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Japan’s Cynical Romantics, Precursors to the Alt-Right

Long before Pepe the Frog endorsed Trump, Japanese internet users created a new, ‘very online’ far-right political style. But why did it reappear decades later in the U.S.?

Brett Fujioka
August 08, 2019
Illustration: Tablet Magazine
Illustration: Tablet Magazine
Illustration: Tablet Magazine
Illustration: Tablet Magazine

I still remember when I encountered my first far-right netizen in the wild. It happened in 2011 while I was living in Japan. Internet citizens, netizens for short, referred to Japanese who practically lived online. In the beginning they weren’t interested in politics, but like any people inhabiting a new place, as they adapted to the unique environment of the internet the early focus on media and pop culture evolved into more esoteric offshoots. The most notable of these offshoots was the netto-uyoku, literally the “Net Right-Wing,” a small subgroup of netizens who embraced a hybrid style of radical politics that blended online subculture with far-right extremist ideology and whose influence eventually spread far outside of Japan. I didn’t know it at the time but I had accidentally stumbled on the template for the troll armies of the alt-right.

The shock I felt discovering the netto-uyoku wouldn’t even have made sense at the time in an American context, where internet culture lags behind the trends in Japan. But for many Americans, the once-distant experience I had almost a decade ago in Japan, became common in the course of the 2015-2016 Trump campaign. For some, it occurred when a half-forgotten high school friend reappeared shit-posting Pepe the Frog memes on their Facebook feed. Others were introduced by a second cousin or work acquaintance sharing YouTube videos that might have initially featured harsh—but not yet fully unhinged—critiques of Hillary Clinton, before fully embracing the “alternative media” personalities who cluster in and around the alt-right.

The question we have to ask is why the basic characteristics of the far-right netizen have become familiar in America when, only a few years ago, the netto-uyoku would have been gawked at here, if they were noticed at all, as just another curiosity of Japanese subculture. The history I want to recount is an attempt to answer that question. It is the story of the social and historical forces that transformed Japan’s irony and media-saturated internet imageboards into incubators first of a peculiar anti-establishment sensibility and then later into breeding grounds for a right-wing neonationalism. Finally, it’s the story of how and why this phenomenon has reemerged in America.

The Cynical Romance in the Belly of the Chans

The nexus of Japan’s internet culture is the super influential imageboard site, 2Channel. Commonly referred to as 2Chan, the site provided a forum for discussing media and pop culture. In time, 2Chan would serve as the progenitor for American knockoffs 4Chan and 8Chan, which would become hives of the Western alt-right. Two decades after 2Chan was created, its American counterparts would become the home base for pro-Trump trolls and meme makers, far-right mass shooters, and countless other internet-culture obsessives with no special interest in politics. The various Chan boards have originated much of what passes for digital culture across the world, from cutesy memes like LOLCats, to online political activity, internet swarms, and targeted harassment.

An incisive account of the netto-uyoku rise within 2Chan comes from the Japanese sociologist Akihiro Kitada and his concept of “cynical romanticists.” Cynicism and romanticism would appear to be antagonistic philosophies. Cynics zealously distrust everything and revel in exposing hypocrisies and flaws in people’s ideals. By contrast, romantics exalt in intense emotions and the pursuit of the sublime. On the surface, cynics and romantics should clash and be incapable of meshing together. Yet it is the way the two sentiments became entangled that transformed a faction of 2Chan’s netizens into the far-right netto-uyoku.

Kitada observed a crucial tension in his subjects: The young users of 2Chan were simultaneously obsessive consumers of media and animated by a deep animosity toward the press. The Japanese cynical romanticists loathed the media, yet were incapable of shutting up about it. Kitada interprets the apparent contradiction in these displays as a misplaced love. But perhaps passion is a better word because love belies the toxic codependence that animates such relationships. The cynical romanticists require the media to provide them with shared grievances to bond over. The media, in turn, relies on the cynical romanticists to be rabid consumers. In this way, the Japanese experience foreshadowed and mirrored the dynamic among hardcore fans of Breitbart or Fox News who endlessly gnash their teeth over the mainstream media yet seem addicted to their outrage. Or the way networks like CNN and MSNBC thrive by constantly posturing against Trumpism while providing Trump and his supporters with a bullhorn.

The deep cynicism of the Japanese media audience was developed, in Kitada’s telling, by the country’s television culture in the 1980s. The Japanese comedic variety, talk, and game shows of that decade operated in a kind of closed off but connected world that required special insider knowledge for audiences to understand their self-referential jokes and snarky exchanges. Over time, a cynical sense of being in on the joke acquired a harder edge among media consumers who turned against the media establishment that had shaped their outlook.

Japan’s Narrative Collapse and Nationalism Reborn

By itself, the curdling of an internet subculture’s ironic sensibility might not have mattered outside the media bubble. What made the netizens potent was the way their attitude reflected deeper changes in Japanese society.

