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Japan: Reflections on the Akiba Massacre (Part 2)

In the last post, I summarized some of the many blog conversations about social background to the massacre in Tokyo's Akihabara district on June 8th. Another aspect of the tragedy sparking many discussions was the way the incident was covered through the citizen media: through blogs, but also through Twitter [ja], and most controversially through the use of streaming video [ja]. As blogger Akihito Kobayashi (小林啓倫) pointed out [ja], while this was not the first case in Japan where a news story broke first through these new forms of media, it was a very clear sign that times are changing. Even NHK, Japan's national broadcaster, was apparently using pictures off the Internet taken with mobile phone cameras by people who just happened to be on the scene.

Snapshot from streaming video by user Lyphard
Snapshot from streaming video by user Lyphard. No record of the actual stream has been found.

Random knife murders like the one in Akihabara may not be so novel in Japan [ja], but on-the-spot citizen media is still fairly new. The combination of the two, though, didn't go over very well with the public. An article in J-CAST [ja] describes the backlash in weekly magazines against the paparazzi-like picture-taking of curious onlookers snapping shots of bleeding victims. An online survey by Livedoor [ja] quoted in the article indicated that two-thirds of respondents thought that picture-taking at the scene was immoral.

More shocking than the picture taking to some was the use of streaming video. Live feeds by two users of Ustream in particular, lyphard and kenan (on Twitter at @lyphard and @kenan_), drew thousands of viewers before going down. At fragments of love on June 9th, blogger sillat described their experience watching Twitter feeds and Ustream streaming video:


It was Sunday, so I got out of my futon in the afternoon, and when I turned on my Mac and had a look at the Twitter timeline as I always do, there was chaos. I looked at the stream of messages, and there were disturbing conversations about a terrible incident that had happened in Akihabara, and about the pedestrian mall having been closed. And then at the same time, there was something being streamed on ust [Ustream]. What it was was a Ustream broadcast by @kenan_ and @Lyphard who just happened to have been on the scene when the whole thing happened. When the number of viewers at @kenan_'s account reached around 3000, it apparently went down (the cause was probably the load from the IRC chat), so I didn't get to see it, but I did see @Lyphard's live footage right from the beginning. Well, the viewers on that one also grew explosively, and my browser froze, so at that point the stream ended, but I did continue for a while to watch information coming in from the [Twitter] timeline and from NHK as the news became more complicated, and then more clear.

Later in the same post, sillat observes:


We receive our news from certain media, particularly newspapers, radio and TV; we have often received information from these so-called mass media. Information transmission from a specific minority to a general majority. But with the development of the Internet, it has become easier for the general majority to transmit information. That's what they refer to as Web 2.0.

kenan wrote at their blog “recently” on June 8th:


I think everybody has heard about this already, but the incident in Akihabara today was broadcast live on Ustream.
It was only seen internally, but apparently it was posted at 2channel and when the number of viewers topped 2000, the load went over the limit of the server and machine and the streaming stopped.


It was very vivid, with people right next [to the camera] so badly wounded that they were receiving resuscitation, and cloths used to stop the bleeding scattered all about.
This was nothing but a make-believe broadcast, it shouldn't have been taken. It was imprudent. That's what I guess they thought of it, because I was asked by the police: “Do you enjoy shooting videos of people's unhappiness?”

In another post, kenan describes the scene at the moment when he shot the video, which started at 13:09:33 on June 8th:


At that moment, the police, firefighters and ambulances were getting heavily organized.
The area around the intersection was closed off. Plastic sheets were used to hide the victims from the view of curious onlookers.
The intersection with the new Sofmap Akiba was within the range of view of the camera.
The camera was pointed from the Sofmap intersection in the direction of the opposite side, and at that moment the police cars had started surrounding the intersection and an on-the-site investigation was starting.

Blogger hageatama provides some more background and offers a defense for kenan's shooting the streaming video:

元々、IRCの#Twitterに常駐している面子は”高円寺クラスタ”と称される集団を中心に、IRCによる文字実況とWEBカメラによる映像実況が組み合わされたWEBサービス”Ustream”の利用率が非常に高くなっています。昨夜も夜明けまで高円寺の@retlet宅内にぐだぐだ集まって、初代To Heartを実況しながらプレイする、等というアホな事をやっていまして、Ustreamの利用自体は日常茶飯事なわけです。

From the start, the rate of use of the web service “Ustream”, which combines live character-based interaction through IRC with live video through Web camera, has come to be very high, centering on a group called the “Koenji cluster” stationed permanently in the #Twitter IRC room. From last night until daybreak, [we] had gathered at @retlet's house in Koenji, and were doing stupid things like broadcasting while playing the first generation of To Heart. The use of Ustream itself is something that happens every day.


