Toxic Internet Culture From East To West

What the digital worlds of Japan’s imageboards and America’s alt-right reveal about real-life precarity.

Yu Maeda for Noema Magazine
Brett Fujioka is a writer covering modern Japanese culture, literature and critical theory.

On May 3, 2000, a 17-year-old boy hijacked a bus in Fukuoka, Japan and slew one of its passengers. Despite its reputation as a safe country, Japan has had its share of mass killings and high-profile murders. But this attack was unusual because, before carrying it out, the teen had posted a cryptic threat on an anonymous Japanese imageboard called 2channel under the moniker “Neomugicha” — Neo-Barley Tea. He was arrested and confined to a medical reformatory for several years; to this day, he remains anonymous.

In the aftermath of the attack, Japanese law enforcement started to more closely monitor the imageboard for copycats, and even frequent posters on the website began to take threats seriously. Observers noted that rhetoric on 2channel directed at Koreans and other ethnic minorities in Japan reflected a political movement called the “netto-uyoku” — “internet right-wingers.”

Zealously nationalistic, participants in this online movement support Japanese historical revisionism, denying that imperial Japan did anything wrong when it colonized and annexed other countries in Asia in the first half of the 20th century. The netto-uyoku claim that atrocities committed by the Japanese Imperial Army, such as the 1937 Nanking Massacre, either never happened or were greatly exaggerated by the liberal media and leftist academics. The online movement is vitriolically xenophobic, focusing its resentment on China, South Korea, North Korea and the mainstream media. Their activities eventually sprang from the social web, with street demonstrations against Japan’s Korean minorities.

Ever since, 2channel has often been cited as a source of cybercrime and a breeding ground for conspiracy theories. Observers have worried that internet communities like 2channel are radicalizing Japanese youth and have wondered how long it would take before they turned to violence.

If 2channel sounds vaguely familiar, it’s because its name is similar to the United States’ own controversial imageboards — 4chan and its spiritual successor, 8chan (now known as 8kun). 4chan and 8kun are platforms where anonymous users can go to foment political extremism, harassment campaigns, racism, anti-Semitism and conspiracy theories. Experts in online extremism have noted that 2channel’s anonymous digital architecture inspired 4chan’s American founder, Christopher Poole.

“The online movement was vitriolically xenophobic, focusing its resentment on China, South Korea, North Korea and the mainstream media.”

The genealogical relationship between these websites tempts critics to blame 2channel and Japan for the political toxicities of American internet culture. That’s understandable given that 4chan and 8chan gave birth to the so-called alt-right — a loosely networked political subculture espousing white supremacy, anti-immigration, anti-feminism, misogyny, homophobia, anti-communism and every other square on the reactionary bingo card. The writer Dale Beran even blamed the “chan culture” born in Japan for propelling Donald Trump into the White House.

However, the vast majority of American participants on 4chan and members of the alt-right aren’t literate in or even acquainted with Japanese culture. When Poole was designing 4chan’s architecture in 2003, he resorted to Babel Fish’s crude translation engine to assist him in understanding what 2channel’s open-source code actually did. Unfamiliar with Japanese language or culture, Poole was unaware that the reason 2channel had created the option of posting anonymously was a direct response to the culturally specific desire of many Japanese to separate their public and private lives.

As the technology journalist Julian Dibbell has written, in Japan, “cultural distinctions between public and private life matter deeply … having two identities isn’t so much a failure of integrity as a working definition of it.”

In a Western milieu, however, anonymity served not as a way to reinforce a normative structure, but as a way to evade it. In a way, blaming Japan for America’s culture of conspiracy theories ironically replicates the reasoning structure of conspiracy theories (overgeneralization and scapegoating the powerful). Though they operate in hermetically separate cultural and linguistic spheres, Japan and America share similar economic circumstances and media cultures that in turn generate similar online behavior.

In his book “Otaku: Japan’s Database Animals,” the postmodernist philosopher Hiroki Azuma discussed the economic circumstances that led to the emergence of obsessive Japanese online hobbyists. The otaku, he writes, is a subculture of enthusiasts who frenetically consume anime cartoons, play video games and bond together on social media platforms or imageboards (also known as textboards) like 2channel.

According to Azuma, the emergence of the otaku community was a byproduct of Japan’s particular political and economic circumstances during the 1990s, when the internet first became widely commercialized. Rapid reconstruction and economic growth during the years after World War II created a narrative of endless capitalist progress. At home and abroad, Japan became a posterchild for non-Western countries “overcoming” the West.

Japanese corporations became renowned for guaranteeing lifetime employment security. As the sociologist Atsushi Sawai wrote in 2013, each was like a “big family [that] would protect employees and their families for their entire lives.” By the late 1980s, there even appeared to be a fleeting possibility that Japan’s economy might overtake America’s, its erstwhile vanquisher and reemergent rival.

