A reflection of how the internet functioned in Japan in 2018 can be seen in a recent incident at Shinjuku Station.

On Dec. 18, Twitter user @Diablo_Lucifero warned women using the transportation hub to be on the alert for multiple men who were apparently going out of their way to shove female commuters. They uploaded a photo of what they claimed was an arm that had been injured in one such attack, adding that a colleague had also suffered damage to their ribs.

The post attracted responses reporting similar incidents, while the whole situation soon went viral.

If this sounds familiar, it’s because a similar attack was reported earlier in the year and was even captured on a smartphone camera. It was one of the most buzzed-about stories online, and has resurfaced once again. As @Diablo_Lucifero suggests, the police don’t appear to have investigated the reports, despite plenty of people discussing it on social media and substantial evidence being uploaded.

The internet — from social media to a newer generation of publications based online — have stepped in to fill in gaps that traditional media outlets often ignore. Results aren’t guaranteed — the case of men intentionally targeting women shows that those who could actually do something (that is, the police) are failing — but it’s casting a light nonetheless.

Generally, the internet in Japan has long been cast as a haven for right-wingers to complain about the rest of Asia. That image isn’t entirely wrong — 2chan still leans right, and remains one of the most popular destinations for web discourse in the country — but in 2018, it definitely felt more diverse. While not quite as visible, the nation’s left-leaning netizens were perhaps more content with the nature of the discourse this year, such as that seen during a controversy centered around the perceived nationalism present in rock band Radwimps’ song “Hinomaru.”

Putting extremism aside for a second, it was certainly noticeable how many middle-of-the-road folk were using social media this year. More people use their smartphones to surf the net these days and with more ordinary users refraining from offering highly politicized views, the general discourse on the internet doesn’t seem to be nearly as polarized as it once was.

Online attitudes in 2018 tended to lean a smidgen more progressive as a result — or, at the very least, they weren’t behind-the-times. The responses to Masatoshi Hamada’s blackface scandal and Ken Horiuchi’s use of women as cleaning supplies generated a torrent of negative reaction, with the usual “they don’t understand why it’s so bad” defense quieter than in previous years. People rallied around hashtags that struck back at misogynists. Fake information and outright lies overwhelmed Twitter everywhere in 2018, but Japanese users deserve credit for being extra vigilant in highlighting them, especially during natural disasters.

Social media isn’t perfect, of course, with plenty of familiar jingoistic rhetoric present. The platform also impacted the #MeToo movement. While many supported the movement, it inspired some to come out of the digital woodwork to attack those speaking up about their experiences, while others took it a step further and created a #WeToo campaign. Coupled with the lack of impact on the people holding positions of power, social media is considered to be a legitimate place to criticize the country’s online spaces.

More generally, web-focused outlets have risen up to provide news and perspectives often ignored by traditional news groups. BuzzFeed Japan and Huffington Post Japan, among others, offered up a slightly more progressive take on the nation’s news, focusing on issues such as sexism, LGBTQ rights and much more. Not all of the outlets got through 2018 unscathed — Huffington Post found themselves skewered by netizens in the wake of reporter Rio Hamada asking U.S. tennis star Naomi Osaka about her identity — but they did gain more prominence as the year progressed.

Among those were myriad cases of politicians — all from the Liberal Democratic Party — making discriminatory comments. The above mentioned sites were joined by general online users in highlighting how ridiculous comments made by Mio Sugita and Tom Tanigawa, among others, about LGBTQ individuals were.

The best example of this convergence, though, came after the magazine Shincho 45 dismissed LGBTQ issues as insignificant in response to the Sugita flap. Social media users tore into the ridiculous and reductive arguments outlined by the publication, while online and traditional outlets also zoomed in on it. Things got so bad that Shincho 45’s own Twitter account went rogue in protest.

The end result? The magazine suspended the publication of Shincho 45 in September.

Japanese netizens became their own force for controlling ridiculous opinions and dangerous actions in 2018. With 2019 around the corner, it’s the perfect time to watch and see how the institutions at the top respond.

In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.