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Sunday, May 09, 2004 - Page updated at 12:00 A.M.
Channel 2 lets Japanese unload on taboo topics
By Norimitsu Onishi
It is Japan's largest Internet bulletin board, the place where disgruntled employees leak information about their companies, journalists include tidbits they cannot get into the mainstream news media and the average salaryman attacks with ferocity and language unacceptable in daily life. It is also the place where gays come out in a society in which they mostly remain in the closet, where users freely broach taboo subjects, and where people go to the heart of the matter and ask, "What's for dinner?"
About 5.4 million people go to Channel 2 (www.2ch.net) each month, many of them several times a day. Founded in 1999, ni-channeru, as it is called here, has become part of Japan's everyday culture as no other Web site has.
News organizations follow it closely to gauge the public mood; big companies meticulously monitor how their products or companies are portrayed on it; and the police react immediately to threats posted on the site, as they did recently when someone wrote about wanting to blow up the Chinese Embassy, prompting a sudden increase in security around the building.
Americans are more direct about expressing themselves in person, and they can turn to radio talk shows or other media for straight talk. But the choices have always been limited in Japan, so Channel 2 has created an entirely new type of forum. It plays a role that no single Web site does in the United States.
As with any bulletin board, anonymous users start threads on myriad subjects and post comments. Unlike the real Japanese world, where language is calibrated according to one's social position, the wording on Channel 2 is often stripped of social indicators or purposefully manipulated to confuse readers. Language is also raw "Die!" is a favorite insult and the comments are blunt, often cruel and hurled with studied cynicism.
Although about 20 Web sites attract more users than Channel 2, based on March ratings from NetRatings Japan, most of the others are portal or retail sites; and while Yahoo Japan also runs a bulletin board, it is not considered as influential as Channel 2.
Unlike the big corporate sites, Channel 2 is run by a single person and its contents are shaped entirely by the individual users who post comments. Its only source of income is advertising from obscure companies and services.
"Channel 2 has become a brand name in this society and has an influence that cannot be measured by numbers," said Akiko Sugiyama, manager of the data-mining division of Gala, which is hired by big companies to track how they are portrayed on the Internet in general and especially on Channel 2.
The manager and founder of Channel 2 is Hiroyuki Nishimura, 27, who started a business designing Web pages for customers while studying psychology in college. In 1998, he studied for a year at the University of Central Arkansas and, influenced by America's Internet culture, created Channel 2.
In an interview Friday, Nishimura played down Channel 2's significance, saying he created it because he had "some free time." Still, he explained that he wanted to create a Web page for which others would provide the content, in effect creating a community or an open space.
Channel 2's popularity has continued to rise, to 5.4 million users in the latest figures from the 220,000 users that NetRatings recorded in June 2000, when it began keeping track.
In the United States and Europe, a community spirit was behind the growth of the Internet and remains a force. But in Japan, which was late to the Net, it has been almost exclusively business driven.
"In that regard, he is unique in the Internet culture and played a big role," said Soichiro Nishimura, vice president of NetRatings Japan, referring to Channel 2's founder, to whom he is not related.
"He started the Web site because he liked it and wanted to play with it. This still seems to be his policy. That is, he is doing it because he liked it. This type of thinking is unusual in Japan and it is interesting. If I were the owner, I would naturally turn it into a business."
Founder Nishimura said he paid $20,000 a month to a Palo Alto, Calif., company to provide a host for the Web site. With the advertisements, Nishimura said he managed to break even.
The most popular subjects on the site tend to relate to the news. Information not found anywhere else is leaked here, like the name of a then 14-year-old who decapitated an 11-year-old and left the severed head at a middle school a few years ago. The site also provides a community setting for people wanting to discuss topics that are still avoided in public in Japan: gays who may be thinking of coming out or people suffering from depression. In a forum in which a father discussed whether to tell his child of the family's background as burakumin, an outcast group in Japan and a very delicate subject, one user wrote, "As a resident of eastern Japan, I've learned that this problem remains a severe one only thanks to Channel 2."
But Channel 2 is also a window into Japan's ugly side. Much of the content tends to be nationalistic and xenophobic, especially toward Koreans. When Sony and Samsung recently announced a joint project, users attacked Sony for cooperating with the South Korean company. "Die, Sony!" read several comments. "Die, Koreans!" Many wrote that they hated Koreans, using a derogatory term to describe them.
Some see that kind of comment as simply a reflection of a society that has grown increasingly conservative and nationalistic. Others say that part of Channel 2's culture is to shock by exaggerating.
"They seem to dare to say things that they cannot utter in the real world even though that's a little different from their true feelings," said Kaoru Endo, a sociology professor at Gakushuin University, referring to users of the Web site. "They want to say antagonistic things against Koreans exactly because there is a prohibition against saying such things in Japanese society."
In keeping with his detachment, site founder Nishimura said he was bored with his Web site and did not believe it was worth enough to attract buyers. Asked about Channel 2's role in Japanese society, he said people used it simply to "kill time."
"Many people who write on Channel 2 are stupid," Nishimura said, making a statement that many Channel 2 regulars would agree with but one that will surely draw a flurry of attacks. "They cannot change the world by writing about it. If they really want to have an impact, there are other things they could be doing."
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