The gross face and virtual fame: Semiotic mediation in Japanese virtual communication
First Monday

The gross face and virtual fame: Semiotic mediation in Japanese virtual communication by Shunsuke Nozawa

This article examines an emerging art of self–fashioning and sociality in Japanese–language virtual communication. Through an ethnographic exploration I argue that crucial to the structure and experience of Japanese virtual communication are acts of opacity. People in the Japanese virtual mobilize elaborate techniques of material camouflage and anonymity to effectively conceal their body and obscure their identity. They are normatively faceless. I offer this ethnography to suggest that these acts of obfuscation, the presentation of the self–in–disguise in everyday life, force us to reorganize our own modernist epistemological framework. Treating acts of opacity in the Japanese virtual not as a question of presence, secrecy, and truth but instead as themselves a complex social project, this article aims to parse out competing ideologies of communication in the contemporary culture of media. I will address these ideologies as they inform a set of interconnected categories such as anonymity, privacy, and personhood, which are themselves deeply couched in modernist epistemological terms.


1. Introduction: The everyday life of headlessness
2. Counter–spectacularity
3. Material camouflage
4. Counter–name
5. Shinja, Faux–shinja, anchi
6. Conclusion: The everyday life of opacity



1. Introduction: The everyday life of headlessness

Celty Sturluson is headless. She is an Irish dullahan, a headless horse–riding fairy from Celtic folklore featured as one of the characters in Durarara!!, a recent Japanese anime based on Narita Ryohgo’s light novel series. The complex plot of this work is itself worth an analysis in light of my discussion in this article, but let us just focus on this one character, Celty. She believes that someone stole her head back in Ireland and transported it to Japan. She came to Japan 20 years ago in search of her head, and since then she has lived in Ikebukuro, Tokyo. To make a living she works as an underground transporter, with her signature black motorcycle whose engine sounds like a horse’s roar; in fact it is the horse, magically transformed. During her leisure time she likes watching DVDs, playing video games, and chatting on the Internet. She shares her apartment with a human companion Shinra, eventually her love interest. In short, she has a life. She wears a cat–shaped, full–face helmet when she is outside, her public face. She takes it off at home.


Celty Sturluson in public
Figure 1: Celty Sturluson in public.



Celty and Shinra at home
Figure 2: Celty and Shinra at home.


Although Celty’s project revolves around the search for her head and the regaining of her memory prior to her loss, Shinra points out jokingly, but with much affection, that it is such a human thing to be concerned with the wholeness of a person. He tells her that she should rather marry him and forget the head altogether. Celty gradually learns to live without a head, live like a dullahan, following Shinra’s conviction that she is perfectly beautiful without it [1].

In this article I examine an emerging art of self–fashioning and sociality in Japanese–language virtual communication. I argue that Celty’s everyday life of headlessness epitomizes the way in which this art is put into action by communicative participants, many of whom are in various ways connoisseurs of popular cultural works like Durarara!!. Through an ethnographic exploration I argue that crucial to the structure and experience of Japanese virtual communication are acts of opacity: the presentation of the self–in–disguise. As we will see, people in the Japanese virtual are normatively faceless, mobilizing elaborate techniques of material camouflage and anonymity to effectively conceal their body and obscure their identity. I offer this ethnography to suggest that these acts of obfuscation force us to reorganize our own modernist epistemological framework through which we study facts of communication. Or to put it in the other way around, this ethnography will demonstrate that such reorganization is necessary if we are to adequately understand these acts as a culturally situated and emergent practice. Here I suggest that we read Celty’s head as an allegory for the ontology of truth in modernist thought. Just as in her original project — finding the head — our modernist epistemology readily presumes upon the existence of a presence, a secret, or a truth behind acts of concealment and signs of absence. For example, as contemporary American discourses of addiction treatment (certainly inspired by Freudian thought) suggest, acts of “denial” are a sure sign of the being of a secret, and acts of openness and transparency are part and parcel of the modernist drive to sobriety and the clarity of knowledge: Aufklärung, indeed (see Carr, 2011; see also High, et al., 2012). But let us instead align ourselves with Celty’s matter–of–fact overcoming of this ontology — forgetting the head — and let us follow her second, real project, the everyday life of headlessness, so as to reposition our modernist episteme to bring about a new theoretical and methodological focus. Treating acts of opacity in the Japanese virtual not as a question of presence, secrecy, and truth but instead as themselves a complex social project, something people work on and have stakes in, we can start parsing out, or at least better document, emerging and competing ideologies of communication in the contemporary culture of media. I will address these ideologies as they inform a set of interconnected categories such as anonymity, privacy, and personhood, which are themselves deeply couched in modernist epistemological terms.

Let me begin, then, with a little vignette to help us understand what this everyday life of headlessness looks like in the Japanese virtual world in a more concrete way.



2. Counter–spectacularity

English–language comments on YouTube videos that show ordinary Japanese people singing, dancing, cooking, making speeches, and playing video games often highlight the fact that these people show up with deliberate self–concealment. As one commentator says, “Like, everyone wears masks. Please explain.” These comments also accompany moments of psychologization: “Don’t be shy,” “You should be proud of what you are doing.” Some commentators appear inclined to culturalization: “It’s a Japanese thing.” But their general tone is the same: “Why the mask? Why the costume? Please explain.” [2] Indeed Japanese people in these videos do appear always headless and faceless, enveloping their bodies in thick layers of obscuring signs: masks, animal costumes, digitally blurred images, avoidance of closeups, extreme long shots, compositional arrangement that places the head off frame. While YouTube commentators may find these methods of camouflage highly noticeable or, as many commentators put it, “weird” and even “scary,” the aesthetic disposition observed in Japanese virtual spheres operates quite differently. There, it is often the exposure of a face that generates marked comments. In fact such exposure invites vicious ranting: “Gross!” (kimoi) is an overwhelmingly familiar, somewhat ritualized reaction — expressed sometimes playfully as well as seriously — in moments where the virtual and the actual come too close, too obviously. The salience of this ritualized expression of disgust is demonstrated by the existence of a highly elaborate reflexive discourse that typifies acts of self–exposure as kaodashi (literally, ‘face–exposing’). Especially in visually–oriented mediascape, face–exposing marks a particular kind of breach in the virtual–actual interface that everyone is by default oriented to keep intact.

But not just the face. Consider, for example, synthesized voices in amateur and some professional musical works that circulate widely on the Internet, like the singing voice of Vocaloids such as Hatsune Miku. Or consider the characteristically dysfluent (but, as some say, cute) voice of text–to–voice applications such as Softalk, widely featured in Japanese user–generated online videos. On the one hand, these voices are much appreciated as they work to obscure their ‘human’ source (and give video producers a lot of room for experimentation in sounds). But on the other hand, these very human–like voices are ‘too human’ for some listeners, who often rebuke them with that expression of “Gross!” [3]

The extraordinary care with which people monitor and control the interface between the virtual and the actual in Japanese computer–mediated communication bespeaks what I will call a counter–spectacular aesthetics, a cultural sensibility to the avoidance of ‘full representation.’ Just like the diminutive iconism of cuteness (kawaii) or characterological affective empathy (moe) found in anime and character–branding, this aesthetics is definitely linked to the sensibility of the otaku, Japanese subcultural ‘geeks,’ whose presence is hard to miss in the highly computer–mediated sites of today’s Japanese popular culture (Kinsella, 1995; Allison, 2006; Azuma, 2009; Galbraith, 2009). Indeed, the otaku themselves playfully trope upon the “grossness” of their non–normative body. One of the running jokes among the otaku tells of “this gross thing” that one sees on a glossy computer screen when the screen blacks out, only to find out that it is a reflection of one’s own face. The actual human, in its fullness, is gross.

