TOKYO — Last month, a prominent Japanese hotel chain found itself at the center of an international controversy after a video went viral on Chinese social network Weibo. The video revealed that the hotel chain’s CEO had published an alternative history book, copies of which are put in every room of every location, including at one in the US and 36 in Canada. The book promoted pro-Japan nationalist conspiracy theories, like questioning whether or not the Nanking massacre, a mass murder and rape campaign by Japanese troops during the Sino-Japanese War in 1937, ever happened.
When the news broke, Japan’s notorious troll army, the netto-uyoku, immediately flooded social media with propaganda about Japan’s racial superiority, and attacked any media outlet — including BuzzFeed News — that criticized the hotel’s “history” books.
The Nanking massacre is one of the many obsessions of the netto-uyoku, who over the years have become the de facto cultural police on the Japanese internet. The members of Japan’s nationalist troll army hate Koreans and the Chinese, and will usually swarm anything written on social media about Japanese immigration policy. They don’t trust their country's media and believe that journalists are attempting to erode Japanese values with fake news. They also love their current prime minister, Shinzo Abe, who they see as a leader who is trying to, well, make Japan great again. The netto-uyoku are so well-known by Abe’s right-wing Liberal Democratic Party, in fact, that the Abe administration has a firm monitoring the websites they congregate in and will report anyone who disagrees with them for slander.
If all this is starting to sound familiar, that is because Japan’s netto-uyoku helped shape the new American far-right movement. In fact, white nationalist (and fluent Japanese speaker) Jared Taylor told The Guardian in October that his sense of racial purity and far-right politics was shaped by a two-year stint in Tohoku, Japan, as a Mormon missionary. “It’s an ethnostate and it’s deeply nationalist,” he said. “And they have resisted the pressure to admit refugees. I say: ‘God bless them!’”
If nationalist internet trolling has become a global pandemic, from India’s WhatsApp armies to Russian troll farms — and reports that Trump supporters are now attempting to help influence France’s upcoming election — the netto-uyoku might be patient zero.
The netto-uyoku movement started on a website called ni channeru, 2channel, or 2chan, a popular messageboard that was launched in 1999 by Hiroyuki Nishimura while he was studying at the University of Central Arkansas. It wasn’t a typical messageboard. It was anonymous so people could say anything they wanted and threads would disappear after a short period of time, forcing people to comment as quickly as possible. In less than a year, the platform had become the epicenter of several huge scandals in Japan, the most high-profile of which was the Neomugicha incident in 2000: A 17-year-old used 2channel to announce their plans to hijack a bus in Fukuoka, the most populous city on Japan's southernmost island, Kyushu. Later, the teenager stabbed a passenger to death and injured two others.
While 2channel started off as a place to talk about anime and video games, it quickly grew into an early incubator for what would become a full-blown internet subculture, the netto-uyoku. Around 2003, Japan started importing a lot of South Korean TV dramas and pop groups. It was called the “Korean Wave.” The Japanese media jumped on the trend and disillusioned Japanese nationalists went to 2channel to vent their anger. Eventually, commenters decided to organize and make an anti-Korean comic book called Kenkanryu or Hating “The Korean Wave” a number-one bestseller to protest the growing Korean influence in Japan.
Yet this wasn’t destined to remain a solely Japanese phenomenon. 2channel and the netto-uyoku’s influence outside the country started fairly innocuously in 2003 when Christopher “Moot” Poole, then a 15-year-old high school student in New York, created his own version of 2channel. He set up an anonymous messageboard for people to talk about Japanese anime and comic books, and called it 4chan.
4chan became Pandora’s box for the internet age. You can trace a direct line from early pranks like hacking Time’s “Person of the Year” polls to more the organized and vicious internet movements of the last few years, like Gamergate or men’s rights activism. The 4chan community has had a hand in all of them.
Nishimura lost control of 2channel in 2014, but wrote in a now-deleted Q&A that he has filed a lawsuit to get back control of the domain. And Poole ran 4chan until 2015, after which — and in a unique twist of fate — he sold the site to Nishimura. Which means the two biggest hives of anonymous online nationalism in Japan and the West were owned by the same guy.
Neither Nishimura nor Poole responded to requests for an interview.
In 2007, Daisuke Okabe, a research associate in new media technologies at Keio University, told Wired that the netto-uyoku on 2channel picked the mainstream media as their key target pretty early on. “It’s widely acknowledged as a special place on the internet, where people can combat the mass media on a grass-roots level,” Okabe said.
The netto-uyoku have a couple of main modes of attack that should be familiar to Western internet users. There’s dentotsu or “phone attack,” where people flood a government agency or left-leaning media company with complaints. Sometimes they call for a matsuri, or sudden and intense posting on a messageboard thread, filling it up with a fake consensus about a certain topic. And there’s enjō, a blast of angry comments directed at a specific person or an article’s comment section.
Fear of 2channel’s wrath quickly led to self-censorship both online and off in Japan. “I know that if I say something stupid in class, it'll probably be on 2channel later that day,” Okabe said. “Inevitably, I sometimes find myself censoring myself because of that.”
In 2014, a troll went viral on Twitter by stepping forward with a public confession about how they became active in the netto-uyoku. Twitter user @tori7810 described a loneliness and alienation that led her deeper and deeper into Japan’s dark internet underbelly.
“The only thing that remained was that I was ‘Japanese,’” she wrote, describing a mindset where she tried to slowly overcome her loneliness and depression with an intense and vocal expression of xenophobia and nationalism.
