It was 1975 when University of North Carolina graduate student Steve Bellovin developed a handful of short programs to facilitate communication via UUCP (Unix-to-Unix Copy) between the University of North Carolina and Duke University. The scripts were later rewritten in the computer language “C” and extended, later becoming the basis for Usenet.
Usenet is a distributed conferencing system that provides for group discussions over the Internet, and includes thousands of “newsgroups” that cover thousands of topics. Usenet is alive and well today, and continues to enjoy wide popularity with millions of users familiar with configuring and using “news reader” software.
However, it was the ease and user-friendliness of Internet browsers and the World Wide Web that saw discussion groups and message boards really blossom into a cyberculture phenomenon. These systems use the same conceptual components as Usenet newsgroups — discussion topics, messages and threads — but are designed for use with a standard Web browser rather than a news reader. Popular English-language ones include Yahoo! Groups ( groups.yahoo.com ) MSN Groups ( groups.msn.com ). English-language forums specific to Japan can be found at JapanToday ( forum.japantoday.com ).
But the hands-down king of message boards (or “keijiban”) in Japan is a site called 2 Channel (pronounced “ni channeru”) at www.2ch.net .
2 Channel, or simply “2ch,” is designed and operated by 26-year-old Tokyo native Hiroyuki Nishimura, who describes himself as “forever 19, a lover of sweets, and a ‘hikikomori’ (someone who has withdrawn from society).” He started it in May 1999, he said, because “it seemed like fun.”
The sheer scale of 2ch is impressive for an independently run site. Nishimura told me he gets around 1 million posts a day and more than 20 million hits a day.
At the top level, the message boards are divided into general categories such as Society and Current Events, Academics and Education, Living and Work, Culture and Hobbies, Computing, and Idle Chatter.
Below these are more than 200 subtopics covering everything from art to zoology. The list of message boards is displayed in a navigation frame to the left of the main content window, and you have to scroll for a long, long time to see the entire list.
Some examples of the topics you’ll find there, presented in a simple blue-on-white evocative of pre-1995 Web design, are: Media, SDF, Work (divided into 16 industries), Drugs and Crime, The Occult, Creative Arts, Movies, Biology, Mathematics, Psychology, Japanese History, Hangul, Philosophy, Home Appliances, Digital Cameras, Politics, Ramen, Candy, Credit, Bars, Furniture, Cosmetics, Tobacco, Convenience Stores, Student Life, Jokes, Single Men/Women, Sumo, Sportscars, Baseball, Extreme Sports, Travel, Television Shows, Gambling, Manga, Costume Play, Lost Love, Baldness and Wigs, and the list goes on and on.
The medium of discourse in 2ch message boards is Japanese, with the exception of boards that deal with English or other languages. Although this is an obvious barrier to those who read no Japanese, online dictionaries like Eijiro ( www.alc.co.jp ) can be a big help for people who can read some but need help with the occasional word.
Not surprisingly, there are also a number of adult message boards that cover a wide variety of topics including the sex trade, sex games, SMBD, and homosexuality. Users under 21 are supposedly restricted from accessing these areas, but apparently there is no enforcement mechanism is place to bar minors from participating.
Which brings us to an interesting feature of 2ch, namely that it allows anonymous viewing of and posting to the message boards. This anonymity is key to the site because it allows users to speak their minds as frankly as they wish without fear of recrimination.
As a consequence, the discussions on 2ch tend to become quite spirited, particularly when the topic is a hot-button issue such as the abduction of Japanese citizens by North Korea or the threat of a United States-led war against Iraq. And people do get engaged — Nishimura says the average visitor stays for 1.3 hours and views 59 pages.
The anonymity permits heated debates on all kinds of topics to rage daily on 2ch, with a breadth of opinion and unabashed frankness you almost never encounter in conventional media like television or newspapers.
Predictably, however, the anonymity can also easily lead to so-called flame wars, where the discussion degenerates into a volley of insults and vitriolic attacks. Gone in such cases are the ornamental pleasantries and attention to rank that characterize communication among Japanese under typical circumstances, replaced by “anta” or “omae” (harsher ways of saying “you”) and indelicate rebuffs, like “Die, quickly.”
Thankfully, such flaming seems to happen less frequently on 2ch than, for example, on unmoderated Internet newsgroups.
New threads appear on 2ch daily, and particularly active boards have hundreds of active threads at any given time. Each new day brings with it more news and events, meaning 2 Channel’s thousands of users never run out of things to discuss and debate.
So, if you want to get the “real” Japanese perspective on just about any topic you can imagine, have a look at 2 Channel. No matter what your particular interests may be, you’re sure to find people discussing them there.