In the Japanese virtual, fully embodied humanness somehow translates as discursive and aesthetic transgression to which people give ritualized expression, while the figure of facelessness is rather prosaically understood as constitutive of the condition of virtual communication. In what sense is this counter–spectacular sensibility emblematic of the ‘Japanese,’ as opposed to ‘Western,’ virtual, as the participants often intuitively claim? At minimum we recognize an operation of “media ideologies” (Gershon, 2010) very different from what we know about sites like YouTube and Facebook: we cannot take Facebook at face value in order to investigate cross–cultural variability in the meaning of virtual face. I will return in the concluding section to Facebook as a material for such cross–cultural examination.

I organize my inquiry into the media ideologies of Japanese virtual communication through two salient moments of counter–spectacular self–presentation. First, I attend to modes of material camouflage that people deploy as they communicate in the virtual. Second, these modes of hiding are linked to the way in which people are acknowledged by names, that is, relatively simplex (often verbal) signs with which online presences are specifically baptized and which pick them out for reference and address. But as we will see names are particularly problematic objects in the Japanese virtual world. There is a crucial difference in the way names are conceptualized, along the distinction between “pseudonymity” and “pure anonymity” (Donath, 1999), which in turn informs a crucial difference between names as such and material camouflage.



3. Material camouflage

A user–generated video–hosting site called Niconico Douga, run by Niwango, has now become a massively popular site with more than one million registered, paying users and millions more non–paying users. Despite many changes it has undergone, Niconico remains a very otaku–oriented site. Put simply, many of the site contents, the videos as well as various services it provides, are very difficult to understand as communicative messages without sufficient knowledge of otaku subcultures. From the point of view of the users — ‘uploaders’ (upunushi) and ‘viewers’ (shichōsha) — these videos constitute exquisitely dense interdiscursive structures of allusion to subcultural texts, rich with ever–regenerating memes. In this decidedly otaku cultural milieu, the site, a place where these texts and intertexts are assembled and recombined every day, resembles and partially takes part of the sphere of “con culture,” or the culture of fan conventions, “a fantasyscape that is concrete but also emotional, in which fans immerse themselves to an intense degree” [4]. The crucial difference, however, is that while con culture’s “concrete” and “emotional” character is very much predicated on acts of “congregation” that Durkheim speaks of [5], the concrete and emotional connection made possible by sites like Niconico operates on a different principle of togetherness, as we will see shortly.

The idiom of face–exposing is clearly marked in Niconico. For example, the live streaming service also provided by the site classifies some video feeds under the category of kaodashi, as if this category is classificatorily on a par with more expected ones like “Game,” “General Interest,” and “R18.“ That is, when one ‘face–exposes’ oneself (the phrase readily takes a verb form), this is clearly marked as a distinct category, as if forewarning viewers. Just imagine how strange it would be to have such a classification on YouTube’s or Ustream’s entrance page.

Pseudo–synchronicity. Before we proceed any further, let us contextualize a bit more in detail the site’s structure of communication. The most salient characteristics of the site, as often pointed out, is its commenting system, featured since the beginning of the site’s operation. Unlike YouTube, where viewer comments appear under the embedded video, Niconico videos show comments within the very frame of the video, superimposed upon it. A comment moves through the frame from right to left, displayed for about three seconds, as in television news tickers. (Viewers can turn off this function on their individual interface.) While many viewers make simple text comments, the commenting system allows viewers to manipulate typographical forms as well as positions, movements, and duration of appearance within the frame. This arrangement makes the viewing of the video and the viewing of the comments not only a simultaneous experience but an integrally connected one. In fact, in many videos, uploaders often expect viewers to make comments in such a way that the comments become part of the overall visual experience of the video. Some commentators, called komento shokunin, or ‘comment artists,’ are extremely adept at manipulating comments’ appearance, creating complex arrangements and even movements of images and figures on the video [6].

Another feature that is worth noting is the site’s tagging system. Tags, as in YouTube, are usually a tool for classification, grouping videos together under some (usually linguistically manifested) categories. Niconico tags also function this way, useful for searching videos on the site, but there, viewers are allowed to create, delete, and edit tags for a given video. As with comments, viewers make full use of this feature to play with classification itself, forging new categories, linking them to videos, and generally using tags as comments. For very popular videos, tags can change every minute as comments increase even more frequently, as one refreshes the page [7].

Both the commenting and tagging systems underscore, and somehow exceeds even, the nature of ‘user–generated’ media for the experience of the event of viewing together. Facilitated by the technological arrangement of these systems, especially the commenting system, this togetherness is based on a curious disjunction of temporality, what some have called “pseudo–synchronicity” (giji dōki) [8]. That is, unlike call–ins on live television and radio shows and unlike YouTube comments, Niconico comments are displayed and experienced not in the order of their temporality but that of video viewing. A comment by one viewer at one time and a comment by another at another time are displayed together at the same time on the video. Although the time of these comments is recorded, it is indicated in a log that is not as immediately visually available to viewers as the comments themselves. That participants are quire reflexively aware of this disjunctive temporality is easily demonstrated. For example, when a comment appears to be reacting to another comment, forming a sort of pseudo–conversation, some viewers see this as a sign of those commentators’ inadequate understanding of disjunctive temporality, chastising them, “What, are you chatting?” (themselves participating in this pseudo–talk, now with irony). Participants are together in normatively understanding their togetherness to be fake or disjunctive.

The commenting and tagging systems situate Niconico uploaders and viewers in a complex assemblage of people, texts, and images. In this vein, uploaders may be considered something of a hybrid between what gaming discourses call player–characters and non–player–characters, the characters whose deeds and words the player does and does not control. Uploaders are controlled or ‘played’ by viewers through comments and tags (as we will see, one crucial way in which such play unfolds involves acts of naming), but they also maintain autonomy and distance from viewers. The pseudo–synchronicity in the Niconico–viewing experience creates a communicative space where viewers and uploaders interact with each other but in a way that does not quite resemble face–to–face communication (chat, on– or off–line) nor mass–mediated communication (broadcast), positioned halfway between ‘two–way’ and ‘one–way’ communication.

Now, let us take one very popular genre of Niconico videos, musical performance videos, as a concrete site of counter–spectacular aesthetics. Some creators, most of them amateur musicians, have managed to achieve more than one million views, in effect becoming nascent Niconico artists, while there are numerous musicians whose videos are viewed no more than a hundred times. It should be noted immediately that some viewers consider this genre, the singing videos in particular — nothing less than ‘voice–exposing’ — to be altogether “gross.”

Regardless of popularity, most of these musicians are faceless in their videos; in fact many do not display their body at all. Not only do they not show their body, however. It is a hypertrophy of disguise that characterizes their videos. As we will see, this hypertrophy, a sort of ritualized excess, should at least invite us to question the just–so functionalist argument that camouflage, disguise, and other acts of opacity are in the service of the protection of privacy.

