OhmyNews to Put Down Roots in Japan

OhmyNews, a successful South Korean grassroots media outlet that helped trigger political upheaval in the country, announced in late February that the 6-year-old online news site would launch a Japanese edition.

Softbank Corp. will help OhmyNews establish its Japanese branch, as Masayoshi Son, CEO and president of the Japanese Internet services company, and Oh Yeon Ho, founder and CEO of the Korean Internet newspaper, agreed to form a strategic partnership with the former promising to invest $11 million for a 12 percent stake.

The two companies jointly embarked on OhmyNews International Co. Ltd. to spread participatory journalism worldwide, and the Japanese edition is its first venture, according to OhmyNews. With the investment from Softbank, OhmyNews will also expand its Internet television channel OhmyTV, according to a company statement.

OhmyNews draws more than 700,000 repeat visitors daily, and once exceeded 25 million page views per day in a country of about 48 million, the company said. The site has been especially popular among young people, who elected progressive lawyer Roh Moo Hyun president in 2002.

The online news site started with 727 citizen reporters but could not afford to publicize its embryonic venture then, said Jean K. Min, communications director at OhmyNews International. The number of citizen reporters has grown to more than 41,000, including more than 700 overseas who report in English for its international page.

“It just grew. That’s the nature of the Web,” Min said. “Once we make superb news contents, that will be enough to draw many people’s attention.”

With its “guerrilla strategy” and concept that “every citizen is a reporter,” OhmyNews dealt a severe blow to the conservative mainstream media in South Korea. Its Japanese edition, however, will not compete with mainstream media such as Yomiuri Shimbun or the Asahi Shimbun, Min said. “We are creating a totally different news model. We do not necessarily follow the formula developed by media professionals.”

The announcement of the launch of OhmyNews Japan touched off blogosphere discussion about whether the Japanese edition of the Korean online newspaper could take hold in Japan, provoking some harsh responses from naysayers.

Tsuruaki Yukawa, a member of the editorial board at Jiji Press and author of “Will the Internet Kill Newspapers?” said in his blog that OhmyNews “flourished under certain conditions unique to South Korea. It is extremely difficult to replicate that success in another country.” But, “depending on how, it is not impossible to do,” he added. “OhmyNews Japan needs a lot of money to recruit good writers and draw many people.”

Yukawa, however, said he could not understand why Softbank would invest that much capital into citizen journalism.

Yoshio Kisa, a former Yomiuri Shimbun reporter who until recently was the editor of Tsukasa Internet News Site, pointed out that the number of those who visit the Web site of the OhmyNews has dwindled compared with its peak three years ago. He said he believes the company might have financial problems.

“First and foremost, they need financial support from Softbank and the launch of its Japanese edition seems to just come along,” Kisa told the audience at a symposium held on March 11, organized by Japan Alternative News for Justice and New Culture (JANJAN).

Takeaki Nukii, a Softbank spokesman flatly denied Kisa’s assertion. He said the company is providing indirect support for OhmyNews to launch its Japanese edition, but will not be involved in editorial management.

Unlike in South Korea, citizen journalism has not gathered steam in Japan. Some attribute it to a lack of involvement of professional journalists while others point out that many Japanese tend not to express themselves.

Ken Takeuchi, president of JANJAN, agreed Japanese national character plays a large role.

“This is a society in which it is hard to demonstrate one’s individuality,” said Takeuchi. “When one says something different from what many say, one feels isolated. One is also reluctant to do what others don’t do.”

Channel 2 provides a telling example of this. It is one of Japan’s most popular online destinations, its largest Internet bulletin board, and is almost completely anonymous. Every day about 2 million messages are posted to the virtually taboo-free discussion board, including anonymous grievances about company problems, leaked information and slanderous comments.

With the number of bloggers increasing exponentially, however, Takeuchi has seen a big change in the national character.

“We used to think that we never let anyone see our own diary, but bring it to the graveyard. However, more and more people want to show theirs to the public. The time has changed,” Takeuchi explained. “Simply put, the Internet has been changing the national character.”

Koichiro Nakamura, a citizen reporter who formerly wrote for the Livedoor portal also says he believes participatory journalism will take root in Japan. However, he said, one of the problems is that those currently involved in citizen journalism dwell on what the mainstream media should or should not do.