This overweening optimism dissipated with the collapse of the Nikkei stock market in 1991, which precipitated a deep recession and an eventual “lost decade” (or two) of economic stagnation and declining real wages. The lost decade hit Japanese youth particularly hard, destroying the postwar guaranteed employment model. According to the Japanese government, the rate of temporary or non-regular work increased from 16% in 1985 to 21% in 1995 and then to 34% in 2010. In 1995, the twin disasters of the Aum Shinrikyo cult’s sarin gas attacks in Tokyo and the massive Kobe earthquake further dampened the country’s morale.

As the sociologist Akihiro Kitada notes in his book “Sneering Japan’s ‘Nationalism,’” the rhetoric in online spaces occupied by the otaku is defined by snarky irony and alienated cynicism, but participants are nonetheless passionate about the sense of community. They join to be connected to others with the same ethos. Kitada dubbed this paradoxical combination “cynical romanticism.”

The essential socioeconomic context for the turn to otaku communities, Azuma has observed, was the absence of a “professional” second family that had been the bedrock of postwar Japanese identity. With the old political establishment clearly discredited, the youth turned elsewhere to find political identity. “The loss of the singular and vast social standard,” he wrote, “corresponds precisely to the ‘decline of the grand narrative’ first identified by the French philosopher Jean-François Lyotard.” To fill the void that opened as the narrative of endless progress collapsed, people retreated into fiction and online spaces where an ironic discourse of internet memes and inside jokes emerged.

Otaku culture was thus simultaneously structured by the loss of traditional forms of meaning, which generated cynicism about legacy media organizations and the political establishment that continued to try to sell an impossible return to the old order, and by a desire to be part of a community of the equally cynical, enabled by new media. Eventually, segments of these communities coalesced into the cultural style that Kitada referred to as cynical romanticism.

“The essential socioeconomic context for the turn to cynical romanticism was the absence of a ‘professional’ second family that had been the bedrock of postwar Japanese identity.”

The term “cynical romantic” might seem odd, since cynicism and romanticism are typically regarded as opposites. Whereas romantics are devoted to pursuing aesthetic beauty, sentimentality and the sublime, cynics deride everything and everyone as motivated purely by self-interest; they reject all contrary evidence as fatal stupidity or risible hypocrisy.

Kitada’s paradoxical insight, however, is that the netto-uyoku deploy irony and cynicism as a means to bond with one another. For instance, a former netto-uyoku participant confessed that she used blogging to cope with loneliness and professional failure. Empathetic connectivity, to them, wasn’t just a means to an end, but an end in itself. The passionate emotional thrills from comedy were the glue that bound these internet communities together. But they also became a space where darker politics could flourish.

A popular cat-like character on 2channel named Monā is an example of how a seemingly innocuous meme can evolve into a nationalistic one. Monā was visually generated using symbols on a keyboard to look like a cat. In one of 2channel’s sections, a separate version of Monā called “Nida Cat” was conceived to project negative stereotypes of Koreans.

By himself, Monā wasn’t an intrinsically political character. But memes of him alongside Nida often portrayed a rivalry between the two where the community agreed that Monā symbolized Japan and Nida represented Korea. Like the American alt-right coopting Pepe the Frog as a white supremacist symbol, segments of the 2channel community hijacked a cutesy meme of a cat and reimagined it as an edgy racist one.

Cynical romantics translated their puerile edginess into how they consumed and shared world news. In 2010, when a Chinese fishing boat collided with two Japanese Coast Guard vessels in disputed waters between the two countries, the mainstream media initially complied with the Democratic Party of Japan’s request not to publish the footage, apparently to avoid upsetting China. It leaked anyway and became a sensation on Nico Nico Douga, a video streaming site related to 2channel. Cynical romantics remixed it into parody videos, and the fact that establishment media and political organizations cooperated in suppressing the footage validated their distrust of both. Material on perceived conspiracies thus served as a bonding agent in these communities.

The paradoxes here multiply. Kitada has argued that cynical romantics’ hostility toward the mainstream media actually belies an excessive, passionate love of the media. Like America’s alt-right, cynical romantics in Japan obsessively peruse mainstream media’s reportage, seeking discrepancies and hypocrisies that they can use to bolster their own cynical and conspiratorial narratives. Despite their apparent distaste for the media’s so-called liberalism, they are constitutionally incapable of surrendering their addiction to its content.

“Japan also happened to be a place where, in a sense, having two identities isn’t so much a failure of integrity as a working definition of it.”