A full–faced orchestra. While the majority of Niconico musicians produce videos independently, they also collaborate with each other. Sometimes such collaboration leads participants to go even off–line [9]. In 2007 performers of Western classical instruments, many of whom occasionally upload their individual performance videos on Niconico, decided to create a near–full–size orchestra. An ensemble of strangers converging on a space of performative collaboration, these performers exchanged musical scores online and gathered off–line to practice. They eventually performed an orchestral piece in 2008, a medley consisting of popular cultural songs, at a concert hall that they rented out on an hourly basis, just as one would rent out a recording studio or a karaoke box. With no audience in the venue, the performance was intended to be video–taped. The resultant video was uploaded on Niconico and, as of this writing, it has attracted 1,337,559 views and 311,164 comments. (The orchestra has produced several similar videos for Niconico. I am and will be speaking below of only one of these videos in particular, the 2008 performance, but my analysis applies mutatis mutandis to others as well.)

The musical pieces featured in the medley, the editing of the video, and the stagecraft of the performance are all intriguing facts worth an analysis, but I want to draw attention to just one fact. Everyone in this video, every single person in the orchestra, wears a mask and appears in cosplay: a full orchestra without a single face exposed to over a million viewers. There is one particularly telling shot in the video. A man is depicted as sitting in the brass section but not playing any instrument himself. This person, himself masked, instead holds a framed picture of a trumpeter who couldn’t make the performance, playfully suggesting that the trumpeter has died because the picture is a conventional funeral black–and–white portrait. But even this metaphorically dead trumpeter wears a mask in the picture. Also telling is the video’s ending credit. It is basically a slide show of images that capture the performers (grouped into orchestral sections) in either a pre– or post–performance moment, posing for the camera off stage. But, again, everybody remains masked. The demarcation of ‘on stage’ and ‘off stage’ with which we often associate the use of masks, props, costumes, and other objects of stagecraft is rather altogether elided here by this consistent masking. The viewers have responded to the video through their comments and tags generally in a celebratory way, praising the unexpected virtuosity of these amateur players. But while many comments remark upon the masks, some even ridiculing them, none that I could account for says: “Why wear a mask? Please explain.”

The diverse kinds of masking in the video — animals, video game monsters, anime and fictional characters — indicate intriguing appropriations of youth popular culture [10]. But what we need to observe here is that these masks do not suggest anything interesting in the way of the social identity categories of the performers. No one makes that kind of inference about type–token identification (‘this type of person would wear this kind of mask’) across the divide between what appears on the video and what is really hidden behind the appearance. Could it be, then, that the performers would use any mask and their choice was completely random? Possibly, but not for many of the performers. For them, their mask is the same one featured in their by–degree habitually uploaded music performance Niconico videos. That is, the mask is so deployed as to allow the viewers to link these masked individuals to nothing more than particular online characters, that is, to acknowledge them as Niconico musicians without requiring no further information to be disclosed.

Cosplay performance. As in this video, many Niconico musicians appear in elaborate cosplay in their individual videos, in many cases female cosplay. In these cosplay videos, which are astonishingly many, the gender of the performer is often unknown. Or let me put it this way: whether the gender is known or not — and there are people who speculate on and aggressively investigate these matters — the masking of gender generates and sustains a powerful source of playfulness. In some videos, both the performer and viewers make efforts not to identify the gender of the performer, playfully invoking the transgender category of ‘girl–boy’ otokonoko in the subculture (‘traps’). (In fact, in these moments of gender non–identification, viewers often cite the well–known otaku cultural collocation derived from a Japanese image board, ‘Such a cute one can’t be a girl’ konna kawaii ko ga onna no ko no hazu ga nai.)

I repeat the point I briefly mentioned above: acts of opacity in the Japanese virtual are not simply in the service of the protection of privacy (though they do protect it). Rather, the point of all these elaborate ways of camouflage enveloped by elaborate metadiscourses is to make one’s social identities irrelevant to the event of video viewing and virtual togetherness as much as possible. Viewers understand that the person in the video is not a real person addressing them, but the embodiment of a character that lives and dies at the virtual–actual interface.

Characters and layers of opacity. I have used the term “character” as well as the phrase “virtual–actual interface” so far without explanation, but let me elaborate now. I mean “character” in the same way we talk about characters in video games and anime. People in Niconico videos are like characters in anime, whose relationship to voice actors (seiyū) most readily exemplifies what I mean by the virtual–actual interface. In fact, it is the culture of voice acting from which the notion of ‘face–exposing’ seems to have originally emerged. At least the notion is closely associated with it. Voice actors know that their professional virtuosity lies in the way in which they can effectively efface their actual–world identities. For example, Hayashibara Megumi, one of the most talented voice actors, has held back mainstream media appearances as much as possible, even though — and this is a crucial point to understand — her face is not a secret. She is one of the first voice actors to be successful as a singer (in her own name) in the general entertainment business, producing many recordings and performing at live concerts. Underwriting the very integrity of voice actors’ work, the effective hiding of their human body even while relying on the very physicality of their body — to produce voices — is the condition of the possibility of characters.

This orientation to hiding relates to voices themselves. To be sure, voice actors recognize, as do anime fans, their ‘own’ voice as distinct from character voices, expressed in the idiom su ‘naked.’ But as exemplified by actors like Yamadera Kōichi and Sawashiro Miyuki (who plays Celty Sturluson in Durarara!!) who possess an enormous repertoire of voice qualities, voice actors’ artistic work hinges on how they accommodate to vastly diverse characterological attributes across ontological differences in gender, age, culture, species, and animacy. Against the background of this diversity, which is a professional asset, their su voice functions less as a fixed point from which character voices deviate than as one of many possible ways of characterization. It is probably correct to say, only to a certain extent, that people watch anime in the same way they watch live–action movies recognizing an actor playing a character and recognizing the offscreen aura that comes out of his or her su body and voice, as it were. But the effective effacement of voice actors’ bodies (in the anime text as well as in the public) makes it possible to transpose the aura to characters themselves. Voice actors do not bemoan as Don Lockwood, in Singin’ in the Rain, worries about the future career of Kathy Selden. Rather, as Sawashiro Miyuki has argued on several occasions, their art is a work of urakata, “backseat role.”

It is worth noting that the expression naka no hito ‘person inside’ has been widely used within the otaku cultural milieu to designate voice actors. This is a metaphorical extension of costumed performers, those ‘inside’ the costume. But while it is used as a stand–alone term, the expression often appears in a well–known collocation: naka no hito nado inai ‘No way there is a person inside.’ This rather ritualized one–liner underscores the robustness of characters in its playfulness (for, everyone knows, there is a person inside). It is this ability of voice actors (in collaboration with others in the production, circulation and consumption process, of course) to create a world of characters completely saturated with sui generis realness and yet completely dependent upon the actors’ body that helps generate a curious, liminal realm of reality many otaku metaphorically call “2.5 Dimension” (2.5 jigen): not quite actual “3D” nor quite completely virtual “2D.” Voice actors are often situated in this liminal space and especially talented ones are playfully likened to itako, blind female mediums in northern Japan who communicate with and in the voice of the dead through their shamanic power. (Aforementioned Hayashibara Megumi is known as itako seiyū because of her ability to ‘summon’ a character’s voice; incidentally, she performs Kyōyama Anna in the anime series Shaman King, an itako.) [11].