“They have yet to define what participatory journalism means,” Nakamura said. “They should strain their ears to catch citizens’ opinions. It is not until you pull together citizens’ voice[s] that participatory journalism comes into power.”

OhmyNews Japan seeks cooperation from citizen reporters, freelance writers, as well as major media. In addition, the company will also pay attention to the growth of civic groups and non-profit organizations.

Since the 1995 Kobe earthquake, which killed more than 6,400 people, grassroots activism has established itself in a society accustomed to government initiatives in solving social problems.

Spurred by delays in government relief operations following the 7.3 magnitude temblor a decade ago, Japanese citizens flocked to help out. Soon after the tragedy, volunteer groups and non-profit organizations began to spring up across the country. Since then, such groups have gradually played an important role in society although the mainstream media as well as political leaders appear to keep them on the margins.

“People are waiting for a chance to speak out,” said Min of OhmyNews International. “I don’t think there has been any practical platform [in Japan] which enables them to speak out. Once we give them the chance, you’ll see what happens.”

Kenichi Asano, a journalist and journalism professor at Doshisha University in Kyoto, said those who have negative views of the launch of OhmyNews Japan don’t want citizen journalism to flourish and civic society to grow.

Asano described the Japanese media industry as “the last bastion protected by the so-called convoy system.”

Many critics have long criticized the mainstream media for avoiding controversial topics and maintaining their symbiotic relationship with authority figures through the entrenched press club system.

However, the mainstream media rarely respond to such criticism, and there is virtually no self-examination.

In the past, some have attempted to crack the monolithic walls, but have not been successful, Asano said. What OhmyNews Japan “could do is to cover their taboo topics and criticize those in power.”

However, “it is not easy for OhmyNews to really take hold in Japan,” he said. Although they have been successful in South Korea, “they have to start from scratch in Japan. But they must flourish because this is probably the last chance to get Japanese journalism out of its moribund state.”

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.

Police, Internet Providers Try to Deter Online Suicide Pacts

If you enter the Japanese word for “suicide” into Yahoo Japan’s search engine one of the first sites to come up is the “suicide bulletin board.” The front page explains the site’s aims: “This is a bulletin board to discuss suicide,” it reads. “From postings by the suicidal, to discussions about the rights and wrongs of suicide, to suicide prevention, anything is O.K. . . . read the site on your cell phone too.”

Among the ongoing discussion threads is one headed “Why can’t I die?” “When I think about it, I could die at any time, but why don’t I die? I can go so far, but why can’t I take the last step?” Another is titled: “Please teach me about suicide.” The poster writes that he or she is a university student studying suicide. Elsewhere on the list of threads: “Everyone in my class hates me,” writes a young poster. “They talk about me behind my back and ignore me . . . after all, perhaps I should kill myself like they say I should.” One reply further down the thread reads: “It’s the fault of the bullying, not yours. Don’t think about suicide.”

The suicide rate in Japan has long been one of the highest in the world. In 2004, 32,325 people committed suicide — about 20 times the number of people murdered. And in the last few years, there has been a frightening increase in the number of group suicides arranged over the Internet through chat rooms dedicated to discussing suicide.

This April, Kyodo newswire reported a grimly typical case of suspected Internet suicide in which two men and a woman who were found dead in a car in Chichibu, a town in the Tokyo commuter belt. The windows of the car had been sealed from the inside with adhesive tape and three charcoal stoves were found in the car — the victims had died from carbon monoxide poisoning. There have been a series of similar cases. Japan’s National Police Agency reported 75 deaths in suspected Internet-arranged suicides from January to August this year compared with 55 deaths during the whole of 2004.

Dr. Tadashi Takeshima of the National Institute of Mental Health, who helped compile an institute report on Internet-arranged suicide, believes that the Web sites are dangerous because they enable suicide pacts between individuals who might never commit suicide on their own. Once caught up in a group pact, they find they cannot turn back. He says that often the members of the suicide pacts are in their teens or 20s and strangers except for contact through the sites. In other group suicides the victims are normally lovers, friends or at least known to each other, but in these cases police only find a connection when they check the victims’ computers or mobile phones.

Dr. Takeshima’s study group looked at a number of sites to decide whether action against them was needed, but despite their concerns, they stopped short of recommending that sites be shut down. “It’s very difficult to conclude that any one site is harmful,” he said.

