popular alphabet. It is on equal footing with Kanji and Hiragana and Katakana. It is used profusely with advertising and brand development as well as introducing modern concepts, one of which is the internet.

    Just as in the Dutch language you use many English words, and in English we use many words with Latin and Greek origin, this is not necessarily a matter of choice of using the words or not, but a matter of ease of getting a message across.

    The Chinese, similar to the Indonesians decided to ban many English words and letters. Indonesians decried the number of English signs in neighborhoods and passed legislation to take them down. The Chinese government was appaulled when yound people started saying 我的PB, decrying that the PB (in this case meaning Pocket Bell) was not the pure Chinese.

    However in Japan this is very different. English words whether written in ROmaji or Katakana are welcomed and the economy and culture has prospered because of it. No Japanese feel oppressed about have Romaji thrust upon them. It is convenient and easy for them to use. That is why romaji is used by Japanese, not because they had “no choice.”

    Good luck with your investment Bramiozo, and I hope you can recoup the money you have spent but not merely on a technological level as has been shown on this article, but also on a common-sense level, Japanese (or Kanji) domain names do nothing more than cause confusion and dilute branding.

    To people who haven’t bought Japanese domain names yet: think again. And you might want to learn Japanese and maybe at least experience typing in that domain name on a Japanese keyboard to know how much of a pain in the arse it is to actually do, and then yap on how wonderful kanji domain names are. Hiragana is also a pain in the butt.

  4. I think you’re vested on seeing IDN failing, you can’t kid me into believing that romaji is ‘normal’ when it is already stated that Japanese natives would rather think in the original japanese scripts. Maybe you can show me footage of the hugely popular romaji adsigns or hey, maybe you can produce a poll stating that japanese people prefer romaji, we both know that’s bullshit. If japanese people are given the choice to input kanji/katakana/hirigana over romaji, the general felt argument against romaji will be the input difficulty. That’s a technological problem and as technology changes so does the validity of that argument. Your retoric on the Dutch language is not valid since all borrowed terms are written in the same script and the languages are very much intertwined being from the same language group and geographical region.

    ———
    It is convenient and easy for them to use. That is why romaji is used by Japanese, not because they had “no choice.”
    ———

    Again, who are you kidding, romaji is a PHONETIC alphabet, DESIGNED to accomodate westerners in adopting to japanese, that’s why it uses roman characters. The japanese HAVE to use it behind the computer because western developers have failed to implement unicode support properly, that is the ONLY reason why japanese (who don’t originally need romaji) are using it. It is convenient and easy because the limitations of technology make it so.

    Let me restate :

    Keyboards will change, browsers support will change, input methods will change and your most important argument will crumble. Brands will not dillute, they will be strengthened by the fact that the internet address directly reflects the japanese brand and confusion is only important in the starting phase.

    Let ME give an advice, please do invest in IDN’s for your own sake, limit yourself to a few names and try to register the romaji (or a derivative) with each registration.

  5. There’s dropdown menu for ambigious romaji, how ?

    I mean, if the romaji is ambigious in that multiple kanji/kana/gana combinations are written with the same romaji wouldn’t you logically display all those kanji/kana/gana combinations and wouldn’t that naturally lead to IDN’s ?

  6. Bramiozo – You have very strong opinions for someone who very clearly knows almost nothing about the subject under discussion i.e. the implications of IDNs in undiluted Japanese. Romaji is not some strange animal only used by foreigners.

    Personally I consider investing in domain names to be an unworthy pursuit. Nobody should register a domain name unless they need it for their own business. Speculating on domain names is pretty lame. It’s like investing in vanity number plates for cars.

    But as I have said I don’t care whether or not kanji domain names become popular. It might be an uneccessary layer of confusion but in the end it will be made to work.

    Now for a few random links (which may help you and are *not* intended to prove my opinion):

    http://www.jdna.jp/index.html

    http://internet.watch.impress.co.jp/cda/event/2006/06/06/12217.html

    http://www.jdna.jp/jdn/browsers/

    http://ja.wikipedia.org/wiki/%E5%9B%BD%E9%9A%9B%E5%8C%96%E3%83%89%E3%83%A1%E3%82%A4%E3%83%B3%E5%90%8D

  7. Bramiozo : “the general felt argument against romaji will be the input difficulty”

    Wrong. Romaji is easy to input.

