Massive anonymous bulletin board 2channel has played an important role on the Japanese Web for 15 years (mostly on the dark side). Riddled with gossip and rumors, the site has always kept its ownership vague to avoid legal conflict, but recently a longtime background supporter seems to be trying to shake things up — and he’s an American.

2channel (2ch) is Japan’s largest bulletin-board service, founded in 1999 by Hiroyuki Nishimura. There are boards for every conceivable subject. Because the site allows users to post anonymously, it became hugely popular as a place to vent without the usual pressure of Japan’s strict societal mores. The concept was even exported to other countries, such as with 4chan in the United States.

The new developments began after 2channel recovered from an outage on Feb. 19. An admin-only thread was created under the name “Jim,” with a message that began, “I have secured the 2ch servers.”

The post stated that the “previous management” had failed to earn sufficient money for running the servers, that his name had been slandered, and ended with the hope that “proper management” could make the site sustainable again.

So who is this “Jim”? He is Jim Watkins, an American who has been running 2channel servers in San Francisco, at his Web-server hosting company N.T. Technology. Indeed, one of the reasons it is so difficult to file claims or legal action against 2channel is that its servers are located outside Japan.

Watkins has been in ownership of BBS Pink, an adult sister site of 2channel, via N.T. Technology, and managing 2channel’s servers as well. Now he says he controls the whole site.

Indeed, the domain name 2ch.net, which Nishimura claimed to have given to Singaporean company Packet Monster Inc. in 2009, was handed over in 2012 to Race Queen Inc., a Philippines-based IT company whose contact name is Jim Watkins. So both 2channel’s servers and its domain name are under Watkins’ control. 2channel’s top page now lists Race Queen’s contact information.

So who is the “previous management” Watkins declared incapable? Some suspect a coup by Watkins against Nishimura. But this is just speculation. Around the time the site was down, Nishimura tweeted in Japanese, “Things quietly end; time has passed like this.” Assuming this tweet was even related to the takeover, it has been Nishimura’s only public action.

There is another theory that Watkins is referring to one or a few individuals at operator level. Last year the site suffered a massive leak in privacy information of its paid users. The leak included credit-card security codes, which are not supposed to be stored on the seller’s side. This incident impacted 2channel’s income, which was used to pay N.T. Technology. Watkins may be positioning himself as the lead to fix the situation.

No one wants to claim ownership of 2channel and take responsibility for lawsuits and tax issues, but for the time being, Watkins implies that he has taken over the site’s management, whether that means he is just Nishimura’s minion or aiming to be the new emperor.

Watkins set up a thread named “Let’s talk with Jim-san in operate” on 2channel to exchange ideas on what he should do to keep the site running. As Watkins does not speak Japanese, the discussions are being carried out in a mix of English and Japanese, with a lot of machine translations.

One big discussion earlier this month was about the comments-reuse policy by third parties. Matome (summary) sites select quality comments from 2channel threads to republish and generate advertising revenue, with top sites reportedly getting 100 million monthly page views. These sites siphon users away from 2channel itself, affecting the number of posts made there.

Many board users told Watkins they want tensai kinshi, which means to explicitly prohibit third parties from reusing their comments. Watkins approved this, and the policy of many popular boards were changed to reflect this from March 2.

Summary sites panicked. Since their content was taken entirely from 2channel boards, some were forced to shut down, or to cease updates, take comments from Twitter instead, and so on. Some guided their readers to other 2channel-style clone sites that have no such restrictions, such as Open-2channel. One of Japan’s largest websites, FC2, opened boards with the same name as those affected on 2channel in a bid to lure users.

However, it turned out that Watkins had misunderstand the phrase tensai kinshi to which he had agreed. He had just wanted to add “all rights reserved” as preventive warning, but got “tensai kinshi” when he tried to translate the phrase using Google Translate and made it an option for users to vote for. Once he realized his mistake, Watkins backtracked all changes on March 5, and summary sites have resumed business as usual.

This incident proves how difficult it will be to manage such a massive forum without knowing the language. If Watkins really has taken over the site, he needs to find Japanese-speaking staff. And if he has in fact been ordered by Nishimura to set foot on the minefield simply because no one else wants to be considered as a honcho in the eyes of the authorities, confusion will continue.

Akky Akimoto writes for Asiajin.com, an English/Spanish blog on Japan’s Web scene. His Twitter account @akky is followed by 122,000 users.

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