My point here — to return to the issue of camouflage — is that the identity of professional voice actors, their actual face and their su voice, is not at all a secret. I am arguing that, going beyond ideologies of privacy, we should treat the identity of Niconico video producers in the same way: their identity is not a secret, though in many cases it is in fact unknown, undisclosed, or unnoticed. That is, it is not a dialectic drama of revealing and hiding that generates this characterological realness. Perhaps such a dialectic would better qualify for striptease: stripping off one diaphanous garment after another to expose the prohibited naked truth, teasing the spectator all along. The concern for people in the Japanese virtual is not really how to conceal the truth about their identities; that they do conceal it is simply taken for granted. (It is indeed good for their privacy to do so.) Rather, they are more interested in creating thick layers of material camouflage in which to figurate a character and give this character a reality and agency of its own. The character would be nothing without these layers. The character is like mille–feuille: the point is not to cover and discover important truths behind layers but to enjoy the layers themselves. What pleasure is there in eating puff pastry layer by layer, unless your pleasure lies in a silly attempt to insult the pâtissèrie. The art of camouflage thus becomes the basis for character identification in the virtual at the expense of social identities in the actual.

But sometimes, even this very limited and special notion of identification is troublesome. Here I want to turn to discuss names.



4. Counter–name

Consider 2channel (or 2ch), a gigantic collection of Japanese–language online message boards. No membership registration or sign–up is required and participation is free of charge. The message “threads” (sure), which participants are free to establish, concern extremely diverse topics, classified into categories and subcategories: the site’s slogan (noted on its entrance page) characterizes this diversity as “From hacking to recipes for your dinner tonight.” The site is said to have inspired the creation of 4chan, a similarly structured online forum for English–language users with which some of us are more familiar. It is known, basically, for the things that 4chan is known for: “a unique mix of humor, pornography, offensiveness, and, at times, borderline legality” (Dibbell, 2011). It is not my purpose here to provide a sufficient ethnographic documentation of 2ch discourses as a practice and the circulation of its idioms and texts [12]. The specific aspects I highlight to contextualize the site for us here are rather selective, and they concern just one issue: the use of names.

That 2ch participants are oriented to anonymity is well known. But, as with the case of material camouflage, we must observe the hypertrophied nature of this orientation. Concretely, this is manifested in the fact that, while 2ch participants never use actual–world names when posting their messages on a thread, there is a widely held expectation that they avoid even using handles or kotehan (more precisely, ‘fixed handles’; kote[–i] = ‘fixing’), that is, pseudonyms. Using a kotehan is by default a daring act of self–representation, which must be negotiated and warranted; otherwise it risks verbal abuse. The explanations of kotehan available on the Internet, including those found on the site itself, always include such forewarning. The avoidance of kotehan is a feature that widely characterizes 2ch participation. There are exceptions of course.

When posting messages (called resu), participants tend to use the default commentator name, which is set to nanashi ‘no–name,’ or equivalents. In the absence of (conventional verbal) names whether in the form of actual–world names or kotehan, however, they need other ways of pragmatically maintaining their discourse within a thread (sure). ‘Discourse maintenance’ here just means the maintenance of relations of reference and address: keeping track of and being able to report who is saying what to whom. For discourse maintenance, participants often take recourse to entry numbers assigned to their posted messages (resu) in a given thread: the resu numbers become ‘names’ for the time being, and function like names, as in a vocative form (“1, drop dead!”) or in a usual referring expression (“I agree with what 3 is saying”). They also use message IDs, a randomly generated series of characters and numbers given to the producer of a message based on several different factors (IP addresses, the time of posting, the location of servers, etc.); these are less directly cited and readily incorporated into the actual linguistic form of posted messages than are the numbers. Entry numbers and IDs used this way are sometimes called ‘disposable handles’ (sutehan; sute[–ru] = ‘to throw away’). More generally, a sutehan is any name that is not ‘fixed’ to a person like a kotehan; thus it could be linguistically manifested. The point here is, first, that a sutehan is construed as being extemporaneously created, either by the person using it or by the technological arrangement, to be discarded after use in a particular context. Second, the category of sutehan is unmarked compared to that of kotehan: that is, participants do not use and talk about the term ‘sutehan’ as often and as explicitly as they use and talk about the term ‘kotehan.’ They take the category for granted in their normative understanding and practice of communication. (I should note that while it is true that these reflexive categories, kotehan and sutehan, are very much characteristic of 2ch, these terms and their conceptual distinction are widely invoked in other sites of Japanese–language virtual communication such as Niconico.)

Here Donath’s suggestion that we “distinguish between pseudonymity and pure anonymity” is useful.

Full anonymity is one extreme of a continuum that runs from the totally anonymous to the thoroughly named. A pseudonym, though it may be untraceable to a real–world person, may have a well–established reputation in the virtual domain; a pseudonymous message may thus come with a wealth of contextual information about the sender. A purely anonymous message, on the other hand, stands alone. [13]

Disposable handles are functionally no different from proper names in terms of the pragmatics of reference and address. But their form suggests a certain shredding away of traces of proper name social indexicality. By ‘proper name social indexicality’ I simply mean conventional, stereotypic characterizations people make of proper names, or in Donath’s terms above, “a wealth of contextual information about the sender [the named]” that may function to indicate, or index, “a reputation.” For example, many of our personal names are stereotypically traced to mythical or historical events, personages, or places (which are also named) through events of authoritative baptism and subsequent warranted usage. Kripke (1980) famously characterized these events in terms of “causal” chains, in which words and expressions become “rigidly” attached to their referent. The use of a name in one event, in order for this to be a successful action, presupposes another event of such usage. Names can also be so created and invoked as to induce such chains. Therefore, names are necessarily interdiscursive objects. So proper name social indexicality means, among other things, that name begets name begets name ... etc. Now, while it can be argued that such causality does exist in the case of 2ch as well if we focus our analytic scope on the very narrow span of a thread, the avoidance of kotehan and the normative use of sutehan indicate that 2ch textuality is decisively oriented to the ideal of tracelessness or non–“rigidness” in Kripke’s terms. In a curious way, then, while kotehan are decisively “pseudonymous” in Donath’s terms, sutehan are rather unsettling. There is no namesake for a randomized ID qua name that in turn begets another name within a single chain, and the number 52 is not linked to any events, personages, places, or any such sociohistorically named things. But these do signal one entity as ordinary names do [14].

But this orientation to tracelessness suggests at least the following. In dealing with the ideology of naming in 2ch and other computer–mediated sites of Japanese communication, we are not talking about anonymity pure and simple. But, rather, we must observe in these sites an ideological stance of counter–name. That is, the avoidance of proper name social indexicality expresses an opposition to a culture of fame, in particular mainstream broadcast mass media and more generally the Tokyo–centered and –replicating hegemonic culture industry: everything from TV celebrities to political figures to scholars and authors (names with books), whose business it is to ‘sell names.’ ‘Name–selling’ (bai–mei) is perhaps the most despised kind of social action in many boards in 2ch (as well as in Niconico more generally); that is, framing someone’s action as bai–mei is one very effective method of moral denunciation. In Japanese, ‘fame’ (yū–mei) literally means ’having–name,’ ‘there–being–name,’ while its antonym, ‘unknown’ (mu–mei), is characterized as ‘no–name.’

To be sure, the opposition between ‘old’ mass media and ‘new’ social media is nothing new. Such an oppositional stance may be found in those historical and cultural contexts involving different media technologies and institutions: that is, any historical and cultural context, for communication never happens only in one media. Ethnographic analysis of media should thus focus on specific conditions and effects of such differences (see Silvio, 2007; Gershon, 2010; Eisenlohr, 2010).