    You have to forget about the origins of romaji and the purpose for which it was devised. Think only about what romaji has become.

  8. Bruce wrote:

    Personally I consider investing in domain names to be an unworthy pursuit. Nobody should register a domain name unless they need it for their own business. Speculating on domain names is pretty lame. It’s like investing in vanity number plates for cars.

    And now after all of your rambling troll bait, you finally come out and admit your opinion – you have something personal against domainers. That’s really what this is all about, isn’t it? It’s what motivated you to write the articles, isn’t it? Do you hold the same level of contempt against real-estate speculators? Do you feel that nobody should buy a piece of property unless they are going to use it for a business or live on it? At the end of the day, domains are nothing more than internet real-estate.


    ヒルズ族

  9. ヒルズ族, my comments are as “Blue”. I have no idea who Bruce is. Although his views are similar (but not exactly the same) to mine, please don’t assume that it is me commenting under “aliases”. I have no reason to do so. Thanks.

  10. Sure I feel contempt for IDN (or DN) investors.

    But you are in exalted company. I also feel contempt for the boss of ICANN.

    See: http://www.icann.org/biog/twomey.htm

    This guy has a PhD in International Relations. An MA in Political Science and International Relations. And a BA in Fine Arts.

    Wot no IT degree ? No engineering degree ? No science degree ? No maths degree ?

    And before ICANN he “was founding Chief Executive Officer of the National Office for the Information Economy (NOIE), and the Australian federal government’s Special Adviser for the Information Economy and Technology”.

    Australia ? WTF ?

    Wow I’m so impressed.

  11. ヒルズ族

    I do have a problem with real estate speculators. Just like you guys, they drive up prices to the point at which those who really need to buy real estate (or domain names) can’t afford them any more. And you walk away with a profit, having produced nothing and contributed nothing to society.

    Just look at what real estate speculation has done to Shanghai. There are thousands and thousands of empty skyscraper apartment buildings. What a waste of money, time and human resources when regular people can barely afford to pay the rent on their shitty one bedroom apartment because speculation has driven the rent so high.

  12. Reminds me of the time MS decided to allow long filenames. Eight character filenames were fine ‘back in the day’ but, after a period of adjustment, we see long filenames as natural.

    Things change. Do you still use punchcards or a keyboard? Command Line Interface changed to Graphical User Interface for most users. Keyboard-only input to mice and other input devices. I had to be dragged into GUI kicking and screaming. That was a long time ago.

    IDNs are here. Rant and Rave or Buy and Sell. Your choice.

  13. QUOTE
    Things change. Do you still use punchcards or a keyboard? Command Line Interface changed…

    Jerry, all those changes made it easier to use computers and the internet. Japanese domain names do not. They make it harder to get to a website you want to see. Ideas based on bluster and a couple of non-Japanese thinking its the future does not make that change happen. Things that make it more difficult generally don’t catch on.

  14. Taxed-man,

    I guess that says it all. You are correct.

    Some assume that it will make things easier for non-Latin users and some do not believe it will be accepted or useful. I prefer Cyrillic domain names to those squiggly Arabic and Asian domains, myself. ;o)

    None of us really know for sure. The market will decide. We agree.

    Someone will have the last laugh. Right?

    Regards,

    Jerry

  15. I’ve thought of a sales point for kanji IDNs. (Apologies if someone already said).

    Kanji IDNs will be easy for people to remember. This means they will be better for putting on TV commercials and billboards.

    The convenience of a URL is not only about convenience of inputting; it is also about ease of remembering.

    And in this case kanji are easier to remember than romaji.


  16. Ao

    I do have a problem with real estate speculators. Just like you guys, they drive up prices to the point at which those who really need to buy real estate (or domain names) can’t afford them any more. And you walk away with a profit, having produced nothing and contributed nothing to society.

    Capitalism 101. Cry me a river.

  17. “Capitalism 101. Cry me a river”

    Only an American would actually bother to say something like that (forgive me if you are not American).

  18. Jeff,

    I’m an American, and I’d never say something like that. ;)

    Not that I’m against Capitalism, Mr. 族, it’s more that I’m against using any “ism” as a justification when there are no other arguments to support ones’ opinion (not to mention the assumption that Capitalism can only take one form).

    “Mr. Hitler, don’t you think it’s wrong to execute people based on their race?”

