The day Japan’s netizens turned news on its head

By Chris Salzberg

The massacre on June 8 in Akihabara ended with seven killed, more than a dozen injured, and an entire country in a state of shock. It also signaled a profound change in the way people receive their news, and in how they create it.

"Do you enjoy shooting videos of people’s misery?"

It was June 8 in Tokyo’s technology mecca, and the words of warning from a police officer fell on deaf ears. Armed with the latest in digital technology and lured by a morbid sense of curiosity, crowds of onlookers converged on to a blood-strewn intersection of Akihabara, amid firetrucks and ambulances, closing in to get a clear shot. Never before had so many eyes and ears shared in such a moment.

“It was really vivid,” one of those behind the cameras would later write in his blog, recalling the scene he had broadcast to thousands just after 1 p.m. that day. Only half an hour earlier, 25-year-old Tomohiro Kato, in one of the most sensational killing rampages in Japan’s recent history, had plowed a rented truck into busy shoppers along Akihabara’s pedestrian mall on Chuo-dori road. Stabbed with a combat knife in the ensuing rampage, many of those on the streets were in a critical state. “People right next to the camera were so badly wounded they were receiving resuscitation,” the blogger wrote. “There were towels to stop the bleeding all over the place.”

It was a scene the likes of which households across the country, tuning in to live coverage of the massacre, would never see. Broadcast without gatekeepers and shared across mobile networks, the images, video, and words that exploded onto the Japanese cyberspace on June 8 would become one of the most powerful examples to date of the country’s emerging net culture. For the lost generation of 20- and 30-somethings, technology had opened a window into the tragedy in Akihabara that went beyond portrayals in newspapers and on TV. If this window was the new face of media, it wasn’t pretty but it was very direct, and very real.

The moral perils of technology

The Akihabara massacre marked a major step in the changing relationship between Japanese people and their technology. Over the years, cultural differences in the way that people in Japan interact and form communities have had a profound impact on the local adoption of new technologies.

Rejecting many of the tools and services that countries in the West take to be universal, Japanese have favored trusted domestic brands, closed networks, privacy and anonymity. Facebook and MySpace, the world’s most popular social network services, barely register a blip on the radar in Japan. The iPhone is making waves across the world, but sales locally have, to date, been dismal. The rollout of Google’s Street View service, which allows users to survey cities at street level through three-dimensional photography, has been greeted by many with outrage and criticisms of cultural insensitivity. The contours of personal space on the Japanese Net are complex and subtle, but they can be decisive.

So when stories of people crowding like paparazzi around bleeding victims made their way from the streets of Akihabara to people around the country, many were shocked. The weekly papers were quick to react, running articles lambasting the indecency of the Akihabara mobs. The weekly Shukan Shincho featured the story of a university student whose two friends had been killed in the rampage, surrounded by onlookers snapping photos of their suffering. In his Mixi diary, the student railed at the picture takers for ignoring his pleas to stop. “Why did they do it?” he wrote. “It was so horrible, I couldn’t stop crying.” But the mobs persisted, clamoring for the best shot, dodging warnings by police to snap pictures and share them with friends.

Live streaming the massacre

Two of the onlookers in the crowd, meanwhile, pushed the limits to a new level. At 13:09, just half an hour after Kato had been arrested, a message appeared in a chat room with the signal, “I started it.” Viewers in the room who followed a link to a channel on Ustream, a streaming video site, were transported to the site of the massacre, just as police were cordoning off the intersection where victims had been stabbed only moments earlier. Facing away from the sky blue sign of Akihabara’s Sofmap megastore, a programmer named Kenan turned on his digital camera and began recording the scene, in real time. Before long, the Ustream link was up on Internet mega-forum 2channel, and the number of viewers on the channel began to climb — fast.

Kenan was not alone. Another Ustream user named “Lyphard” was hanging around with friends nearby when the massacre began. “We were just chatting about whatever,” Lyphard explains “streaming our conversation on Ustream using a laptop, a Web camera, and an Emobile card.” Mobile phone operator Emobile had launched its 7.2 megabit-per-second high-speed wireless card only months earlier. Plugged into a laptop with a digicam and browser pointed to a user’s Ustream account, the card made it possible for anyone to walk down the street, laptop in hand, broadcasting live what they saw to far-away viewers.