As Japan transitioned into the 1990s, its bubble economy burst and ignited a recession that spanned into the late 2000s. The vision that had inspired the Japanese of their nation one day overtaking the United States as the world’s leading economic power floundered, as did the country’s culture of secure lifelong employment in the workforce. Other events, like the Tokyo sarin gas attacks perpetrated by the Aum Shinrikyo cult in 1995 and the Great Hanshin earthquake of the same year further soured the national spirit and morale.

The demoralizing effects of Japan’s decline in the global order and economic collapse were compounded by an unconnected technological development. The rise of new internet-enabled communication platforms like the BBS (bulletin board system). The BBS message boards both challenged centralized media power and destabilized the grand narratives of Japanese society, which could no longer be imposed from above. Online communities like Ayashii World and Amezou, precursors to 2Chan, sprung up on the Japanese web, forming an alternate media ecosystem in which established press and entertainment became mere fodder for the real event—ironic repurposing and insider snark.

The nationalism that would come to characterize the netto-uyoku began building around the year 2002, as a number of incidents sparked a nationalist backlash. While Japan is a highly ethnically homogenous society with a low rate of immigration compared to America, the netto-uyoku—perhaps, already susceptible to “lost cause” narratives—embraced the anti-immigrant attitudes, and the particular hostility to Koreans, characterized by the broader Japanese far-right.

One catalyzing event in the netto-uyoku‘s evolution, which combined the key ingredients of anti-“foreigner” sentiment with hostility to the media criticism, occurred over the 2002 FIFA World Cup co-hosted by Japan and South Korea. In an article titled “The Roots and Realities of Japan’s Cyber-Nationalism,” the Japanese journalist Furuya Tsunehira recounts the episode and its impact:

With the mainstream media avoiding any comments or coverage critical of the event or of the Koreans, disgruntled fans turned to the Internet, which they regarded as the only medium free from the constraints of official policy or political correctness. The episode fueled a deep distrust of the mainstream media, particularly with regard to coverage of South Korea, and helped set the anti-Korean, anti-mainstream media tone that was to become a defining feature of Japan’s Internet right-wing community. Illustrative of this lineage and its enduring impact is the fact that years later, participants in the Internet-organized anti-Korean demonstrations of 2011 and 2012 (about 10,000 for all demonstrations combined) descended not on the South Korean embassy but on the Fuji Television Building in Odaiba, Tokyo. (They were protesting what they regarded as excessive South Korean influence in the network’s broadcasting policy.)

Tsunehira further makes a point about the demographics of the netto-uyoku that may speak to the salient differences between the sources of populist support in America and elsewhere, and the particular form of online-inspired racial nativism associated with the alt-right.

As this analysis indicates, it is a mistake to equate Japan’s new wave of right-wing nationalism with the xenophobic extremism that economic hardship and immigration have fueled among Europe’s low-income youth. Japan’s new wave of right wingers consists of relatively computer-literate middle-class men who sought an outlet for their indignation regarding the predominantly upbeat and conciliatory representation of South Korea in the mainstream media. Poverty was not a factor.

Tsunehira also writes about how the Japanese right-wingers used language strikingly similar to the “red pill” meme common in the American alt-right to describe a similar experience of gnostic revelation.

In a close parallel to the premise of the Matrix, internet right-wingers talk about “waking up” to the patriotic, anti-Korean truths that the powers that be (primarily the mainstream media) have taken such pains to conceal from the people. Only on the internet, they believe, is it possible to lift this veil of falsehood.

In an odd inversion of the film’s themes, for the netto-uyoku, as for the alt-right who would come after them, true liberation is only possible by plugging into the matrix of the Internet.

Like The New York Times, the liberal Asahi newspaper is a frequent target of the netto-uyoku’s ire. The netto-uyoku fixate on factual inconsistencies in press stories that deal with matters of Japan’s national honor and record during WW2. In the 2014 Seiji Yoshida affair, a controversy was sparked by inaccuracies in an Asahi article about Korean women, colloquially known as “comfort women,” who were forced into sexual servitude during WW2. Similar furors have erupted around the press’ treatment of the Nanking Massacre in China. In fact, Asahi did commit serious journalistic errors in the Seiji Yoshida affair, as the paper eventually acknowledged, and suffered a greater loss to its reputation than many moralistic expat journalists are willing to admit. But the netto-uyoku‘s criticism goes beyond this. “Even if Asahi were to produce content they approved of,” Kitada wrote, “[the netto-uyoku] would put a conspiratorial spin on it with comments such as, ‘This is part of Asahi’s plan’ and ‘Asahi’s desperate to redeem itself.’ No matter how substantive a news piece may be, it is automatically categorized as source material for cynicism if it is published by Asahi.”

