Looking for the Law in Online Japan’s Wild West

Mainstream media in Japan, notorious for their exclusionary press clubs and deference to powerful bureaucrats, are often only a starting point for news junkies. Racy weekly tabloid magazines are not beholden to the protocol of the respectable press, and get the dirt on everything from political corruption scandals to violent crime, often breaking stories that end up affecting business in the Diet.

But those who crave more turn to 2-Channel (pronounced ni-channeru), a hugely popular Internet bulletin board where even facts that cannot legally be reported, such as the names of youth offenders, are posted.

Launched in 1999, 2-Channel now has some 2.5 million posts daily, ranging from messages about suicidal desires to celebrity gossip to advice on love, and is likely the largest online forum in the world. But its policy of allowing anonymous posts has drawn criticism that it facilitates the spread of false, libelous and private information. In response, founder Hiroyuki Nishimura said in a 2003 JMR interview: “Delivering news without taking any risk is very important to us. There is a lot of information disclosure or secret news gathered on Channel 2. Few people would post that kind of information by taking a risk. Moreover, people can only truly discuss something when they don’t know each other.”

Debito Arudou learned about 2-Channel’s laissez faire editorial policy the hard way. As a foreigner rights activist based in Hokkaido, Arudou is no stranger to controversy. He has sued a bathhouse in Otaru for barring foreigners and worked to convince other leisure establishments in the country to remove their “Japanese Only” signs. His work has raised hackles and earned him regular hate mail. But when he saw 2-Channel posts alleging he was a white supremacist and an advocate of racial discrimination, he demanded they be deleted. When that didn’t happen, in 2005 he sued 2-Channel for defamation of character and won 1.1 million yen ($9,280).

Japan Media Review: What is 2-Channel all about, and why is it popular?

Debito Arudou: 2-Channel is an Internet bulletin board where people can post on everything from the latest news to their favorite way of eating hakusai. It’s a great place to share views. Readers say you can always find a topic that interests you there. I’m not an aficionado of the place myself, as I’ve got enough to read every day, but I can see why it exists.  I have gotten tips in the past from the Hokkaido version of the BBS and found great hole-in-the wall hobbyist bread shops open only a few days of the week … but I digress.

JMR: How did you find out about the message on 2-Channel?

DA: I didn’t exactly go looking for it! (laughs) I get enough of this sort of hate mail sent directly to me in two languages every week.  The difference is, other people can read this hate mail too, and it stays up there acidifying the atmosphere.  It wasn’t hard to find, really. A friend notified me first in mid-2004, and asked what the hell I had said to incite such hatred in somebody else! I said I had said nothing of the sort and ignored it, which is the standard response. Then later on a couple of colleagues in the human rights community said the same, and I realized that this person or persons were carpet-bombing the lists hundreds of times with the same post.

The post, by the way, among other things called me a white supremacist, attributed quotes to me by name saying I believed Japan was a subordinate race and that racial discrimination was justified as long as it favored white people, especially when killing Iraqis. … You can see what I’m talking about at www.debito.org. I realized that I couldn’t leave this alone, especially since I had obviously never said any such things.  So I asked 2-Channel to take the posts down.

JMR: Ironically, 2-Channel has in-house rules (that are posted) against causing meiwaku to others and defamation. Why do you think someone would call you a white supremacist?

DA: I’ve been called everything under the sun, believe me.  Goes with the territory.  I just think some people get their jollies by tearing people down for sport, as any cursory read of Japan’s wild weeklies will demonstrate.  But I think that like spreading rumors around that somebody is a communist, a rapist, a racist, whatever, people are more likely to jump to negative conclusions than just calling me a four-eyed, fleshy-headed mutant who eats clover for breakfast. That’s how the comment I believed was gauged — to try and damage my character and my standing as an advocate for racial equality in Japan.

JMR: Why did you decide to sue 2-Channel?

DA: I can probably guess many readers see me as a “lawsuiter-at-the-drop-of-a-hat” type, but believe me, as in every other case I’ve undertaken, I’ve tried all other means.  In December 2004 through February 2005, I notified 2-Channel by e-mail at their designated address where you request deletions. They never answered. Nor did the defamatory posts come down.  So my lawyers contacted the owner, a Mr. Nishimura, by registered snail mail, several times. Returned by the post office unopened. We did check to make sure Mr. Nishimura was residing there, of course. So we sued. And believe it or not, Mr. Nishimura never answered any court communiques, never appeared in court, never offered any acknowledgment whatsoever. That’s irresponsible on all counts.