That’s what Lyphard did. Sitting in Linux Cafe, a hangout among Akihabara’s tech crowd, he and his friends chatted to each other and to their Ustream audience. “After about 15 minutes, the café suddenly became dark, and the shutters were closed,” he says. “From chat on Twitter and Ustream, and conversations in the store, we learned that there was a killer on the streets.” Frustrated that his Emobile card had stopped connecting, Lyphard told his friends that he was “just going to have a look,” and stepped out of the café, whereupon the signal returned. “Once I had set up broadcasting on Ustream and entered the URL into Twitter, I headed to the scene.”

In his blog gunnyori, Lyphard later described what he had seen that day. “Crowds. Ambulances. Police cars. Fire engines. Green tarps to hide things. Low-flying helicopters. Something red on the street. Policemen and paramedics working frantically.” Like Kenan, Lyphard watched as the number of viewers on his live stream shot up. “30, 50, 100, 400, 1000...and then it topped 2000,” he wrote. Just over 30 minutes in, the load became too much and the live stream eventually cut out. It was only when he was riding home on the train that he learned from a friend that someone else had also live-streamed the scene of the aftermath.

Ethics of streaming the tragedy debated

In the days following the massacre, ethics of the Ustream coverage became the focus of debate in the Japanese blogosphere. In his own blog, Kenan expressed how he had felt “very excited” at the moment when his stream had topped 1,000 viewers. “It was really fun,” the blogger wrote on the evening of the massacre. “There must be some cameramen who get the same kind of feeling.” Responses were swift, some of them supportive, some of them fiercely critical. An early comment quoted from the Bible, warning Kenan that he would go to hell for his actions. Another simply told him to die. “So when you get stabbed and you’re mortally injured,” another wrote, “I guess you’d be okay with someone taking a video of you and getting all excited about it, right?”

Criticism came not only from the blogosphere and wider society, but also from those within the mass media. Toshinao Sasaki, a freelance journalist and author of a host of books on Japan’s Net culture, has written about the implications of the incident for traditional media. “Many in the media responded that it’s disgraceful and offensive to victims for individuals to be taking pictures of the scene,” he said in an email. “The thinking is that whereas the mass media bear a responsibility for the effects of their reporting, issuing corrections when there are mistakes, no such responsibility applies in the case of reporting by individuals.”

But this was not the only reason the mass media were critical. “The rapid rise of news reporting by individuals,” Sasaki explains, “also leads to a sense of impending crisis in the mass media, because it seems to them that their own position is in jeopardy.” Underlying this sense of crisis, he says, is the leveling of differences between institutions and individuals on the Internet. “While mass media despise the actions of individuals, they are also personally threatened by them.”

Nowhere was the conflict in the media’s attitude toward the cell phone-camera mobs more evident in Akihabara than in one of the most famous pictures to emerge from the tragedy. Appearing on the front page of the Mainichi Shimbun newspaper’s evening edition on June 9, the shot featured Kato in handcuffs as he was escorted into a police car, the caption crediting the photo as having been taken by a “passer-by.” The picture, taken on a cell phone, and spread among the crowd via infra-red was attributed to a “passer-by.” The identity of the photographer, the newspaper later explained, was unknown: taken by someone in the crowd and passed on from person to person via infrared file transfer, the photo eventually made it to a reporter from Mainichi, by which time its origin was unclear.

A one-time reporter for the Mainichi Shimbun himself, Sasaki highlights a dilemma in the newspaper’s decision to feature the photo of Kato. “The use of photos by eyewitnesses in the pages of newspapers has been going on for a long time,” he explains. “However, as the Internet advances and people start posting photos in their blogs, newspaper companies respond by criticizing them for going around taking pictures of whatever they like.” And it is here that newspaper companies expose a double-standard, he says, since they themselves have used similar photos throughout their history, without permission. “Companies criticize picture-taking by individuals, so they end up contradicting themselves,” he says. “Caught in a web of their own making, as they say.”

If the changing relationship between technology and news came as a shock to those in the mass media, however, it also came as a shock to those behind the digital cameras, who suddenly came under intense spotlight. Faced with criticism at his blog, Lyphard took days off work for mental recovery. His views about what happened on June 8, however, remain unchanged to this day. “It wasn’t that I wanted to be the mass media or something,” he insists. “I was just doing the same thing I do all the time, streaming video on Ustream.” About his motivations, he is adamant. “It’s just a hobby, like the father taking a handicam movie of his child, or filming the scenery. There’s nothing more to it than that.”