Also, the affinity between the otaku and PC town of Akihabara and Twitter users is very high. If you go to Linux Cafe there's always someone there, not only on the weekend but on weekday evenings as well.

つまり一般の人には理解しにくいであろう個人による事件の実況中継も、この2つの条件が組み合わさることで、秋葉原の現場で @kenan_ がUstream配信を始めた行動自体は、我々にとって特別な事でも何でも無いわけです。

In other words, the live broadcast of the actions of an individual, which I suppose is difficult for ordinary people to understand, resulted from the combination of the two conditions above, and the action itself of @kenan_ transmitting live Ustream footage on location in Akihabara is nothing out of the ordinary for us.

The other Ustream user who shot footage live at the scene, lyphard, wrote at their blog gunnyori:


I broadcast through ust [Ustream] what was happening on the spot. There was nothing different between doing that and what I had been doing just up until that point, broadcasting the situation at Linux Cafe. The reason [that I did it] was just that I wanted to broadcast what was happening at the scene, the atmosphere at the scene. But that was it.


I can't say that I didn't feel the curiosity of the onlooker. I admit that there was a kind of excitement at the point when the number of viewers watching the ust [Ustream] increased and topped one hundred people.


Was what I did inappropriate?

While some were debating the legality [ja] of what kenan and lyphard did at Hatena Question, most recognized the significance of what had happened. Hatena blogger YUSIZO remarked [ja]:


Putting aside the right and wrong of it, the form of “reporting” by average citizens that took place in this case was extremely important, I think.


Even if he hadn't done this “personal reporting” , I think someone else would have anyway, and within a few days many different people would have spilled the details about the disastrous scene through videos and pictures from mobile phones, and I guess that many people would have stated their own views.


Technology is advancing, and now that anybody can easily upload their pictures and videos onto the Internet, this kind of reporting that happens at the level of the individual is unavoidable.

Many questioned what was happening to the sense of what is “public” (公共性). Blogger raurublock writes about the restraints put on mass media by their sponsors, arguing that what happened in this case demonstrates that media has changed fundamentally:


As you will understand if you think about the current incident, the essential monopoly of this kind of mass media has collapsed. From here on in, the weak restraint that had applied [to media] up until now will begin to disappear, and we will have no choice but to face the question of “what is public”, something that up until now we haven't had to think about much.

Many bloggers and commentators wrote about this disappearing boundary between the curious onlooker and the professional reporter. An article by journalist and blogger Fujishiro Hiroyuki Fujishiro [藤代裕之] [ja] suggests that in an age when everybody can create media, the question of what kind of reporting is “right” becomes meaningless. In an article at CNET, web commentator, former journalist and author Sasaki Toshinao Sasaki [佐々木俊尚] (see this translated interview) remarks that traditional journalists have up until now been protected from the criticism that was targeted at Ustream users in this case by an illusion. He offers an interesting example of what happens to journalists when this illusion is gone:


An acquaintance of mine who is a reporter for a mainstream paper was sent one night in the middle of his shift to cover the scene of a fire. He forgot his camera at the office, and the only thing that he had on hand that he could shoot with was his mobile phone. With no other choice, he took footage of the scene of the fire with [the camera in] his mobile phone. Police and firefighters in the area told him off many times and asked him to stop, saying: “what you're doing is shameless”. He had no choice on that occasion but to apologize to them, explaining: “I'm sorry, I'm from the newspaper company”.

But how far can this new kind of citizen media go? Are there limits? Blogger complexequality offers a sobering rhetorical question:


If it is hard to see this, try imagining the following thought experiment. The offender is writing a lifelog on his cell phone this time. Many people are looking at that lifelog. Through “reports”. So now, what if the offender had suspended a wireless camera from his neck, and had streamed the entire scene that unfolded before his eyes, right up to when he was taken in by police, on USTREAM? Would we all have watched that?

Note to regular readers: I've switched to using the western-style “<FIRST NAME> <LAST NAME>” rather than the Japanese-style “<LAST NAME> <FIRST NAME>”. I'll eventually go over all my earlier posts and make corrections.

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