Do you have Japanese friends? If so ask them if they use Mixi and see if they’ll give you an invitation.
Mixi is a Japanese social networking site. Although there are a fair amount of gaijin on it, it is totally Japanese. It is also invitation only. Someone who is already a member has to invite you in; you can’t set up an account yourself.
Mixi users seem to be reasonably selective in friends. Although there are people with 100′s of friends on their home page, mostly it seems that there is some sort of real relationship with the people listed as friends. There doesn’t seem to be the use of asking someone to be your friend just as a bookmark to their page or to build a huge list. There would be some sort of email exchange first if the person wasn’t a personal aquaintance.
Privacy seems more important as well. There are various settings for who gets to see the profile information you provide. Everyone, friends of friends, and only friends. Japanese people tend not to have photographs of themselves, especially in their avatar. Indeed they seldomn have photographs of people and even then sometimes faces are obscured.
As a visitor so to speak it’s best to get a feel for the place before attempting to make friends with people on the site. You may find people come to you. Mostly the people I know on mixi are Japanese people I’ve met. Some are people from jPod101. But most interestingly some are people who liked what I was writing on mixi and started to email me or comment my blog.
So what do you do there? Well I treat it as a private blog. Mostly I’m writing for my friends but I leave it open for anyone on mixi to read. I write in Japanese and English. English because a couple of friends don’t have much Japanese but also because a lot of people on mixi might be learning English so it’s something extra for them. In Japanese because it’s great practice. I’m writing about my daily life and opinions. It’s quite a challenge. I don’t attract a lot of comments but there tends to be a slight extended discussion of whatever I post. I also post photographs and video to go along with whatever I’m writing.
I also read my friends blogs and whenever I can leave a comment. This is all in Japanese usually. (All my Japanese friends know English though. Most of them have very good English.) It’s a good way to test comprehension if you can make comments on a blog.
When I get things wrong in my grammar etc. my friends will sometimes gently correct me. Sometimes I try to do the same for their English in the same way. This is by repeating whatever they have written in the correct form when I make a reply. But after all this isn’t school; as long as communication occurs it’s successful. And that’s the best part of mixi, you are using Japanese in a real world situation. As it’s reading and writing it’s a bit gentler than trying to speak.
Some tips to cope with the all Japanese nature of the site. It can be very confusing when faced with so much Japanese. I feel I’ve only scratched the surface of what is available there and am always fiinding new things. Use the status bar of your browser as all the urls are in English. This makes it a bit easier to navigate before you learn the kanji on the buttons. Also if you use Firefox give rikaichan a try. This plugin provides pop-up definitions of any words on a Japanese site. Although it can make you a bit lazy prehaps. I use an external dictionary that I have to copy words to. Even then I think I use it too much. But sometimes it leads to other interesting words.
This site gives good advice in English about how to use mixi; the owner is also willing to give you an invite. (that link is dead as of May 2009)
Kenji Moriさん has a good photo based tutorial on Flickr.
So if you can give mixi a try; it will really help improve your redaing and writing ability and help you keep in touch with your Japanese friends.