The phrase in Japanese is tabibito wa haji nashi and it illustrates the highly contextual nature of Japanese behavioral ethics: within certain small circles -- family, workplace (in the old days, village) -- behavior is highly circumscribed, ritualized and controlled. But outside that circle, the sense of shame which is considered crucial to social controls relaxes, and it is possible to entirely escape the circles of control if you go far enough. This"insider-outsider" model explains a lot of aspects of Japanese society and history, though attempts to define Japan entirely in this way or to define shame and situational ethics as uniquely Japanese phenomena are simplistic and silly, at best.
Nonetheless, the phenomenon is real. There is a new way of"traveling" now: the internet. A young web designer, under the influence of US internet culture, has created a very popular discussion page called Channel 2, with hundreds of thousands of users and millions of postings on thousands of topics. What's gotten the attention in the US press is the disjunction between the image of polite and like-minded Japanese and the reality of sometimes crass and rather diverse discourse happening on-line.
There are two false stereotypes at work in the idea that Channel 2 is surprising. First is the idea that Japanese are unfailing polite, when there is a long tradition, as noted above, of rudeness to"outsiders" (or"non-people" usually including foreigners, women, outcastes....) as well as a less well-noted tradition of crudity and vulgarity as integral to Japanese entertainment, and the largely unrecognized (as far as I'm aware) practice of crudity as a form of camaraderie within tight knit groups. Second is the stereotype of homogeneity of opinion, or at least of expressed opinion, but as long as Japan has had mass media there has been a wide variety of viewpoints represented with vigor and engagement. There may be larger areas of consensus in Japan, but there's rarely been a lack of discussion and disagreement.
What is more interesting, to me, is the degree to which internet-based discussions like Channel 2 may represent an increase in horizontal communication. Which is to say, most communication in Japan is either within small, relatively homogenous, groups (and Japan's mass media is highly segmented along gender, age and interest lines) or is vertical: dictates from mass media or government, or communication back up towards those institutions. What the Internet facilitates, to a hitherto unknown degree (and this is true in the West as well) is the communication between diverse individuals, outside of the normal categorizations.
This is where the breakdown of Japan's myth of homogeneity might well begin. If people are confronted not with the statistical data supporting diversity, but with the reality that there are lots and lots of Japanese with different opinions, interests and lifestyles, then the compartmentalization (including, but not limited to: school tracking, rarity of lateral mobility, one-company careers with cohort advancement, compartmentalized media, discourses of"Japaneseness" which gloss over differences) which preserves the"all Japanese are like me" myth-perception may break down. And that's interesting.
On the other hand, as we've seen in the US, the internet community may enhance differences and compartmentalizations. Cliopatria is a rare duck, apparently: religiously and politically and methodologically and topically diverse people -- who share only a common avocation for history and concern for open discourse -- talking together. More common is the discourse among the faithful model [this is a very incomplete list of blogs with which I am familiar]: Volokh, Atrios/Instapundit, Butterflies&Wheels, Liberty&Power, etc. It may well be that, after an initial period of open discussion, that the Japanese internet discourse settles into the same kinds of channels and patterns as its other media. We'll see.