Here my claim is that in the Japanese case the opposition is constitutively inscribed in the hegemonic cultural ideology of fame and success sustained by the conically shaped cultural geography of mass mediatization with Tokyo at its apex (see Inoue, 1996). In this instance, then, the stance of counter–name in Japanese subcultural spheres most saliently articulates the subcultural modality of being–in–society: nobodyness. Not simply the anonymous, but the insignificant and the unspectacular. Note in this vein that in Niconico as well as in 2ch, ‘lengthy comments’ (chōbun), especially those that take autobiographical form, are often interpreted as a sign of self–presentation seeking others’ recognition too enthusiastically, and instigate counter–comments that chastise them, as if to say: “Who cares about you?” (cf., tl;dr in the anglophone Internet register). In parallel with the counter–spectacular aesthetics we observed in material camouflage above, we recognize that naming is always interpreted as name–exposing in this ideological stance. An instance of such exposure, careless or intended, invites verbal abuse or is at least marked in the computer–mediated sites of Japanese subculture precisely because it invokes the broadcast model of circulation that underlies the mainstream culture of fame and the kind of person that stereotypically participates in it: fame–seeking, name–selling celebrities and moreover celebrity–wannabes. (Note that Niconico “singing” videos are often a target of vicious trolls because they are construed as “baimei” self–promotional advertisement. See below also.) While the culture of fame regulates the circulation of names through idioms of copyrights and licenses, applicable to various forms of property, the Japanese subcultural sphere, even while it is also under the influence of such idioms, more saliently relies on a different principle of boundary–making epitomized by the vernacular (i.e., legally not codified) notion of sumiwake, ‘partitioning of residence.’ That is, one needs to learn the boundary of communicative ‘residences’ across which some things, especially names, should not be circulated, not just between the virtual and the actual, or between old and new media, but within the virtual itself [15].



5. Shinja, Faux–shinja, anchi

The problem of fame manifests itself quite directly in Niconico. The site is now aggressively seeking public recognition as a commercial enterprise. Even before the premium account membership (requiring monthly fees) reached a million in October 2010, its business orientation was unmistakable to say the least. In December 2010, Niwango, the company that runs the site, established its headquarters in Harajuku, Tokyo, visibly exposing its office and shop for its brand merchandise to the generally cosmopolitan crowd of fashion consumers and tourists in the globally known youth cultural locale. (A place hardly congenial to the otaku, one must say. It is the other side of Tokyo to the east, the Akihabara district, that has always been their holy place; or to the west, the Nakano area.) Television commercials for Niconico started airing in February 2011, featuring Gackt, a very famous Japanese pop singer, along with a nascent Niconico singer who had been famously known for his Gackt–like voice quality, with his face exposed. With its increasing popularity among large masses of people, the site is moving away — it appears — from its decidedly otaku–subcultural, and even quasi–outlaw, roots to a more open space of communication connected to existing media and entertainment enterprises, in a sense becoming more legitimate. The site itself has started exposing its face. Some users hate it while others have accepted it [16].

Even regardless of this increasing public visibility of the site, name–exposing has always been a form of problematic communication in Niconico, as many uploaders, like that Gackt–like singer, have already acquired a large group of followers among viewers. Unlike 2ch anonymous messages, uploaders often have a name (almost in all cases not their actual–world names but pseudonyms; but we saw above that these are rather similar in their semiotic function and are to be contrasted with the more unsettling anonymity of sutehan). But note that while the uploader’s name is not ‘disposable’ like 2ch’s randomized IDs, viewers remain anonymous in their comments. They sometimes refer to other comments on a video (in their own comments) by mobilizing the sutehan–like techniques (indicating the time of the target comment and the entry number or randomized ID attached to it, or using an arrow sign to signal the target, etc.) but no one seeks to establish a kotehan, a pseudonym, as a video viewer; it is just nonsense [17]. Uploaders and viewers thus form a hierarchical relation of the named and the unnamed, or in fact the named and the naming. For it is generally the case that uploaders post their first few videos without a name and it is viewers who name uploaders if they like them. Viewers suggest (through comments and tags) a name for a singer, a pianist, and a dancer — any uploader whom they deem worth following — by focusing on any sign that sufficiently enables them to follow the uploader across different videos and different sites. The semiotic resources for such a baptism include (but are never limited to): the object used in the videos, habitually or even just once, like a mask, the kind of content featured in the videos, and the uploader’s username. (It has has long been the case that the username is not shown on the page of the embedded video; the current layout of the site displays it.) More recently, it has become common that uploaders name themselves when posting their videos. While this relatively new condition is observed in the fact that now viewers sometimes demand or expect a self–naming act from uploaders, such an act could be still seen as daring as in the case of 2ch kotehan. Another interesting case, a sort of vicarious naming, is observed for some uploaders of “game–playing videos” or “game–casting videos” (another hugely popular genre like music performance videos). In these videos, viewers name the uploader after the character in the game whom the uploader (as game player) has named himself or herself in the video. This most directly attests to my description above of Niconico uploaders as a sort of hybrid between ‘player–characters’ and ‘non–player–characters’ in video gaming.

But whether other–ascribed or self–claimed and regardless of the source of a baptism, once named, a causal chain of name usage is necessarily brought about to which uploaders, habitual commentators and other viewers can (and, indeed, must) orient themselves. More concretely, such a chain emerges when the name is consistently tagged to videos, which the uploader can in turn underwrite by making it unable to be edited, ‘fixing’ (kotei) the tag: note again the idiom of fixity here, as in 2ch kotehan (‘fixed’ handles). This process of naming (in Kripke’s sense of rigid designation) is the fundamental semiotic condition that forces a nascent culture of fandom to emerge and then spread from Niconico across different virtual and actual communicative sites, such as Internet radio shows, social media networks, off–line live events, dōjin conventions, and, now, TV commercials.

With their virtual fame expanding through their own videos as well as through networks of viewership, uploaders often encounter the problem of arashi (the nominal form of the verb ‘to disrupt,’ also homophonous with the noun ‘storm’), a rough equivalent of “troll” in the English Internet register. This is because, once named, they cannot easily do away with their name. That is, they cannot completely control how their habitual followers, or more precisely habitual commentators and taggers, ‘expose’ their names not only on their videos but more problematically on others’ videos and other discursive sites: blogs, 2ch, Twitters, etc. These habitual followers, although or rather because they remain anonymous, are in turn often at the risk of being negatively characterized by other commentators as shinja ‘religious devotees’ [18]. In the case of music performance videos, name–exposing happens often when shinja try to compare the musical virtuosity of different musicians (always a bad move leading to arashi), but they also do this without an intention to troll. But intention does not matter, of course: the fact that names are being exposed is all that matters. Therefore uploaders cannot control faux–shinja, either, that is, those who troll by masquerading as fans. Faux–shinja are thus often recognized as the same as anchi, meaning ‘persons with an oppositional stance toward something/someone’ (from the prefix ‘anti–,’ a familiar loan term functioning as a noun in Japanese). While singers may be considered “gross” because they expose their voice and (pseudo)name, arashi activities that shinja and anchi are construed as engaging constitute, as many say, the readily available but for the most part undesirable “evidence” of fame.