    “Fascism 101, bitch”

  19. Ao, you are correct, sorry. Despite what it seems, my comment wasn’t meant to be a general stab at Americans.

    I should have said, “Only an American would actually bother to say something like that. Not just any American, but one of the ones that believes George Bush is doing good things, and delivering freedom and democracy to the world – for free”… One of those ones.

  20. Jeff, I think Michael Moore would describe Mr. 族 as like your brother in law who always brings up the topic of politics at Christmas Dinner and tries to convince you that Bush is the way to go because he is cutting taxes.

  21. I couldn’t give a rat’s arse about the politics of any country; I’m into speculating on domain names in order to make money, pure and simple. Due to the laws of supply and demand, there are many things that will sell for cover-price only for a very short period of time. Good domains are one of those things. Now, if you simply don’t like the term “ヒルズ族”, then that’s another story and certainly your perogative. Value is indeed in the eye of the beholder.

    We’re starting to get into Capitalism 102 now. This might be a bit deep subject matter for the clientele of an e-dating site for foreigners in Japan. I mean if you can’t even get a date without assistance, then you certainly can’t be expected to understand the principles of supply and demand.

  22. Being well-versed in “Capitalism”, you may have heard of a splendid bugger named John Stuart Mill, who said:

    “He who knows only his side of the case knows little of that.”

    Every time someone offers a counter-argument they are helping you understand (and possibly defend) your own position better.

    Please stop ridiculing people just because they don’t think like you. It is unbecoming and discourages the rest of us from having sensible discussion.

  23. ヒルズ族: Seriously, an “e-dating site for foreigners in Japan”? It hardly looks like that is the main objective here. Many sites, some of them my favourites have similar services, run similar things, and it likely hardly covers more than their hosting costs. Let me say, they are providing more value back to the general Internet community than your speculative fanfare, and your lectures in capitalism 102 combined.

    Call it sour grapes, call it what you will, but what you are doing is leaching off other people. People who actually produce goods that drive our capitalistic society (and please don’t start calling what you do a “service”). It is no more a service to others than a simple hawker selling tickets in front of a concert gates at triple the price.

  24. Jeff, no offense taken. My first reaction was a smile, since many of my countrymen, unfortunately, do subscribe to the “me first” worldview.

    Something tells me Mr. 族 does not really believe this to be a dating site. Anyone who knows enough about the internet to be speculating on Japanese domains should be able to figure out what this site is. My guess is he’s just stirring up controversy to get more traffic. Was that Capitalism 103? Can’t wait for 104!

  25. ヒルズ族: “This might be a bit deep subject matter for the clientele of an e-dating site…you certainly can’t be expected to understand the principles of supply and demand.”

    I beg to differ … the clientele of an internet dating site probably comprehend the principles of supply and demand better than anyone else ever could :-)

    (Now we are getting so far off topic that we may never get back, but I just couldn’t resist…sorry! Now where were we….IDNs yes?)

  26. Ah yes, those pesky “double byte” Japanese domains… I guess my triple-byte Japanese domains are ok, though… The author will undoubtedly be aware, with all the research he did, that not all UTF-8 characters will fit into the space of 2 bytes. I think a more appropriate name for them would simply be “Unicode domains”.

    I have received a couple of offers on the ヒルズ族 domains now; not sure if I’ll sell for that level or not, though. Thanks again for the publicity.

  27. Mr. xn--0ck4bydv12y,
    (xn--0ck4bydv12y is how you say ヒルズ族 in punycode, which is different from unicode)
    Are we still good for the 15% commission? I hope so, as I will ask the buyer if they found you off stippy.com… (Sorry, this is just the capitalist in me coming out… :))

  28. Bring me a buyer with $50k USD in hand and you’ll get your commission. Barring that, you’ll simply receive thanks for the unsolicited advertising.

  29. Im looking for a buyer for Daiei.com (in japanese script) a huge Japnese retailer that hasnt got the double byte name registered….any takers???

  30. Many commenting on the future of Japanese IDNs sound like those back in the late 1920′s who predicted that television would never have a chance against the radio.

    In the end I believe there is room in the market for ascii and idn. The most successful businesses will own both sides of the coin.

  31. Then nominate them Most consumers likely, we are going to hire a contractor doesn’t have this information in the borehole using an online business directory.

    my web site; homepage (Leroy)

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