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Japanese Find a Forum to Vent Most-Secret Feelings
By NORIMITSU ONISHI
Published: May 9, 2004
OKYO, May 8 - In a society in which subtlety is prized above all, face-to-face confrontation is avoided, insults can be leveled with verbal nuances and hidden meanings are found everywhere, there is one place where the Japanese go to bare their souls and engage in verbal combat: Channel 2.
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, or where people go to the heart of the matter and ask, "What's for dinner?"
About 5.4 million people come to Channel 2 each month (http://www.2ch.net), 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 other 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, Mr. 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.
Two incidents shortly after Channel 2 started up signaled the birth of a new player in Japanese society. A customer who was verbally abused by a Toshiba service representative recorded the conversation and uploaded it onto Channel 2. Then, a 17-year-old youth, an hour after posting his intentions on Channel 2, hijacked a bus in Fukuoka, stabbing one passenger to death.
Channel 2's popularity has continued to rise significantly, 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.