Several Niconico singers have abandoned their names because they become tired of trolls using their names in an inappropriate ways and, as a result, their videos being vandalized. (Note that the commenting system allows for extraordinary kinds of visual abuse.) In the case of one singer, an amateur performer with a distinctive voice continued producing his singing videos for Niconico anonymously after abandoning his once acquired name. Careful viewers could easily see that any mention of it in videos or elsewhere would now be construed as an instance of arashi, and in this way the singer became ‘the one who must not be named’ (namae o yonde wa ikenai ano hito; a reference to Lord Voldemort, a character in the Harry Potter series). Recall the blasphemy scene in Monty Python’s The Life of Brian, where the accusers of someone else’s blasphemy nonetheless end up ‘mentioning’ God’s name in their quoting of the original blasphemous utterance and being themselves stoned [19].

As in this example of blasphemy, the singer’s anonymously uploaded videos have for some time continued to be vandalized, with anchi busily exposing the singer’s old name and shinja accusing such a move thereby ending up uptaking the exposure. Some viewers, who must have been genuinely excited to hear the singer again, immediately recognizing his voice, called out his old name in praise, thereby fueling the causal chain of arashi to proceed even further. Cognizant of the need to suppress such quotation of his old name to stop the escalation of arashi, the singer himself made a statement to viewers, saying, “If you encounter my [anonymously uploaded] videos on Niconico, please behave as though you didn’t notice it’s me, and enjoy [your not–noticing],“ that is, enjoy the fact that you are communicating with someone whose name is neither known nor, more importantly, relevant to you. This case illustrates the heightened awareness on the part of virtual communicative participants of the problem of arashi as a problem of naming. It also shows how people often perpetuate the very problem they critique by critiquing it [20].

Mere connection. Let us now consider in a more general way the relationship between material camouflage and names as constituting a very subtle difference in their semiotic function. We saw above that while a 2ch disposable handle is, after all, a name in so far as it is connected to one individual entity, its peculiar form (along with its baptismal conditions) allows it to function as a mere connection. Such a connection can generally be regarded in semiotic terms as indexical. By ‘indexicality’ I follow Charles Sanders Peirce’s general classification of the sign to refer to the way in which the sign stands for its object by virtue of being spatiotemporally and logically co–present with the object: for example the sign and the object physically being close to each other or forming a causal relation. In a more familiar language, indexicality means a metonymic or indicative relationship: one thing (sign) indicates or draws attention to the other thing (object) because it happens together side by side with this other thing. But the peculiar dimension of disposable handles — their being merely indexical — requires a further, subtler distinction within this general category of indexicality.

In fact, Peirce himself offered a characterization of this kind of ‘mere connection’: an indexicality “degenerate” by one degree. (We need not worry here about degrees of degeneracy; see Parmentier [1994] for an explanation.) “A Degenerate Index is a representamen [a sign] which represents a single object because it is factually connected with it, but which conveys no information whatever.” [21] We must emphasize this last clause, however: “conveying no information whatever.” A disposable handle (sign), though a name, does not convey any information about the producer of a message (object) it indexically represents, for example information regarding “reputation.” It is a mere fact of connection whose essence lies in its not signaling anything else beyond this indexical fact. This sign creates a connection to its object in a given context in which it occurs, and then disappears, never to return to that object. In contrast to such a degenerate, merely indexical sign, on the other hand, what I called above proper name social indexicality is a different kind of indexical relations (in fact, a more familiar kind to students of language and communication). Here, indexical relations get further linked up to generate more relations or, as Peirce put it, “more developed,” general relations. The notion of namesake or fame depends on this generativity of sign phenomena. The mere indexicality of a disposable handle effectively effaces the semiotic basis for such generativity because it constantly severs the indexical relation it creates before it develops into a causal chain, blackboxing the indexical relation.

In this blackboxing of indexicality, which informs nothing but presents just a fact of linkage, disposable handles resonate with the kinds of material camouflage we observed for Niconico video producers. There, too, we saw that their material camouflage works to create a rich repertoire of pure indexical linkages that however do not lead to speculations about social identity types (more “developed,” general signs). On the other hand, the case of the emergence of ‘the unmentionable’ in the process of trolling (‘the one who must not be named’) suggests that the establishment of fame in sites like Niconico not only destroys and unfolds such a black box but, in destroying and unfolding it, underwrites the ontological status of the box’s content as a prohibited truth, as if it had always been there inside the box all along.

Finally, as in the last example we discussed, where the singer makes an effort to suppress the escalation of trolls, the ideological stance toward mere indexicality attests to an emergent modality of communication characterized by a compound desire that envelops communicative participants in relations of contact (togetherness) and distance (irrelevance). A desire for contact and acknowledgment and a desire for non–recognition and “un–noticing” are simultaneously at play in counter-spectacular acts of opacity (see Nozawa, in press).



6. Conclusion: The everyday life of opacity

Through such modern intellectual traditions as hermeneutics, psychoanalysis, and, more relevant to this article, semiotics, we are accustomed to a form of argumentation that understands meaning, desire, and thought to be an elusive object that we can only come to analyze through text, symptoms, and representations, that is, through signs empirically manifested in events. In this habit of thinking, we recognize that we cannot get to the truth of a sign — what Peirce called, or ended up calling, “a naked thought itself” [22] — and instead we focus on the sign itself as outer garments, or again to use Peirce’s metaphor, as “diaphanous” garments [23].

We rightly base our analysis on the reality of signs, the fact that everything we study, desire, experience, and conceptualize is always “mediated” by signs–in–event (see Mertz and Parmentier, 1985). Indeed, I submit, we must commit ourselves to this argument if we are to undertake an ethnography, for ethnography is a privileged site of intellectual, practical, and ethical endeavor that emerges through and relies on an assemblage of such sign–in–event. It is precisely because I commit myself to the idea of semiotic mediation, however, that I quibble with the modernist epistemological outlook of semiotics, my own analytic metalanguage. For, is it not that we set up the sign as outer garments, knowing very well that we cannot fully penetrate them to reach the truth that they now appear to hide, precisely to tease ourselves with an ontology of truth? Peirce’s metaphor of diaphanous garments, never fully transparent but nearly so, speaks volume to this sense of teasing. Or let me put it this way: it is as though with modernist epistemology, we still entertain ourselves with a pleasure of striptease:

[...] an Oedipal pleasure (to denude, to know, to learn the origin and the end), if it is true that every narrative (every unveiling of the truth) is a staging of the (absent, hidden, or hypostatized) father — which would explain the solidarity of narrative forms, of family structures, and of prohibitions of nudity, all collected in our culture in the myth of Noah’s sons covering his nakedness. [24]

I argue that this teasing is inadequate, or more to the point, unnecessary, to the idea of semiotic mediation. At the least, it does not help us construct a viable methodological and analytic framework for understanding the kinds of obfuscatory acts in the Japanese virtual examined in this article. It is in this vein, then, that I offer the following story of transparency and opacity, to conclude this article.

It is widely reported that Facebook has been trying, in vain, to plant its seeds in Japan. In vain, because people there do not buy the site’s “insist[ence] that Japanese users adhere to its real–name policy” (Tabuchi, 2011) [25]. “Facebook values real–life connections” (Ibid.), because, as its product design manager put it, its “approach is to try to replicate real–world social norms by emphasizing the human qualities of conversation” (Zhuo, 2010). In this attempt, it is increasingly clear from the site’s official statements regarding privacy and responsibility that its media ideology hinges on what Dibbell (2011) calls “radical transparency.” Dibbell counterposes this radical transparency to “the radical opacity of Christopher ‘moot’ Poole and 4chan,” “an online message board where anonymity reigns,” “where people are free to be wrong.” As is well known and as Dibbell points out, Poole was inspired to create 4chan by the structure of online communication in Futaba Channel, a Japanese image board which was originally set up as a refuge for 2ch. Intriguingly enough, Dibbell goes on to suggest that “after all, [...] radical transparency [...] may not be mutually exclusive with [...] radical opacity. [They] may even be mutually necessary.” Citing Jonah Peretti, co–founder of the Huffington Post, he brings these opposing terms into a dialectic synthesis (or as Freud said, a structure) of the psyche: “Peretti puts it this way: if 4chan is the id of the Internet, then ‘Google is kind of like the ego, and Facebook is kind of like the superego’” (Ibid.).