This peculiar combination originated in Japan’s 1980s television culture, when the economy was still flying high. Kitada has argued that that era of television nurtured a culture of media literacy through the self-reflexive humor of its variety shows. These programs featured a myriad of celebrity guest appearances, quizzes, musical performances and pranks. To comprehend the punchlines and puns, audiences needed to have insider knowledge of pop culture, current events and even personal information about participants and producers. Entertainment, in this sense, resembled infotainment.

As the internet developed in the 1990s, this same cultural insider-ism migrated into interactive online spaces. Even as the netto-uyoko hated the mainstream media for its perceived liberal bias, their online culture remained obsessed with demonstrating mastery of cultural references propagated through mass media.

Later, anti-mass media rhetoric blended with xenophobia and racism and emerged from 2channel onto the streets. The Zaitokukai right-wing nationalist group, for example, is notorious for staging demonstrations in front of high schools for North Korean residents of Japan, under the assumption that the minority group has access to undeserved special privileges, such as welfare.

The netto-uyoku in general have become suspicious of what they view as the undeserved popularity of Korean television dramas and pop music in Japan, which arrived in the early 2000s — the “Korean wave.” They possess a paranoid assumption that the Korean wave didn’t occur organically and that the media manufactured it to promote a pro-Korean agenda. That’s why, in 2011, protestors who were angry about the “Koreanization” of the media descended on Fuji TV’s building in Tokyo rather than the South Korean embassy. As the comic book artist Sharin Yamano, who authored a notorious anti-Korean graphic novel that gained popularity on 2channel, put it: The Korean wave was “a creation of the mass media.”

Azuma has characterized the cynical romantic as a new kind of nationalist. “The object of traditional nationalism is to make Japan better, or to make Japan prouder,” he said in an interview. “But this new generation of Japanese nationalist, they don’t seem interested in Japanese national identity — they just want to laugh at foreigners.”

The Japanese went through an economic crash in the early 1990s followed by a painful decade of stagnation; the U.S. had its Great Recession after 2008. Millennials and other recent graduates in the U.S. have faced a decade of financial instability, declining social mobility and a sense of permanently diminished opportunity.

If one didn’t know better, descriptions of the social impact of Japan’s economic woes in the 1990s could just as easily have been about the U.S. in the 2010s. As in Japan, most millennials witnessed the birth of the social web during their adolescence; just as for the Japanese otaku, many disaffected, alienated or excluded American millennials found in the world of social media and anonymous message boards a kind of haven from what they increasingly perceived as a heartless world. Comedy and digital connectivity served as a coping mechanism for a generation facing inexorably declining prospects in a rapidly changing world.

The relationship between the alt-right and 4chan is well documented. The Southern Poverty Law Center has published studies showing how lurking and posting on 4chan’s “/pol/” board, which is dedicated to political incorrectness, served as a gateway to the path of the alt-right. Launched in 2003, 4chan became the habitat for performatively anti-Semitic edgelords and trolls who eventually evolved into right-wing radicals deploying faux irony and feral humor while espousing support for white nationalism.

Less often discussed is the relationship between message board culture and the American left’s own iteration of the cynical romantics. Cynical romantics of the left have had many names and iterations, but the uncouth culture of snark lives on through the so-called “dirtbag left” — including media groups that emerged in the 2010s around left-wing populist podcasts, such as Chapo Trap House and Red Scare.

These leftist groups share an opposition to political correctness, identity politics and income inequality, as well as fervent support for Bernie Sanders. The journalist Yohann Koshy has cited the Iraq War and the 2008 financial crisis in particular as radicalizing agents for the dirtbag left. Instead of the alt-right’s embrace of nationalism and Trump, the dirtbag left landed on socialism as its romantic object and Sanders as its charismatic figure.

“Many disaffected, alienated or excluded American millennials found in the world of social media and anonymous message boards a kind of haven from what they increasingly perceived as a heartless world.”

Just as the alt-right obsessively seeks discrepancies and conspiracies in the mainstream media or accuses outlets of peddling fake news, so too does the dirtbag left. As Nellie Bowles of the New York Times put it, Chapo hosts “wanted everyone to know they had all been lied to. About everything. The media they consumed was fake news aimed to distract them from the only war worth fighting: the class war.”

Similar to the Japanese netto-uyoku, this rhetoric masks an excessive love for the media. The dirtbag left may claim to hate David Brooks, Ross Douthat, Bari Weiss and other conservative columnists, but their obsessive attention to them resembles a toxic fandom.

Much like the way Japanese television culture from the 1980s prepared the way for the cynical romantics of the netto-uyoku, comedic “infotainment” in the U.S. from the aughts nurtured America’s version of cynical romantics. The dirtbag left grew up on news satire television programs such as The Daily Show, a late-night talk show hosted by the comedian Jon Stewart until 2015 that parodied the mainstream media and politicians of the right and left alike.