When everybody is a reporter

But a line was crossed in Akihabara, and many in Japan’s blogosphere felt it. Akihito Kobayashi, blogger and consultant at Hitachi Consulting, wrote about the need to contemplate a future in which everyone is a potential news reporter. “It was when I saw all these people transmitting reports from the scene of the massacre that I realized the scale of what had become possible through the Internet,” he commented in an email. “It didn’t stop me from blogging, but I do have the feeling now where I hesitate for a moment before pressing the publish button, and think to myself: is there a chance that these words could hurt someone?”

Clay Shirky, one of the most well-known commentators on Internet technology, remarked recently that “communications tools don’t get socially interesting until they get technologically boring.” In other words, it is only when a technology gets out of the way, when it fades into the background, that the technology’s impact on society begins to emerge.

The tragedy in Akihabara came as a shock to Japan and to the world, but it also brought out a social impact in a way that this country, deeply intertwined with its technology, had never experienced before. Heading into an era in which everyone becomes a part of the news, it may ultimately turn out that this experience offers the most sobering insights about the future.

© Japan Inc

©2021 GPlusMedia Inc.

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I am reminded of a Pulitzer Prize winning photograph of a starving Etheopian boy fighting for a few more moments of life while a vulture sat next to him. The photographer was ADMIRED by his peers!! He was cheered for taking an emotional photograph. He profited from it. He also gave up the chance to give the boy a few moments of comfort before he died. He killed himself years later. I don't know why.

If he can do it why can't everyone else?? He got an international prize..a coveted prize for what he did. What is the difference between him and the blood thirsty amateures..except for his press pass???

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The whole Akihabara incident only made me wonder about spontaneous cruelty that often runs free in the safe anonymity of mobs. Not only in general, but also how it is possible to visualize in their impunity, the impunity of war criminals such as the Japanese soldiers that invaded Asia. Certainly, from the point of view of the people agonizing on Akihabara streets with hundreds of excited people avidly shooting their agony, the whole incident was monstrous. All these people did not see human beings, but only cool images to take and share with their friends; they were too excited and eager to shoot pictures to remember these were human beings. The fact that people pleaded for mercy and went unheeded makes it even worse. The spontaneity, the joy of the people snapping videos and the despair in which human lives ended... is unfathomable.

After the Akihabara incident, I still sometimes look at the crowds in the street where so many elderly may have been part of the Japanese armies, and I wonder if Akihabara and the fall of Asian cities have something in common that is still alive in the crowds around me. When the US Army invaded my city more than a decade ago, I saw mobs of looters, robbers and anarchy as people grasped for food and need, others simply looted for greed - but I didn't see anything like this.

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Very informative story. I wasn't aware so many people were filming the events and streaming it. If I'd been there, I probably would have been running as far away from the maniac as I could.

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It's all about '15 minutes of fame' and the possibility of a handsome payout from Routers or AAP. The average person is caught on video surveillance cameras up to 40 times a day, so what's the big deal? It's just people being scumbags and attempting to profit from the misery of others. Nothing new there!

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Excellent story and far above JTs usual quality. More like this, please. And even without cameras, the monkey reflex to gawk at others' misery is pretty pathetic. I had a girlfriend collapse in a subway station and when the paramedics looked after fer, a crowd gathered to watch with one excited fat woman forcibly pushing her way to the front to stare. I wanted to yell at them all to respect someone's privacy but realized it wouldn't have helped my girlfriend

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I wonder if Akihabara and the fall of Asian cities have something in common that is still alive in the crowds around me


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I know this is a big statement and I will be accused of racism...but. I believe that most Japanese lack the ability to empathize. And that explains what happened in Akihabara.

I admire them, choose to live among them and they have so much that other people could learn from. But, the ability to see things from another person's point of view is sadly lacking.

(Before the knives come out, I am married to a Japanese, spend all my time with Japanese, and have lived here for years.)

Having said that, its a trend I see among young people all over the world. Empathy -we need more of it.

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In the days after the Akihabara killings the Japanese internet was full of indignant bloggers putting up photos of airheads shown fooling around on camera behind TV reporters, giving peace signs, laughing, and yes, taking photos. People were being asked to identify, name and shame them.