The ethnographically informed account of Japanese virtual sites I have laid out here might lead us to ask: why does the adjective “radical” make sense to us in Dibbell‘s presentation of the oppositional unity of opacity and transparency? We seem to make sense of categories like privacy quite naturally in a dialectic drama of struggle between the veiled and the surveilling, a dialectic by which “we can leave the light of all that openness every now and then to spend some time in the shadows where the crazy lives” (Ibid.).

What I hope to have shown in this article is that, if the radical opacity of 4chan grips us in “the shadows where the crazy lives,” the opacity in Japanese virtual communication is, in fact, not that radical. When people refuse to use “real names,” such a move should not be read as a rebellious eruption of the id in a grand dialectic structure of repression, but must be situated in local ideologies of communication. In the Japanese virtual, opacity is simply normal and ordinary. Things are just opaque. This is not to deny that privacy and related categories all entrenched in the post–Enlightenment liberal discourse, like free speech, have been and will continue to be a serious concern in online communication, in Japan or elsewhere. But, as I have suggested, such categories cannot adequately address the hypertrophy of disguise and moreover the everyday playfulness of acts of camouflage in the Japanese virtual. The normativity of opacity in the Japanese virtual at least indicates that we cannot take these categories for granted but we should instead invite them to cross–cultural investigation [26].

Let us echo, in this vein, Scott McNealy in his famous dictum: “You have zero privacy anyway. Get over it.” But let us not suggest, as people have interpreted the dictum, that you are thereby stripped of all garments and your body risks exposure. Rather, let us take the “zero” quite literally as well as ludicrously, that is, playfully, to ask: Who cares about you? A properly scholarly informed response to such a question could very well be “a great deal of many people,” but a properly ludicrously informed one should be “a great deal of many nobodies.” In a world where things are normally opaque, your body, your voice, your face and your head may not be relevant; they may not even be there anyway.

Like Celty Sturluson’s head. Just as she stops worrying about her head and gets over it, Celty commits herself to her second, real project, the everyday life of headlessness.

Certainly, being a Dullahan, Celty has an advantage over those faceless Niconico singers and those nameless 2ch participants: she really has no head. But these virtual participants perform counter–spectacular self–presentation in order to live out the everyday life of opacity as a matter–of–fact condition of virtual communication. And with this performance they experiment in an art of self–fashioning and social connection in a way that forces us to further explore the technosocial conditions and effects of contemporary media culture.

On the other hand, even more certainly, Celty has an advantage over us, we the bearers of modernist episteme, who must repress the fantasy of seeing a naked truth through diaphanous garments in order to argue that things are not transparent but mediated and constructed. As Parmentier’s [27] thorough and careful exposition of Peirce’s semiotic theory suggests, there is an irony in this theory. Peirce firmly expressed his epistemological commitment to the idea of mediation only to get carried away by it, however, to the ontological presumption of truth and transparency, “a naked thought itself.” The question of course is whether it was simply that he was misguided or, rather, whether such a presumption might not constitute the character of modernist thought itself.

Perhaps this character needs a better outfit. How about cosplay, for a change? With a cat–shaped full–face helmet, semiotics sure can look as good as Celty. It is perfectly beautiful without truth. End of article


About the author

Shunsuke Nozawa is currently a Lecturer at IES Abroad Tokyo.
E–mail: nozawa [dot] shunsuke [at] gmail [dot] com



This article took shape initially as a paper presented on the panel “The Diaphanous Medium” at the 2010 American Anthropological Association Annual Meetings. I thank my co–organizer, Chris Ball, and the panelists and the audience there for their comments. Ryan Moran, Isaac Gagné, Patrick Galbraith, Daniel Johnson, John Person, David Slater, Karl Friday, and my students at IES Abroad Tokyo gave me comments directly or indirectly on the issues explored in this article. Special thanks to Paul Manning and Gretchen Pfeil. I thank Edward Valauskas, Chief Editor of First Monday, for his editorial help and patience.



1. Like many contemporary Japanese popular cultural works, Durarara!! is a work of “media mix,” a production format that links various popular cultural media such as anime, manga, video games, trading card games, toys, and character merchandises (see Ito, 2010); also included in this linkage are literary works. Narita’s light novel Durarara!! was first published in 2004. It has been adapted as a manga series by Satorigi Akiyo (since 2009) and the TV anime adaptation was produced by Brain’s Base (how ironic the company name is, considering Celty’s project!). The anime series, comprised of 24 episodes, was broadcast between January and July 2010.

2. These quoted comments are not presented in their original form. I am intentionally paraphrasing them here. I am also exaggerating the homogeneity of these responses for my argument’s sake. The translations of quotations from Japanese sources that appear in this article are mine.

3. Cf., Boellstorff, 2008, p. 114 et passim.

4. Napier, 2007, p. 151.

5. Durkheim, 1995, p. 217.

6. The sample work of comment artists may be found in the following video capture re–uploaded on YouTube:, accessed 22 April 2011. The maximum number of comments visually retained for the duration of a given video is 1,000; when comments go over the limit the old ones are moved into a log.

7. I should also note another, related service in this vein: Niconico Daihyakka (Niconico Dictionary). It is a Wiki–like user–generated free online encyclopedia that accompanies Niconico Douga, to which users contribute entries and their contents. The terms and expressions glossed in the Daihyakka are supposed to be “related to Niconico” but they tend to cover otaku subcultural registers more generally. Many of the tags created (and, as we will see below, “fixed”) on Niconico videos have their Daihyakka gloss. That is, tagging is part of a vastly expanding horizon of intertextual reference, so are ritualized, formulaic comments (for example, what are known as tenpure ‘template’ and kopipe ‘copy–and–paste’). The Daihyakka deserves more analytic attention than this mere note, precisely for its intertextual nature as well as for its ludic mode (perhaps a little bit reminiscent, for some of us, of Encyclopædia Dramatica).

8. See Hamano (2008); see also, accessed 22 April 2011. Note that the kind of celebratory discourses found in this report that frame Twitter and Niconico as a “revolutionary” moment are widely observed. Such developmental narratives of technology are, of course, not analytically necessary for, and most often a hindrance to, an adequate understanding of the importance of these new media forms for contemporary social life.

9. I say ‘even’ because off–line encounters (ofukai) are generally rare and in many cases avoided. Behind this orientation is a negative value attached to the idea of creating ‘actual’ (off–line) sociality out of online relations, expressed in the idiom of deai–chū (deai = ‘encounter’; see note 18 below for chū): a pejorative expression for people who seek to turn online relations into actual–world relations with a sexual or romantic motive. (The term deai in this context signals the practice of online dating; see Holden and Tsuruki, 2003.)

10. I cannot fully elaborate on the youth cultural dimension of contemporary Japanese virtual culture in this article for reasons of space. Another dimension that is crucial to understanding this culture but is left out of the scope of this article is its oft–noted infatuation with ethnonationalist politics, or politics’ increasingly visible infatuation with it. For these dimensions, see e.g., Allison, 2009; Condry, 2007; Kitada, 2005.

