Japan: Flaming and the secrets we hide

The phenomenon of flaming (enjo) is widespread in Japan, particularly on the notoriously free-wheeling frontier of anonymous posting forums such as 2-channel. In contrast to popular depictions of Japanese as the “humble giants of the web“, posters in these forums are known for being ruthless in the extent to which they will chase people down for their perceived wrongdoing. Just a few weeks ago, a site created to allow users to pick out sites to flame and comment on them was shut down [ja] two days after going online due to complaints from site owners, flamed by an estimated 200,000 users.

The topic of flaming was taken up last week by one Japanese blogger, who argued that the nature of the Internet as a medium of communication has distorted the separation of public and private, of what is shared and what is hidden in a society. Blogger Kusamisusa asked: are the things that people are attacked for so viciously online really so out-of-the-ordinary?

In the blog entry, he writes:

「うわべだけ規則に従って、規則違反はコッソリやるべし」という規律は、「健全な社会」にとって極めて重要である。(炎上と、< 他者>のメンツを立てること)

A rule that says: “Obey the rule superficially, violations should be done stealthily” — this observation is very important for a “healthy society”. (Flaming and saving the face of the ‘other person’)


I wasn't able to find any other words, so I'm writing “healthy society” [kenzen-na shakai] in brackets [quotes].


For example, it's not a major problem if a person, working at an event where otaku [geeks] are gathering, secretly says “these otaku are gross”, nor is it a major problem if someone working at a gyudon [beef-covered rice] shop secretly uses crude ingredients and fools around with them, nor is it a major problem if underage kids secretly drink alcohol and smoke cigarettes.


Things that are problems but not major problems, things that are bad but not terribly bad — in the world there are many things like this. These kinds of things must be done in secret.


For example, suppose that you are a junior high school student. Even if you read manga [comic books] or eat sweets at school, it's not a major problem. Let's suppose that the teaching staff even know about it. Even so, you would definitely not do these kinds of things right in front of their eyes. One must not cause them to lose face. A pedestrian ignoring a traffic signal is also not a particularly big problem. However, when right in front of a police box, you should wait until the light turns green [before crossing].

黙認と容認の間には致命的な差異がある。この差異はくだらないといえばくだらないものなのだが、しかし社会はこれを簡単には放棄することができない。< 他者>に隠れて行為しうること、これはどうしても重要なことだ。

There is a fatal difference between tacit consent and approval. You can call this difference stupid, but for society to abandon it is not such an easy thing. To hide from the “other person” and act, this is after all a very important thing.

「炎上」のひとつのパターンは、「< たいして悪くないけど悪いこと>をしたことがネット上で明らかになり、叩かれる」というものだ。このタイプの炎上を巡って必ず出てくるのは、「そんなには悪いことではないのだから、そんなに激しく叩くことはない」という意見と「悪いことをしたのだから、叩かれて当然だ」という意見との対立である。どちらの意見も正しいと言えるだろう。それは確かに悪いことであるが、そんなに悪いことでもないのだ。

One of the patterns of a “flaming” occurs when “a ‘bad but not particularly bad thing’ that [someone] did gets revealed on the web, and [the person] is attacked for it.” Regarding this type of flaming, there is invariably antagonism between those with the opinion that: “This is not such a bad thing, so there is no need to attack them so fiercely,” and those with the opinion that: “This is something bad, so it is natural that they get attacked for it.” Both of these opinions I suppose may be said to be correct. Because while it is certainly something bad, it is not that bad.

< たいして悪くないけど悪いこと>がコッソリ行なわれているうちは、私たちはそれを黙認しうる。だが、それが大っぴらに行なわれれば、私たちはそれを見過ごすわけには行かない。メンツを潰されてはたまらない。コッソリやってれば咎められないような行為がネット上に(本人の意思で)晒される、という事態は、私たちを当惑させる。悪いことは悪いことなのだから、懲らしめるべきだ。いやしかし、その程度の悪さは誰だってやっている…。

When these ‘bad but not particularly bad things’ are being done stealthily, we all tolerate them. However, when they are done out in the open, there is no way to overlook them. One must not cause [someone else] to lose face. We are bewildered by situations in which these kinds of actions, actions for which a person cannot be blamed as long as they are done stealthily, are exposed on the Internet (by the person [who carried out the act] themself). Bad things are bad things, so they should be punished. And yet, however, at that degree of badness, everybody is doing these things…


Alternatively, whether you hide it stealthily or whatever, it would seem that following rules thoroughly and without exception would make for a more “healthy” society. Isn't this exactly what the image of a country with a constitutional government should look like? Governance grounded in rules that completely eliminate all arbitrary operations. This seems perhaps like a dehumanizing state of affairs, but it may not be such a particularly unappealing thing.


Popularization of the Internet has distorted the separation between the “facade” [uwabe] and “secretive” [kossori], the boundary between public and private, into a strange shape. Flaming exists as [a manifestation of] the confusion brought on by this distortion. Although what I say to friends at an izakaya [Japanese bar/restaurant] may have nothing particularly problematic about it, if I write about it in my blog then it becomes the possible source of flaming. But then, would my friends at the izakaya who heard what I said and did not reproach my wickedness also bear responsibility as immoral human beings? If the “net inago” that attacks the outbreak of the flaming were in the position of my friends, would they, in that situation, have taken me to task? Well then, was publicizing it on the net a problem? The net is a public space, and is it not a place where private antisocial matters should be written? Would it be better if people tried to write without anonymously attacking [people]? Do there really exist things that can be done anonymously but that cannot be done using a real name or proxy? Is it wrong on the net to ask for someone's “real intention”? Are there subjects about which famous performers or alpha bloggers cannot write, but that for me are OK to write about?


There is a need, perhaps, to think carefully about this thing called public space.


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