Apart from the cathartic benefit for some users in discussing their depression, there are also people who log onto the sites to try and help those considering suicide. Yukiko Nishihara, founder of the Tokyo Branch of Befrienders Worldwide, a suicide prevention organization, says that some of their 60 volunteers monitor the chat rooms, chat with users and post the numbers of the NGO’s suicide helplines.

In mid-2004, Internet providers, police, academics and NGOs began meeting to discuss what action to take about suicide chat rooms and how to prevent suicide pacts. Four groups covering 80 to 90 percent of providers issued guidelines in October 2005 specifying how police and Internet companies will cooperate.

Hiroyuki Kuwako of the Japan Telecom Services Association, one of the groups, says that before the guidelines were set, it was difficult for providers to pass on personal information about suicide chat room users. If a crime is being committed, providers are obliged to hand over information. But even faced with an imminent suicide attempt they feared breaking the law if they passed on names and addresses. “Because suicide isn’t a crime, it’s down to the providers’ judgment whether or not to give out the personal information,” says Kuwako. Even in urgent cases sometimes the providers had to consult with lawyers before notifying the police.

The new guidelines mean that providers can pass on information without fear of violating rules on freedom of expression and privacy, says Yoshikuni Masuyama, deputy director of the National Police Agency Cyber-Crime Division. “I think the guidelines are most useful for the providers,” he says. “Before, because the providers didn’t give out the information, it was said that people were dying needlessly.”

The guidelines use an existing law that lets police request personal information if someone’s life is in danger (for example finding out the address of someone involved in a car accident through their mobile phone company). According to new rules, if the police believe that a Web site user’s life is in danger they will submit a form to the person’s provider. The Internet provider will look at the form and decide whether or not to cooperate with the request.

Kuwako stressed, however, that “providers don’t check the messages. If we did that, it would be a kind of censorship.” Tipping off the police is instead left to chat room users. If anyone believes that a poster is seriously intending to kill themselves they can notify the police who may contact the provider. The system could also used in other situations, say if someone receives an e-mail from an Internet friend, which leads them to believe that person may be about to kill themselves. According to Kuwako, the guidelines were put into action at least twice in the first month.

As well as the guidelines, a suicide-prevention Web site has also been set up by the National Institute of Mental Health. The Web site is called “ikiru” (to live).

Dr. Takeshima says that they began by looking at material on suicide on the Internet. “As we thought, there was a lot of harmful information,” he says. Some sites give detailed instructions about how to commit suicide. “We thought we should use the Internet to try and prevent suicide too,” he said. The NIMH site publishes suicide research, coordinates suicide prevention efforts and gets around 250 hits per day. Although the site monitors do not correspond directly with depressed individuals, some enquiries are directed to telephone help lines and mental health centers.

Another outcome of the study was that media organizations were asked not to publish detailed information about actual sites and methods of suicide – although their advice generally has not been followed so far, said Takeshima. He does not want to give his opinion on whether the media have made the problem worse by publicizing it, though he notes that few cases have been reported in the media recently. “Has the number of Internet suicide cases reduced, or are they continuing but have lost their freshness for the media?” he asked.

In fact, according to the National Police Agency, the number of cases of Internet-arranged suicide has decreased since the guidelines were introduced in October. Takeshima speculates that that may be because Web site users know that their personal information may be passed to the police if they attempt to carry out a suicide pact.

But despite the intense media attention that Internet-arranged suicides have received, the number of such cases is still tiny compared to the number of overall suicides in Japan. In 2004, 6.1 percent fewer people committed suicide than in the previous year but that was still an increase of 50 percent since 1994.The sharpest jump occurred at the end of the 1990s, near the peak of Japan’s recent economic down-turn. Seventy-two percent of people who commit suicide in Japan are men, most of who are in their 50s or 60s – the group hit hardest by the recession.

“The government needs to recognize that suicide is not a personal problem, it is a social problem,” said Yukiko Nishihara of suicide helpline Befrienders Worldwide. “They are good at setting up academic studies of suicide, but [the government] need[s] to cooperate with NGOs.”

And while every effort should be made to prevent Internet-arranged suicide pacts, people should remember that the technology is just a tool, Takeshima said. “In Tokyo, there are a lot of tall buildings, so that is a means of suicide [there]. In the countryside, people use agricultural chemicals . . . The simple reason [why young people arrange group suicide through the Internet] is that young people use the Internet.”