Katya Delaney’s Desserts series is your semi-frequent installment of all things internet (and a few things internet-adjacent).
Chanthropology is the second installment in our special series on Japanese Internet culture.
First and foremost, I’d send a special thank you to The Yotsuba Society not only for their thoughtful and diligent documentation of chan culture, but for coining the term “chanthropology.”
A portmanteau of “chan” and “anthropology,” chanthropology is exactly what it sounds like: the study of the culture, history, and traditions of the chans.
What are “the chans”?
The “chans” are a loose collection of imageboards and textboards (e.g. iichan, 4chan, 2chan, 2ch, and 8chan) that more or less share a common ancestor. There are two distinct chan cultures, Western and Japanese.
Where do we even begin with this?
Compiling a comprehensive chan history would include enough information to fill several books. Not only have they had enormous international cultural, social, political, and technological impacts (far beyond the alt right and Scientology), but they also have a rich and colorful creation story.
The beginning of chan culture might actually start before widespread civilian use of the internet itself, in post-war Japan, immediately following WWII. Don’t worry though — I’m not going to do that to you.
But even if our launching point is Usenet, then you’ve got something like thirty-five years of eventful internet history to wade through. I’ll skip that too. Let’s begin with an imageboard called Ayashii World — the 4chan before there was a 4chan: the proto-chan.
We’re all living in Ayashii World, even today.
Founded in 1996 by Shiba Masayuki, Ayashii World was the first Japanese imageboard. While not technically a chan itself, it set the scene for the chans. If the chans are punk rock, Ayashii World was The Stooges. Unlike later iterations, it was designed to exclusively facilitate discussion about and around underground and taboo technology subcultures.
It was born out of Usenet culture, but unlike Usenet, totally anonymous. When you posted on Ayashii World, you were simply 名無し, or “nanashi.” (名無し would go on to be translated by 4chan’s Christopher Poole as “anonymous.”)
Because every post was made in isolation (i.e. as a reader, there was no sure way of knowing who was posting multiple times), there was very little self-censorship. The conversations always leaned raw, unfettered, and somewhat disturbing.
Although Ayashii World did not invent anonymous internet conversation, it propelled it forward. The folks at The Yotsuba Society smartly argue that it was one of the first places online that empowered Japanese people to really speak their minds.
I’m going to put forward a bold claim: Nanashi is more important in Japan than it is in the West.
Anonymous online conversation is salient today for a lot of reasons. There’s an incredible amount of surveillance at every level of daily life, for one. And two, there’s the social impact of speaking your mind (or misspeaking). We’ve all heard stories of bad jokes costing people their jobs.
But namelessness is much more complex and much more useful as a concept in Japan. Japanese culture more carefully delineates between private and public personas, interpersonal hierarchies, and ingroups and outgroups.
When you remove a person’s name, you effectively remove a person’s place in society. And when you do that, people have the liberty to say whatever they want without consequences. They won’t only say what they feel; they’ll also say what they’ve feared they’d never be able to experience saying otherwise. And as we’ve all learned in the States, that can be a gateway for some truly dark shit.
Gesu (“scum,” in English), Ayashii’s own /b/
Ayashii had its own version of /b/, a.k.a 4chan’s most infamous board. It was called “gesu,” which can loosely be translated as “scum.” On the gesu board, you’d get a range of random discussions, many of them unsettling, but people also used it to coordinate site raids and hacktivism.
Ayashii World also had its own meme culture. I’m hesitant to say it invented meme culture per se, but it definitely flourished there. The Ayashii World meme that’s persisted — that you might already know about — is “giko neko,” an ASCII cat holding a sign, or alternatively, with a speech bubble.
Ayashii was a DIY forum at its best, which is really just a diplomatic way of saying its servers sucked. If you’ve ever frequented a forum that you loved, there’s a sense of anxiety when it’s not available. That was especially true of Ayashii World. Eventually, Shiba received so many violent threats about site outages, he pulled the plug altogether.
If you remember our article on The Palace, this phenomenon of people calling webmasters and threatening their lives over online drama was relatively common in the days of the early internet.
Amezou and 2chan
When Ayashii went down once and for all, a lot of similar sites mushroomed in its wake. The most popular of these sites was Amezou, which was created on June 9th, 1998.
A few things made it distinct from Ayashii World:
- New code infrastructure and new design style.
- It eliminated “tree-type” posting, and introduced “floating-type” posting. Floating-type posting basically meant that newer threads would display over older threads, instead of new threads “treeing” out of older ones.
- BUMPing system. An acronym for “boost up my post,” bumping would place the most recently updated thread on the front page of the site.
- There was a lot of spam.
Eventually, a combination of spam, vandalism, and violent threats made to the site owner over the spam and vandalism put an end to Amezou. Before shutting Amezou down, the site’s creator made one request: make similar sites to Amezou, using his program.
And so the community did — several times over. One of the sites they created? 2channel, the largest anonymous forum in the world.
We’ll learn all about 2channel in our next post on Japanese internet culture.