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Meet Hiroyuki Nishimura, the Bad Boy of the Japanese Internet

By Lisa Katayama Email 05.19.08 | 6:00 PM

Nishimura downplays the importance of 2channel. He created the simple bulletin board system nine years ago as an exchange student at the University of Central Arkansas. "I was bored," he says. "I made it to kill time." There's nothing remarkable about the technology — the site is similar to BBS setups that were common in the US at the time. And indeed, navigating it is like time-traveling back to the Mosaic era: It's just pages of blue hypertext links and text punctuated by banner ads and a brick background pattern.

What was innovative about 2channel was its openness. Nishimura read the air and realized that what Japan needed was an outlet for unfettered expression. On 2channel, anyone can start a thread and anyone can post — there's no need to register or log in and no Web handles. There are no censors, no filters, no age verification, no voting systems that boost one thread or comment over another. "I created a free space, and what people did with it was up to them," he says. "No major corporations were offering anything like that, so I had to."

The people of Japan who pass each other wordlessly on the way to work each day suddenly realized they had a lot to talk about. They could argue, berate, complain, insult, opine, free-associate, joke around, and revel in their ability to entertain one other as a completely anonymous collective.

The is video from the site Nico Nico Douga (Smiley Smiley Video). It has been viewed over 650,000 times received over 75,000 comments. Older comments drop off unless the users who submitted them have paid premium accounts.

This ugly, lo-res site gets about 500 million pageviews a month, and Nishimura runs it with the help of nearly 300 volunteer administrators. "The only person who gets money from 2channel is me," he says. "Well, I guess I pay for the servers." It earns him 100 million yen a year — about $1 million — mostly from ad revenue. "But I don't think that's all that different from some dude who opens a convenience store in front of a train station," he says dismissively. "They can make a million yen a day."

Nishimura is chuckling over a 2channel thread on a recent news item. "There was this 66-year-old man who was killed by his 61-year-old wife — she beat him to death with a bamboo sword," he says. "It's kind of funny, the contrast between the classic bamboo sword and the modern Internet. Posters were writing things like, Grandpa was probably becoming a pain in the ass to take care of.'"

The snarkiness, the sophomoric humor, the questionable taste — 2channel posts often have the sort of tone you'd find on a site like Something Awful. There's also a prankish streak: When fast-food chain Lotteria held an online poll asking customers to vote for a new flavor of milk shake, 2channelers stuffed the ballot box in favor of kimchi — fermented cabbage. (Lotteria dutifully offered the vile concoction for sale.)

But 2channel isn't just for geeks. Yes, there are threads where programmers discuss PHP and Ruby on Rails, and threads where otaku debate the latest manga and anime. But there are also threads on sex, politics, sports, and motorcycles. Bored housewives gossip about celebrities. Students and teachers discuss their peers in school-specific threads.

The commenters have developed their own jargon and shorthand. There's that put-down kuki yomenai, a dismissal of the clueless who can't read the air. And there's the catchphrase omae mona, a comeback that translates roughly as "I know you are, but what am I?" Omae Mona is also the name given to a catlike character that commenters frequently append to posts:

Though 2channel is text-only, users have circumvented that restriction by raising ASCII imagery to an art form, typing out elaborate illustrations that are often closer to editorial cartoons than emoticons.

Nishimura's primitive bulletin board has become a hot brand. Book-length collections of comments have become best sellers and have been adapted into manga, TV shows, and movies. There are popular blogs dedicated to highlighting interesting threads. 4chan, a US-based site dedicated to anime, griefing, and all things NSFW, is one of several foreign imitators of 2channel. "Its weirdness dominates Internet culture," Ito says.

I'm watching a video on Nico Nico Douga, Nishimura's follow-up to 2channel. A cute girl in a skimpy outfit has set up a camera in her bedroom and filmed herself dancing. Suddenly, a barrage of comments begin to scroll across the video. "She's pretty good!" "Boobies boobies boobies boobies!" "She's kinda fat." "Cuter than my girlfriend!" "What is happening to our country?" "Is it just me or can you see armpit hair at 1:15?"

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