Another night. Mahni Aino (above) fired up her computer and flipped on her camera. The sexy posing would come later, but now she was just talking about what food she liked cooking. Comments streamed across the screen, like "You're so cute" and, even, "Do you use a Dell PC?" Then, she started doing yoga on a sofa, which involved her taking off her black stockings. Mahni smiled.
Aino's channel would get a little more revealing in a bit, but it's still somewhat tame—nothing more than what one would see on MTV these days. On other channels, things have gotten downright crazy, with folks running amuck, breaking the law and putting themselves in harm's way. Elsewhere, stuff is way dull, with people streaming docile conversations about video games. Then, there are corporate powerhouses, like Nintendo and Sony, connecting with gamers.
Welcome to the world of Nico Nico Live, an online streaming service that's loved by idols, attention seekers, and, yes, Japan Inc. More than anything, it's a voyeuristic window into Japan: The trends, the obsessions, and, of course, the fetishes. It's a place where you can watch and comment.
Nico Nico Douga, which means "Smile Videos", went live in 2006, allowing its members to anonymously leave comments that streamed across videos as they played. The ability to add comments over video was an innovation, but it was when Nico Nico rolled out a live stream in December 2007, following up with a streaming service the following year. That's when things got interesting—and bizarre.
Nico Nico Douga Live is a a front row seat to a side of Japan that isn't always on display. This is stuff that goes on behind doors. That doesn't necessarily mean that you'll see wall-to-wall nudity (there is that, of course, it is the internet), but rather, you'll see a cross section of all sorts of stuff. With around around 4,000 Nico Nico User's Live programs streaming at any time on Nico Nico Douga, the law of averages says you're going to see all sorts of stuff.
Most of the Nico Nico User's Live content is innocuous—people playing guitars or wearing wrestling masks and talking about nerdy things. Yet, on the adult channels, there are chat girls like Mahni, talking and posing. "My favorite thing is talking live with my fans on Nico Nico," the idol, who is one of Nico Live's biggest draws, recently told Kotaku. In Mahni's case, and compared to what else there is out there, it's also fairly innocuous, with the emphasis equally on chatting and entertaining, playing on Japan's long history of attractive women making conversation—as a profession. In ancient Japan, it was the geisha, who studied manners, dancing, and the Kyoto dialect, so that they could entertain their clientele. Throughout history, geisha, who are sworn to secrecy, have appeared during complex negotiations between high-ranking officials and business leaders, not only lightening the mood, but also working as confidants, and, in some cases, providing advice.
"My favorite thing is talking live with my fans on Nico Nico."
In the decades following World War II, the rise of the hostess industry, an industry devoid of the strict Geisha training and customs, boomed. There's the flirting and sexual innuendo, sure, but smart hostesses stay abreast of the news and can hold conversations on a myriad of complex subjects (so they can talk to a variety of customers). There is an emphasis on talk, (and customers pay a lot of money to do just that), even if the topic of conversation inevitably gets lewd. "My favorite thing is talking to these girls," a young guy with a $10,000 Rolex told me as he stood outside a hostess club in South Osaka over a decade ago. The internet, with its ability to connect us all for "free", brings the ability of anyone with an online connection and a Nico Nico Douga account can not only watch to a young, attractive woman make chit-chat, but pose anonymous questions to her. Or, you can simply be a fly on the wall and watch as things unfold in real time.
Idols like Mahni are, of course, neither geisha or hostess. They are idols, worshipped by fans, and they use Nico Nico Douga to connect with said fans in a way that they haven't been able to in the past. According to Mahni, who even gave a speech on Nico Live at a TED conference in Harajuku, the service is just a modern way for people to get in touch with others. A wall still separates them, a wall of anonymity and a physical wall of space, but viewers get an intimate look into her world. Sometimes, she's at home, dealing with a yapping poodle as she talks and shows off her latest swimwear. Other times, she's in a studio, spread out on a white sofa. She's one of the internet's most popular idols for good reason.
Nico Nico Douga and its Live version make an excellent PR platform, hence why it's not only idols like Mahni that are logging on, but also Sony and Nintendo, with both now broadcasts press conferences and corporate statements over Nico Nico. Nintendo's past might be shady, but in the last few decades, the company has reinvented itself as a family friendly outfit. Even while all sorts of adult things happen on Nico Nico, Nintendo hasn't shied away and has embraced it. This is because Nico Nico is bigger than the content it contains. It would be like dismissing telephones for allowing phone sex operators or the internet because of pornography. Japanese game companies are even incorporating Nico Nico and Nico Live in their online services.
"I don't get these people at all. It's like they've gotten derailed on the road to making interesting videos."
A small number of people use this soap box to run amuck, and that craziness is piped in Nico Nico member's computers. You must be a Nico Nico member to watch broadcasts and comment, which is why a lot of Nico footage ultimately ends up on YouTube for everyone to see. And, oh my, what footage. One serial flasher set off fireworks inside a room, which apparently resulted in a police call, while a crazy-looking dude wrapped a woman in Saran wrap, leading many Nico Live users wondering if they were watching a murder. (They were not.) Another Nico Nico Douga user even mutilated herself in a live stream—more horrifying was when an Okinawan girl apparently streamed her suicide on a rival Nico Nico Douga site, Stickam.
This week, one shirtless Nico Nico Douga Live user uploaded footage of himself printing Japanese yen on his printer, stating that he could single-handedly tackle Japan's deflation. The live video caused such a ruckus online, that the country's Ministry of Finance chimed in, noting how the clip could promote crime, and the police were notified.
Then, there are the truly bizarre incidents, like one guy who picked up a trio of underage schoolgirls, took them out to eat, and was then stopped by a cop, who thought that the guy was filming up their skirts and did not initially realize that the whole incident was being broadcast on Nico Live. Or there was the guy who live-broadcasted himself going to the reception area of a blow job parlor and was stopped by a cop moments after leaving and was taken to a nearby police box. The entire event was broadcast live on Nico Nico, with commenters leaving comments in real time. The guy was actually able to talk his way out of an arrest, with the whole thing streamed online.
"I don't get these people at all," said Mahni. "It's like they've gotten derailed on the road to making interesting videos—I want them to stop." No doubt, Dwango, the Tokyo-based company behind Nico Nico wants them to stop, too. A Dwango spokesperson told Kotaku that there is a 24-hour monitoring system, and Dwango deletes immoral and unacceptable videos and live videos in accordance with Nico Nico's rules. There is also a system that members can use to report illicit content. Still, there's just so much content being uploaded to Nico Nico, it's mind-boggin.
Spend any time online in Japan, on bulletin boards or online games, and you'll notice it: The anonymity. While Western web users show strong attachment to creating handles or alter-egos—creating an online persona—Japanese web users are more prone to anonymously and namelessly comment on forums and bulletin boards, many signing in with 名無し or "nameless" accounts. I
t's not only the privacy laws that are strict in Japan. People are generally private. The language itself, with its multiple levels of politeness, can be distancing. Often, it's only after you become friendly with someone, that they will invite you into their home. This isn't always the case, mind you, and it varies from person to person, but generally speaking, one's privacy is held in high regard, with the language itself able to create a barrier between how one speaks at work and one speaks at home—how one speaks to colleagues and superiors and how one speaks to close friends.
Nice Nico Live is both anonymous and highly personal, laying lives out bare (as with Mahni literally), while its community looks on, tapping out comments to scroll across the screen. Even though Nico Nico is a member's-only community that you must log into, it still feels anonymous. Computers have replaced windows, and on Nico Live, they allow the entire country to press their faces up against the glass.