JMR: How does Japan’s Provider Responsibility Guidelines Law, which regulates ISP responsibility in and handling of Internet libel claims, guard against defamation in online speech?

DA: That’s something a specialist could better answer than I could. I basically just took the quotes to my lawyers, and they said I had a case. The posts were saying that I had said things which I had never said, and, most importantly, were attributed to me specifically by name. That seems to have been grounds enough. It was for the court to decide whether I had actually been damaged.

The Hokkaido BBS for 2-Channel has moderators, which remove posts that mention anyone by name. Any personal names, zap! But that doesn’t seem to follow for the national version, which would have saved everyone a lot of bother in this case.

JMR: What was your reaction to the judgment by the Iwamizawa District Court?

DA: I was quite pleased, of course. Just about everything we asked for was granted. Most important to me, however, was the vindication that I had in fact been defamed. It wasn’t just me being oversensitive. Those posts hurt, not the least because I am quite careful about what I say, and I maintain a Web site quite assiduously to make sure people can keep my quotes straight. If people want to criticize me for what [I] say or do, ah well. That’s their prerogative.  But when that happens for things I didn’t say or do, then there’s nothing I can do except demonstrate beyond a shadow of a doubt to a credible third party that I’ve been misportrayed. That’s what the Iwamizawa District Court did, and I’m thankful.

JMR: 2-Channel’s Hiroyuki Nishimura has been sued for defamation by many others. Is your case any different? Has it set any precedent?

DA: According to my lawyers, the other cases involved concrete examples of financial damage inflicted on businesses which got slimed on the lists. They could actually show a monetary drop in business after a post. In my case, I am arguably a public figure whose reputation is getting damaged in less quantifiable ways. I mean, it’s hard for me to show a cash flow loss. The precedent set is that money doesn’t necessarily matter — it’s the goal of the defamatory post and the possibility for it to affect my “life’s work,” as I put it before the judge, of getting a law established against racial discrimination in Japan. The judge, thanks very much, ruled I had a case, and awarded me generously by Japanese standards. Appreciate it. Hopefully that will act as a deterrent to slimers and their media in future.

JMR: You have described 2-Channel as a “valuable forum for news, gossip, and information you cannot find in any of the established press.” But it is also rife with infringements of privacy (for instance, the identification of people in criminal cases who cannot be named legally) and, of course, defamation. On balance, how would you characterize its role as a part of the media world — specifically new media — in Japan?

DA: I think it’s a great place, despite all the hiccups, and I hope it continues as such. But it’s gotta figure out how to balance the public’s need to know with the Internet trolls and slimers who just want to hurt people. The freedom of speech does not cover a person’s right to lie, in a malicious attempt to hurt other people in public. Sorry, but that’s why there are guidelines against defamation in any developed media. That’s why other media have licenses, editors, fact verification, and credibility to maintain. Transgress that, there’s hell to pay. Information is great, but within a media it has to be kept responsible.

JMR: With no public assets and offering the cover of anonymity for posters, 2-Channel is apparently an ideal forum for smearing people. What can be done to prevent further abuse? Has 2-Channel responded to your demands since the judgment? Do you expect the message to be removed, or to see any of the damages award?

DA: Keep IP addresses up with posts so posters can be held responsible for what they say. Respond faster, or at all, to requests to remove nasty posts. Have 2-Channel formally register its assets like any other media. One of the problems here is that 2-Channel has apparently lost several libel court cases before mine, but has refused to pay any plaintiffs their damages. That’s illegal. And the court has ruled that by law the IP addresses behind the defamatory posts must be revealed and the posts themselves deleted. I have doubts that will happen. We still have heard nothing from 2-Channel. And the posts are still up. Google my former last name in katakana, “arudouinkuru” — with a small ‘i’ — and “iraku” in katakana, and see what you get. Last I checked, I got 512 hits, up from 462 on the day my court decision came down a week ago.

Thus it goes for anything like this. You leave socially damaging things like defamatory posts and “Japanese Only” signs up for public view, it encourages copycats. Nastiness, especially when self-justified by group activity, knows no bounds except those mandated by law. Which is why these things are, or should be, illegal.

About webtech