Another netto-uyoku member named Tsukushi Kawai wrote on his blog about a similar experience with radicalization.
“This was just as matome [meme aggregator] websites were just becoming popular in Japan,” he wrote. “After reading websites that focused on discrimination, I felt great because I thought I had gained knowledge that they did not teach in school and that you could not get by watching TV.”
This radicalization process, from anime messageboards, to memes, to nationalism and far-right extremism, has been gradually making its way into the West as well, following similar paths. In January 2016, Trump supporters took a well-known anime character and photoshopped her into their anti-Semitic mascot. There’s a far-right splinter group who refers to themselves as the “anime right,” and a seemingly endless supply of anime girls adorned with “Make America Great Again” hats.
The Japanese connection within the far right was infamously captured during last year’s election when Republican political strategist Rick Wilson called Trump supporters “childless single men who masturbate to anime” during an MSNBC interview.
Some of the media personalities who have become darlings of the far-right movement also have an affinity for Japanese culture. The now-embattled Breitbart editor Milo Yiannopoulos has a well-documented history of being a bit of a Japanophile. In 2014, he even wrote a column for Breitbart on how the Digimon TV series was a better show than more popular Pokémon. Yiannopoulos responded to BuzzFeed News’ request for comment with an email saying, “Tora! Tora! Tora!” — a reference to a 1970 film about the bombing of Pearl Harbor. He then said, “I've seen no evidence that BuzzFeed has anything of value to say on any subject.”
White nationalist leader Richard Spencer, long before he was punched during a TV interview and turned into a meme, spent his time on messageboards like Reddit posting about anime, video games, and comic books. He’s also tweeted about his love of Japan’s conservative government and even did a video in August, while on vacation in Japan, lashing out against Hillary Clinton.
“I've always admired Japan and found it a fascinating place,” he told BuzzFeed News in a phone interview. “The aesthetics of the alt-right, I would say, could involve anime.”
Spencer believes anime is tied into the far right simply because images work well on the internet. “That’s how you communicate,” he said. “That’s the kind of meme culture on Twitter and 4chan.”
He also talked about the power of these visuals as a recruitment tool. “You want to, like, reach people whose minds haven't ossified yet. And I think the alt-right is doing that in a crazy way, through meme culture,” he said. “In a sense that, like, a kid who's 22 and just graduated from college and is working at Starbucks and he's kind of pissed off and alienated and he doesn't quite know why. You can reach him through a meme, whereas you're not going to reach him through a book about traditionalism.”
Lauren Orsini, a journalist who has written for outlets like CNN, Kotaku, and Forbes and specializes in Western anime fandom, told BuzzFeed News anime is just a niche interest that bored young men who feel isolated from society happen to like. They go to places like 2channel and 4chan to socialize over it and get radicalized.
“There's a massive overlap between anime fans and the kind of people who never leave their computers,” she said. “And there's an almost as big overlap between anime fans and people who spend a lot of time on online forums.”
The level of cultural power held by a digital army of radicalized, disaffected young men hasn’t gone ignored by Prime Minister Abe’s increasingly conservative administration. The Daily Beast revealed last year that Abe is a registered member of an organization called the Nippon Kaigi, or “Japan Conference.” It’s a 38,000-member religious group that believes in extremely conservative ideas — things like the racial superiority of Japanese people, the repeal of equal rights for women, a return to an absolute monarchy, and severe restrictions of freedom of speech.
By some accounts, the Nippon Kaigi have been pretty successful, especially when it comes to free speech. Between 2015 and 2016, Japan slipped from 61st to 72nd in a global ranking of press freedom conducted by Reporters Without Borders. In February of 2016, Japan’s top TV journalists described the Abe administration’s treatment of free speech as “tantamount to a war between the political power and the media.”
The Abe government curtails free speech, especially in the media, through strict copyright laws, libel laws, political impartiality regulations for broadcasters, and the Specially Designated Secrets Act, which allows the government to jail journalists for up to five years for working with whistleblowers.
But Abe's administration has a new trick. Japan’s public broadcaster, NHK, revealed in 2016 that the administration is using taxpayer money to pay a firm to pose as internet trolls. The firm monitors places like 2channel, Twitter, and Facebook, and uses dummy accounts to fight with people who are critical of Abe’s Liberal Democratic Party. The firm regularly reports posts as slander, forcing tech companies to delete them. Everything being monitored is then put in a report that’s distributed to Abe’s cabinet daily.
In the US, the Trump administration has been accused of dog-whistling far-right internet users with memes. The president has been condemned for using his Twitter account to incite online harassment against those who don’t agree with him. He has gone after “criminal leaks” exposing former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn’s relationship with Russia. And he has appointed Stephen Bannon, a former executive chair of the far-right media outlet Breitbart News, as his chief strategist. After Bannon became Trump’s closest adviser, he hired writers from Breitbart to fill positions within the White House. Last month, he called the mainstream media “the opposition party.” And Trump himself said on Friday that the nation’s news media “is the enemy of the American people.”
But Spencer scoffed at the idea that the Trump administration would use nationalist trolls to censor free speech in the US, like they have been used in Japan. “I mean, look, I think that's a weird question to ask,” he said. “It's not a great surprise that the people who really want to rebel and think dangerous thoughts — who are attracted to heresy or so on — are going to end up in a kind of alt-right-like posture.”
Eimi Yamamitsu contributed reporting to this story.
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Ryan Broderick is a reporter for BuzzFeed News and is based in London.
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