11. I have documented many episodes that help us better understand the idiom of dimensionality and appreciate the robust reality of characters at the virtual–actual interface, but let me confine myself here to introducing just the following one. Consider Hastune Miku, a Vocaloid mentioned earlier, whose original voice samples are taken from professional voice actor Fujita Saki. During an interview on a radio talk show, Fujita, Miku’s naka no hito, was asked to ‘do the voice’ of Miku, and she accordingly provided her voice for the audience. (One could see that ‘doing the voice’ is a verbal routine expected of voice actors in public settings.) When this segment of the show was uploaded on Niconico, comments responded to Fujita’s impromptu ‘impersonation’ with much ritualized applauds — i.e., acknowledging the funniness of talking about similitude at all in this context. (Some comments further likened this ‘impersonation’ to an act of manipulating synthesizer sound modules, as one would do with Miku, of course; by the way, such technical operation is often expressed in the idiom of ‘training’ or ‘disciplining’ chōkyō as in training a horse or as in a sadomasochistic play.) But among the comments was observed a curious expression soto no hito ‘person outside’ to refer to Fujita, the actor. This expression playfully inverts the idiom of naka no hito and frames the actor as an outer ‘character’ and Miku as a ‘person inside’ performing the actor.

12. Although some of the information available online appears to be reliable, the exact process of the establishment of 2ch is, it is safe to say, unclear. I should at least note that Nishimura Hiroyuki, who created the site in May 1999 and had acted as the site’s first administrator, has been on the board of directors for Niwango, the company that runs Niconico Douga, since the company’s establishment in November 2005 (Niconico itself was set up in December 2006). Over and above this institutional–personnel fact, these two sites form an intimate relation of interdiscursivity (often in terms of vicious hostility). 2ch–originated registers, memes, and texts have spilled over to Niconico while many Niconico uploaders have a thread set up on 2ch devoted to the exchange of information about (or, as the case may be, to the trolling of) their activities.

13. Donath, 1999, p. 51.

14. One notable exception, a case of a sutehan entering into causal chains, is the case of 47 shi ‘Mr. 47,’ the developer of a peer–to–peer file transfer program who was arrested for copyright infringement. Though his actual–world name has been made public, the name 47 shi, with which he was so baptized because he once posted a message on 2ch whose resu number was 47, has been rigidly attached to this person. But note that this required the modification of the sutehan with shi, the honorific title ‘Mr.,’ to lend it with at least some social indexical value (e.g., someone worthy of deference).

15. It is true that the increasing visibility of sites like Niconico (see below) has heightened the issue of online copyright infringement. But in the otaku subculture the category of copyright is less salient than that of “derivative works” (niji sōsaku), fan–originated aesthetic productions that cite, often playfully and in a defamiliarizing way, characters and narrative settings from existing works, for which there is an enormous commercial market. It is not necessarily the legal regulation of copyright but the tacitly understood principle of sumiwake (or equivalent idioms) that is normatively followed as a criterion for the appropriateness of such citation; see Azuma, 2009.

16. Meanwhile, 2ch remains a deeply subcultural sphere, though its fame (or ill–fame) circulates far more widely in society than Niconico. For the reaction of Niconico users to the site’s turn to the public see this Niconico News online reportage (Japanese) at, accessed 22 April 2011. As part of its public relations campaigns, Niconico collaborated with NHK (Japan Broadcasting Corporation, a national public broadcasting organization) on a TV news documentary program about recent developments in Internet media. A particularly intriguing moment of historical conjuncture may be observed in the fact that the program was broadcast on 10 March 2011, just a day prior to the Great Eastern Japan Earthquake. Immediately after the earthquake, NHK allowed Niconico to disseminate its news broadcast on Niconico’s live–streaming feeds. (Other TV broadcasting companies did the same; they also allowed Ustream ( to live–stream their broadcast.) Usually viewing live–streams (as well as videos) on Niconico requires member sign–up, but this time anyone with Internet access was able to see these feeds; Niconico also managed to boost the servers for fast loading. I would imagine — though I cannot say for sure, because I do not have the firsthand experience of this media arrangement from the perspective of those who were in Japan then, nor do I have any concrete statistical evidence — that this immediate post–quake arrangement, together with various public relations campaigns already in operation, must have greatly increased the visibility of the site, giving it a decisively more legitimate character than before.

17. A different orientation is observed in Niconico’s live–streaming videos, where broadcasters (namanushi) may sometimes ask viewers to use kotehan. As many namanushi say, they ‘welcome’ the use of kotehan (while some prohibit it); the viewers’ kotehan may be registered by the namanushi in his or her computer applications like Niconico Comment Viewer (specifically designed for managing live–streaming video comments), allowing the namanushi to recognize ‘regulars’ vs ‘first timers.’ But, note, this communicative arrangement is, in its structure, basically the same as the structure of recognition in, say, urban bars like those one find in places like Shinjuku, Tokyo. In contrast to that, Niconico’s uploaded (i.e., non–live) videos, precisely for their pseudo–synchronicity, present a subtle but crucial difference in the organization of communicative experience.

18. The term chū is alternatively used, derived from ‘addiction’ (chūdoku) or, perhaps more likely, from ‘middle–schoolers’ (chūgakusei), invoking the narcissistic enthusiasm of people at that life stage. The term usually functions as a nominal suffix and thus it is creatively combined with various nouns, generating various pejorative or ironical expressions for ‘persons of a particularly immature, enthusiastic, unrealistic, etc attitude toward [whatever the noun denotes].’ Niconico users are often called, and call themselves, nico–chū (again, also a pun on ‘nicotine addiction’). The idiom of chū has been reflexively and creatively elaborated upon in subcultural texts (see e.g., Steins; Gate).

19. The linguistic anthropological literature on such “unmentionables” is highly elaborate; see Fleming and Lempert, 2011; see also Hill and Irvine, 1993.

20. The singer’s quoted statement itself required several layers of opacity to become a statement at all. As he abandoned his old name, the singer also deleted all of his Niconico videos. As he did this, he suggested in his blog that viewers were free to re–upload these videos if they had downloaded them and were willing to do so. The statement about ‘not noticing’ quoted above followed this suggestion. Some of the videos were eventually re–uploaded. One of the re–uploaders cautioned viewers that if troll–like activities escalated the videos would be deleted again, quoting a URL to his or her (the re–uploader’s) blog that quotes the singer’s blog statement, which, by the time of re–uploading, had already been deleted altogether along with the blog itself.

21. Peirce, 1992, p. 172; emphasis original.

22. Cited in Parmenter, 1994, p. 43.

23. Cited in Jakobson, 1960, p. 374.

24. Barthes, 1975, p. 10.

25. The year 2011 saw the increasing visibility of Facebook in Japan, due partly to its smartphone application, as a large number of people shifted from traditional keitai mobile phones to smartphones (for a recent report see e.g.,, last accessed 18 January 2012).

26. See Robbins and Rumsey (2008) and articles collected there for ethnographic explorations in the idea of opacity as a cultural category.

27. Parmentier, 1994, pp. 23–44.



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Editorial history

Received 22 april 2011; accepted 23 February 2012.

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The gross face and virtual fame: Semiotic mediation in Japanese virtual communication
by Shunsuke Nozawa
First Monday, Volume 17, Number 3 - 5 March 2012

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