It’s a pretty lively gathering. A group of eikaiwa teachers are noisily denouncing their employers, while nearby a pair of leery Charisma Men are swapping tales of sexual conquests, and next to them some language students are loudly debating the Yasukuni Shrine.
Almost lost among the din, is another group in the corner quietly discussing Haruki Murakami’s latest novel.
No, not a night out in the Shibuya Cat and Fiddle, just a brief visit to one of Japan’s English language discussion boards.
The thriving Web sites cover life in Japan, work, current affairs and pretty much anything anyone wants to talk about.
They host both discourse fit to grace a university common-room and lurid discussions that would shame the seediest Roppongi “gaijin” bar.
Take one of the best-known sites, “Fuckedgaijin.com.” Hot topics one day in December included: “Japan-Korea robot wars,” “Fluid exchange in Nara” and “Japanese study materials review” — possibly not the online venue for a delicate examination of the aesthetics of “wabi” and “sabi.”
“BigDaikon.com” is a somewhat tamer Web site, set up by a former participant in the Japan Exchange and Teaching Programme (JET). It quotes a magazine review on its front page that says BigDaikon “has some of the best Japan bashing rants you’ll ever see.”
The site is independent of the JET scheme itself.
Apart from its discussion forums, the site features essays on life as a JET, electronic greeting cards and advice on how to bypass blocks schools have installed to stop assistant teachers from accessing the site at work.
What the many Japan based forums mostly have in common is that they host eclectic, irreverent, chaotic, occasionally downright offensive discussions.
Users post under an online name, and no one need reveal their real name, age, sex, job or nationality. Great for anyone wanting to let off steam about the frustrations of life in a foreign country, but not so good for anyone put off by the odd sexist, racist or jaded comment.
BigDaikon moderator Mochee (not his real name) says that the Web sites welcome extremes of opinion, pro and anti Japan.
“It isn’t much of a discussion if everyone agrees all the time. I believe a lot of the (Japan) bashing is from people trying to deal with culture shock or a seemingly impossible problem they have encountered.
“Posting a ‘Japan bashing rant’ is a safe and anonymous way to deal with it and try and overcome the problem.”
News centered Web site Japantoday.com has a particularly strict moderation policy for its forums, says publisher Mark Devlin.
Ground rules to specify what can and can’t be said are agreed in conjunction with the Web site’s users.
For example, Japan Today generally deems “Jap” an unacceptable term of racial abuse, whereas the term “gaijin” is permitted on the site.
Paid and volunteer moderators scan thousands of posts daily to delete offensive comments.
The Web site tightly integrates news reports and discussion forums, letting users read an article then join the discussion on the same Web page.
Devlin compares the site to a newspaper letters column published in real time.
“Some (posters) are casual observers and some people have quite deep knowledge,” Devlin says.
“(Through the discussions) people can find out more about an issue than just appears on the news story itself.”
Like some other Japan-based discussion-boards, a lot of Japan Today users live abroad; 70 percent of users access the site from overseas.
Not surprisingly, internationally controversial topics such as Yasukuni Shrine, WWII, whaling and U.S. service men stationed in Japan are certain to ignite debate.
While the Web site no doubt benefits from a little heated discussion, the bane of Japan Today and other forums are “trolls” (defined by Japan Today as “a person with no intent to discuss, but with the intent to stir up trouble.)”
The kind of user who likes to drop a beyond-the-pale comment into a discussion then sit back and enjoy the outraged reaction.
If found out a troll can expect their post to be deleted or coolly ignored; if taken seriously they are more likely to get “flamed,” i.e. deluged with a flood of abusive responses.
Not that it’s always so easy to tell the difference between trolls and genuine bigots, and baiting the latter might even be part of the fun for some.
For others who take offense, it could be a good reason to log off.
Despite — or perhaps because of — its strict discussion moderation policy Japan Today is often accused of bias, says Devlin, be it anti-Japan, pro-Japan, anti-America, pro-America or another bias.
Most moderators are volunteers and the Web site stresses they accept moderators with both “pro and anti-Japan viewpoints.”
“There is always someone who is going to be offended by some of the comments,” says Devlin. “We have to balance the risk of offense with providing a safe space for open discussion.”
And surely the discussion boards would be hopelessly dull without at least a few abusive, obscene, jaded, ill-informed posts.
Or as Salman Rushdie once put it, “What is freedom of expression? Without the right to offend, it ceases to exist.”