Turning Japanese in America

In 2003, nearly 15 years after the start of 2Chan, an avid user of the Japanese site, the American teenager Christopher Poole, created an imageboard in the same mold that he called 4Chan. Like 2Chan before it, 4Chan has been associated with various evolutions of online meme culture from goofy pranks to puerile destructiveness. To a significant degree, the American alt-right grew out of 4Chan’s politics board, /pol/. While /pol/’s anonymous and ephemeral posting structure makes it hard to track, it was clearly a prolific source of pro-Trump campaign memes and a critical node in the spread of white-nationalist ideology and radicalization of far-right terrorists. The prevalence of Japanese aesthetics like anime in the American alt-right is not an accident. It reflects a shared heritage in online culture and a common sensibility that resonates despite the considerable differences between the historical circumstances in the U.S. and Japan.

Keying in on the connections between 2Chan and 4Chan, some observers have tried to blame Japan’s internet nationalists for the creation of the alt-right but this misses the bigger picture. While Japan and America have a vibrant cultural exchange, particularly in pop culture exports, they remain distant when it comes to more traditional social customs and political conventions. It’s not plausible that Japan could have simply transmitted the alt-right into an American context. And this kind of simple causality obscures a deeper connection between the recent historical experiences in Japan and the U.S. that led to a parallel political ideology taking shape in the two countries.

The conditions that led to the growth of the netto-uyoku have a socio-historical equivalent in recent American history. Just as Japan underwent a long recession and “Lost Decade” when its bubble economy burst, many American millennials watched their dreams go up in flames after the Great Recession of 2008. At the same time they were absorbing the protracted failure of America’s wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. The United States economy has gradually recovered, but the country has never truly reckoned with the long-term fallout from the crash or the causes and consequences of its disastrous foreign policy. The confidence Americans had felt for decades in their country’s global supremacy was shaken, just as the Japanese had experienced decades before. This was the environment in which Donald Trump emerged, promising to “make America great again.” But among millennials, his election has only contributed to the broad lack of trust in America’s key institutions.

As Japan adapted to the contraction of its economy, the rate of temporary rather than permanent work increased in its domestic industries. Japanese workers could no longer rely on companies to feel a duty toward them that preserved a measure of security above the profit motive. Developments in the U.S., meanwhile, have led to the explosion of the gig economy and service sector jobs, while more stable and equity-building salaried work has dramatically decreased. Along with the economic similarities, the U.S. has begun to see a convergence with Japan on certain social trends as well. Only a few years ago, stories about “Weird Japan’s” plummeting birthrates and celibate youth provided cheap clickbait entertainment to a snickering American audience. Now similar patterns are emerging in the U.S. as millennials experience declining levels of sexual activity, birthrates, and testosterone relative to their boomer parents. Americans have become their own clickbait.

In the U.S., as in Japan, civic and economic decline has been coupled with a growing web-based alternative media that runs on a lingua franca of irony and cynicism. In both countries, the communities of “anti-media” media consumers attract people trying to grapple with profound social and political changes. And in the U.S., as in Japan, economic insecurity has produced a rise in nativist sentiment that tips between xenophobic nationalism and outright racism.

The Bad Romance

The early netizen’s insistence that they only wanted to laugh at everything and didn’t really believe in anything betrayed a powerful desire for empathy and social connection. In the absence of real human bonds, the media provided them with the content for communal discourse and the subjects for emotional experience.

As a former netto-uyoku confessed, her loneliness, alienation, and longing for companionship were what motivated her to embrace xenophobic views toward Chinese and Koreans.

I was lonely and had nothing to do at that time. So I spent a lot of time on the Internet. This was just as “matome” meme aggregator websites were just becoming popular in Japan. After reading websites that focused on discrimination, I felt great because I thought I had gained knowledge that they did not teach in school nor you could not get by watching TV.

I was also very happy because I was sharing the knowledge with “someone” even though I had not met them in person. The topics we were discussing were often about how to set the world right.

So, I felt I was someone important …

The fortunes of the cynical romanticists have not fared so well in the realm of politics. The former Prime Minister Taro Aso enjoyed a reputation as an otaku—internet obsessive—and admitted that he “occasionally” posted on 2Chan. Nevertheless, he guided Japan’s Liberal Democratic Party during its worst election results in its history during the 2009 Japanese general election. Another politician, Toshio Tamogami enjoyed a great deal of support from the netto-uyoku, it wasn’t nearly enough to win his 2014 bid for Tokyo’s governorship. Despite frequent attempts from critics to brand Prime Minister Shinzo Abe as the Donald Trump of the Far East, Abe has so far failed at any attempt to amend the peace clause of Article 9 of the Japanese Constitution to make “Japan Great Again.”

The failure of Japan’s internet far right to achieve any lasting political goals speaks, perhaps, not only to their place on the margins of the Japanese public life, but the extent to which the politics was only the outgrowth of an underlying emotional malaise. And yet, while the netto-uyoku‘s influence has receded in Japan, their strange elixir of aggrieved nationalism and media obsessed irony has spread at the bleeding edge of digital culture, becoming one of the dominant modes of political discourse in the West, and achieving a prominence in America greater than it ever had at home.


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Brett Fujioka is freelance writer covering modern Japanese culture, literature, and critical theory. He lived for two years in Japan before returning to California. Follow him @Brett_Fujioka.