Consuming news in an ironic way became a fun affair. What’s more, to appreciate the jokes that Stewart told, audiences required a similar “insider literacy” on the latest memes and running in-jokes, just like Japanese cynical romantics in the 1990s.

Unfortunately, the rise of this sort of “informative comedy” came at a cost. The political scientists Jody Baumgartner and Jonathan S. Morris found that people felt increased cynicism toward the media and the electoral process after viewing clips from The Daily Show. “It was useful at the time,” Chapo Trap House cohost Will Menaker remarked of The Daily Show. “But the Obama years really revealed the limits of that type of humor.” Whether Menaker likes to admit it or not, he and his audience are the apotheosis of The Daily Show’s cynical culture and depend on popular culture just as much as their Democratic rivals for content.

“Consuming news in an ironic way became a fun affair.”

I don’t mean to draw an equivalence between the alt-right, members of which promote white supremacy and have murdered innocent people, and the dirtbag left. Nobody really self-identifies as alt-left; the supposed violence of that group is essentially non-existent. Meanwhile, the far-right has made plans to kidnap state governors and was responsible for dozens of violent incidents during the Trump years, including an effort to overthrow the national government.

Nevertheless, similar rhetoric from the alt-right, the dirtbag left and Japan’s cynical romantics underscores how all have been shaped by stagnant economic circumstances on the one hand and toxic internet culture on the other. Cynical romanticism permeates multiple ideologies within the spectrum of left and right politics in Japan and the U.S.

These reactionary subcultures also help to make sense of the QAnon community of conspiracy theorists who believe that Trump is battling a cabal of Satanist pedophiles and sex traffickers. The QAnon phenomenon originated in 4chan through a pseudonymous user named “Q” who claimed to have insider information from the Trump administration about this cabal. The conspiracy theory provides a sense of belonging to its adherents despite having no basis in any sane reality.

What makes QAnon different from other freakish internet spectacles is that people are acting on it in real life. Last year, a Staten Island man named Anthony Comello murdered an underboss from the Gambino crime family under the delusion that he was a member of the cabal. The FBI and Department of Homeland Security have labeled QAnon a significant “domestic terrorism threat.” Shockingly, nearly two dozen Republican congressional candidates in the 2020 election publicly supported QAnon or aspects of it.

If the experience of Japan is an indicator, finding a way to move beyond cynical romanticism won’t be easy. In 2013, a court in Kyoto ordered an anti-Korean group to pay $120,000 in damages for staging a demonstration with racist slogans in front of an elementary school in Japan. In 2016, the country passed its first law to curb hate speech. There are criticisms that Japan’s hate speech laws don’t do enough and only protect “legal” residents. In any event, it is unclear that any such legal curbs on speech would be possible in the U.S. given the robust legal protections provided by the First Amendment.

Japanese authorities now more closely monitor potential violent incidents emerging from 2channel and have successfully intercepted several of them. Increased scrutiny and stricter rules hasn’t made the problem go away, however. 2channel users have migrated to Reddit, Twitter and other networks. Reddit banned multiple QAnon forums in 2018, and look where we are today. There are limits to censorship and regulation, and both have the capacity to make matters worse, not only by inflaming the paranoia of users, but also by driving nefarious actors into even darker places further off the grid.

Perhaps the most important thing to be done concerns the informational hygiene of the mainstream media, which remains the foil that the culture of cynical romanticism defines itself against. The news media needs to understand the role it plays in the cynical romantic imagination and should adopt an explicit strategy in order to avoid aggravating internet users.

For example, The New York Times — which frequently generates content that goes viral among alt-right, dirtbag left and other subcultures, not necessarily because it is interesting or insightful, but because of how it galvanizes and validates discourses in those communities — discontinued its public editor position in 2017. Reinstating the position to investigate reader complaints and concerns is a concrete and useful step the paper could take. And expanding the public editor’s qualifications to include tech and social media literacy would help further curb potential online backlashes.

That said, mass media is a business first and foremost, and news organizations may find themselves making concessions to balance the dueling desires for provocative virality and protection from internet mobs. Empowering public editors won’t be enough — as Kitada has observed, cynical romantics also put a “conspiratorial spin” on agreeable content.

Even with the coordinated assistance of mass media, deradicalizing America’s cynical romantic culture won’t be an easy task. At a bare minimum, the U.S. needs to legislate police reform to monitor, investigate and intercept incitements of violence on extremist online platforms. The education system also needs to guide students away from potential radicalization without stoking cynicism.

Amid this pandemic-induced economic crisis, politicians need to demonstrate to millennials and Zoomers that a better future is possible amid vanishing prospects. If they don’t, today’s youth will seek alternative solutions to their existential crisis. And without a positive, constructive direction to move in, they’ll continue to seek answers in communities like the alt-right, QAnon or worse.