The story of a recent online phenomenon offers a great snapshot of internet culture in Japan during the Heisei Era (1989-2019). Twitter user @Ninjamaaaaaan posted a blurry photo of a pooch in motion, with its tail swooping in front of its face. It looked vaguely like the canine in the image was throwing a haymaker with a particularly jacked-up arm.

More than 48,000 retweets later, right-hook dog has taken on a whole new existence. Users across the internet created fan art, latte designs and 3D printed models. Soon enough other famous dog characters were getting the proteined-up treatment, while others drew comics. A buff fox was soon uncovered. Naturally the two squared off.

Given the pace of internet culture in 2019, right-hook dog isn’t going to be the final meme to spread before the Reiwa Era officially starts (who knows what animal is enjoying its time in the digital spotlight as you read this?). However, it does serve as a nice note to go out on when talking about online life in Japan over the past few decades. What started as a seemingly innocuous photo mutated into a multi-layered thing netizens riffed on and mashed up with other pop-culture staples. The only difference now is just how widespread this stuff can get.

As was the case with the early origins of the internet everywhere, the Japanese web started as a series of small sites and message boards that were viewed as some kind of weird alternative space by the mainstream media. The bulletin board system 2channel (often referred to 2chan) launched in 1999. It exemplifies this well. Featuring a cluster of subforums devoted to all kinds of niches, it allowed multiple communities to form and a number of trends to emerge. The use of ASCII to create characters in the shape of cats (nicknamed Giko Cat), for example, became an early mascot for the platform, which has gone on to appear in all kinds of other digital environments.

Mainstream media treated these online communities in much the same way as they covered the world of otaku (geek) culture a decade earlier — as degenerates who were up to no good, with incidents such as a 17-year-old boy posting on 2chan that he planned to hijack a bus and then doing just that, with one person murdered in the process. There’s also the whole nationalism thing, with plenty of anger routinely leveled at other Asian countries and liberals in Japan.

“The most typical communication style on 2chan is trading snarky commentary on specific kinds of source material,” Tokyo University professor Akihiro Kitada wrote in an essay titled “Japan’s Cynical Nationalism,” adding that this was aided by a shared knowledge of pop culture and the media. The attitude extended beyond just that board, too.

One of the earliest large-scale internet trends (what would be a “meme” today) was Senkousha. What started as a legitimate robotics breakthrough for China in 2000 became the subject of ridicule after the site Samurai Damashi posted a sarcastic article about it in 2001, mocking its “crotch cannon” and comparing it to Japanese robots. The post went viral, eventually becoming a real-life model, inspiring a fan-made video and multiple online games.

The internet’s leaning toward nationalism comes through clearly in the joy taken in mocking China (though, to be fair, it isn’t a cosmetically pleasing robot). It’s also a shared joke for netizens, something traditional media would never touch. This shared culture defined early online communities.

All this changed with “Densha Otoko,” the 2004 story told on 2chan’s “single man” forum about an awkward otaku-type falling for a woman he met on the train. Both an earnest love story and a reference-heavy thread loaded with self-deprecating jabs aimed at 2chan men, it crossed over into the mainstream, resulting in a book, movie and a theater production, among other things. It remains one of the most celebrated productions out of Japan in the 21st century, with plans for a Hollywood version ongoing.

While online culture mostly remained within these zones over the next decade, more and more trends slipped over to the real world. Hatsune Miku started as a Nico Nico Douga superstar before turning into a mainstream force, for example. And then the internet just became part of regular culture in Japan. Today, it feels like almost everyone is on Twitter or Instagram or some other social media platform. Even message boards have just become another part of the ecosystem. Memes are now widespread and even pop up on morning TV shows.

However, the way these memes mutate — as seen with right-hook dog — is still very much in line with how they played out early in the Heisei Era. Users are drawn to something strange, and then put their own spin on it or bounce it off other pop culture to create something new. This is now the norm for online discussion in Japan.

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