I don't agree that 'most Japanese' are unable to empathize. Like any other nationality, they have their share of airheads and fools, and the place being what it is there's probably a higher concentration of them gathered in Akihabara on any given day.

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Cleo. "unable to empathize" was a bad choice of words on my part.

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Well said, fatloser. The article makes the assumption that disseminating information entails a lack of empathy, which isn't necessarily true at all. In fact, a little more transparency, driven by the citizenry and not just those in power, is just what this country needs to keep it honest.

On the other hand, in the case of the Ethiopian child photo, more attention to the problem brings aid and relief. In the Akiba case, as a random killing, there really aren't any "lessons" to be learned. So the more publicity and debate you have, the more you end up with natural human reactions: ogling, and clamoring for "something to be done", regardless of how wise those actions may be. We've seen it before with 9/11.

But that doesn't mean the guerilla reporters should be condemned; those that reacted with distaste and a lack of empathy should be reminded of their manners, but advocating for hiding the truth is a dangerous thing indeed.

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I totally agree with yasukuni that the Japanese seen to lack empathy, and I think that's the root cause many standard gaijin gripes. Being gawped at on the train is a simple example. The gawper is completely oblivious to the discomfiture of the gawpee.

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They are able to empathize with their group or friends. They do lack the compassion to "feel" for anyone outside of that circle. If you put several Japanese together for an hour they would make a loose group which would have some cohesion. They would view anyone not within it as an "outsider". When the group broke up they would return to their established groups. The time they spend traveling between groups is the time to observe them and see if they have any empathy. The traditional media views anyone who films an event as an enemy. Everything in Japan is us vs them. The confusing part is there is us and US and it is difficult to determine the boundaries of us. While US is very strong and established. If you changed young people with cameras with old women without them the result would be the same-standing and gawking. If you took the old women away and put a group of business men - they too would stand and gawk. With or without cameras they would gawk. Old and young would gawk. Male and female would gawk. The established media is unable to empathize with people outside of their group!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

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In a society where monitoring cameras are so pervasive, the public should also being armed with cameras. Otherwise, the authorities will be the only ones with cameras.

As long as the public don't obstruct rescue operations, they should be allowed to film.

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Nessie yes and no.

One with empathy knows where the newsvalue stops and the papparazzi starts. you dont ask someone who losed a friend/lover/familymember, how do you feel?, what do you think? 5 minutes after the event.

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When it comes to accidents and incidents, I've seen a few. I make it a point of helping when I can, but if I can't and am of no practical use, I make it a point of leaving the scene precisely because more people often hampers the people trying to help, and then because most people don't like being gawked at. Crowds very rarely help anyone, whether or not they are filming.

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Compassionless robots, pretending to be human.

They will recieve their just rewards. That which caused them to think only of snapping photos and video instead of helping will cause them to live a life of cold loneliness, finding only fellowship through a digital screen, however lifelike and realistic it might seem.

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Great story. It's very nice of Japan Inc. to share its content with Japan Today.

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There is something uniquely Japanese about this: the ability to switch off any feelings like empathy when outsiders are involved. You can see this in everyday life, for example when you fall down some steps in a train station in Tokyo you will be stared at or ignored. Fall down some steps in a train station in Madrid and people will come running to help you get up and check you're OK. A very interesting article, let's have more of this please JT!

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I would say they have a no shame attitude or lack of respect for the people undergoing such misery than a lack of empathy. Now having said that by the sheer lack of what I just mentioned, it does show a lack of empathy. They are so high on what's going on that they care less about the people than what they will get out of taking footage of the incident. Sorry, but I would say a lack of empathy is fair play here in describing such people. Even if it was only for that moment. Do you just leave that behind for being one of the first to post on a blog, MySpace, or YouTube? Not a chance. It is that bad side of humanity showing through. And this is not just Japanese people.

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This is not new about how the information age can stread a fire. I know that such a massace like this is shocking in Japan and in the middle of the most techocal society in the country. Perhaps this incident will help the people learn more of Empathy.

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YASUKUNI i too marry to JP here for years bla bla bla ... but why ADMIRE anyone? sorry but no reason to do that w/ any person or persons ... or have you given into the mindset here that you are "forever gaijin" and beneath the natives?

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it´s really sad. It´s really a sad place.

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