“What will be the impact, for example, of electronic networks on social capital? My hunch is that meeting in an electronic forum is not the equivalent of meeting in a bowling alley—or even in a saloon—but hard empirical research is needed.”
— Robert Putnam, Bowling Alone
online politics is, undeniably, a wasteland. qualifying this as being an online consequence is probably needlessly specific, when arguments on the web have increasingly spilled over into local city council and school board meetings, or informed discussions at family reunions and thanksgiving dinners. others that have been plugged in to the web for much longer will rightfully say that it has always been this way, going back to heated usenet groups that inspired editorially bankrupt blogs, hate forums, and politically charged twitter micro-celebrities. despite all of the warning signs that have popped up for us along the way, techno-utopians have long believed the precious lie that a global village could achieve a global hegemony. so much promise was right over the horizon for us, they preached — democracy, collaboration, free speech — as long as we could build out a town square large enough to accommodate everyone and taught the machine before it chewed us up instead. three decades into this grand experiment, those aspirations for a digital nirvana should be long sober. the race to build out the town square has, instead, dug up something that looks more like a latrine.
while american politics has become the global tenor for everything political online, the japanese web has actually been a fairly good bell weather for how you’ve probably come to view politics online today if you’ve been even a passive participant on social media in the last decade. while hate havens like stormfront arrived early to the web in the west as an effective networking solution for lone wolves, japan’s very-online ultranationalists, the netto-uyoku (ネット右翼), have been organizing for about as long online as lone wolves in spaces where they could achieve much more visibility by overwhelming the ambience. wikipedia, for one, champions neutrality by saying everyone sees and interacts with the same articles, but it’s also the case that wikipedia articles exist in hundreds of different languages, and so the netto-uyoku have put serious effort into aggressively maintaining a revisionist history of events like the nanjing massacre on non-english versions of the site. beyond wikipedia, netto-uyoku are infamous for their ability to seek out comment sections to occupy. 2channel (2ch), the japanese bulletin board of record, became the natural home ground for netto-uyoku propaganda not only because it was a forum that enshrined anonymity and offered convenient refuge it, but because it was also one that caught many audiences together that already felt disenfranchised by a sanitized mass media and the flailing economy of a lost decade. at its core, 2ch was really a warm mass of cynical romantics, the otaku that longed for a sense of community where it was still convenient to be alone together. here, netto-uyoku could collaborate freely on their rhetoric and find strength in a constant flow of lurkers that might be convinced to join the cause with a little persistence and nudging doubt1.
the netto-uyoku are an arguably necessary backdrop for any examination of japanese politics, but it’s also a movement that is grossly overrepresented by how loud it can be. by the numbers, some surveys pin the netto-uyoku at being somewhere south of 2 percent of all online users in japan. obviously, the tangibility of 2 out of every 100 people being aggressively annoying is cold comfort, and anonymity is a clear explanation for why netto-uyoku have been able to both push and recruit in great numbers. even being fully cognizant of this fact, anonymity has undoubtedly become an enshrined tenant of what it means to exist online, and even when visions of what it would become were less crystalized, anonymity was also a major selling point in its adoption. while you might have come to know 2ch for its netto-uyoku, or its high-profile death threats and stalking incidents, an honest examination of how anonymity operates online, especially when the web was less mature, reveals a more mild truth: the possibilies are far stranger, and cynical romantics have never acted as a monolith.
an unbreakable smile and a russian house
while shinzo abe is still the japanese politician with name recognition on the global stage even into his death, many of his confidants in the nationalist LDP, or liberal democratic party, continue to hold things down in japan. muneo suzuki is just one example, having been active across multiple generations of politics in the country, and notably without any previous political ties to his family name. most people fail to call him by that name, suzuki, and instead prefer to simply call him muneo, as if he were royalty. while that’s probably not a name familiar to most non-natives, muneo has earned some respect across different political factions in japan as a champion for efforts like regional revitalization and the displacement of the indigenous ainu people. his start came more humbly in the 80s as an aide to ichiro nakagawa, a then LDP member of the house hailing from hokkaido. muneo first developed a passion for russian relations in this position due to nakagawa’s influence on the fishing industry, which was often a key point of negotation between russia and japan; that was, until nakagawa commited suicide days after a failed bid in his party to become prime minister. some critics, including nakagawa’s own family, have claimed that muneo already pulled the purse strings for nakagawa’s political office so tightly that he exercised a total controlling influence over nakagawa, which is what drove him to a premature death. muneo instead let this criticism bounce off of him and used it as an opportunity to run for nakagawa’s vacant seat by moving to hokkaido, where shouichi nakagawa, ichiro’s son, was also eyeing his father’s seat. prior to electoral reforms in the 90s, all house members were elected in multi-member districts by non-transferable votes, and so muneo found himself consistently competing with nakagawa’s son, often coming in by the skin of his teeth as the last member to earn a seat in the distrct. even after this process was reformed in the 90s, muneo was passed over in favor of nakagawa as the LDP’s choice to represent his home district, but managed to secure a seat in hokkaido through its proportional representation block — a pity victory, in all honesty. as we’ll explore more later, muneo is one of those political figures that always seems to resurrect like a cockroach that won’t die, no matter how down and out he appears to be.
while he was already a divisive figure being at odds with nakagawa early in his career, muneo was able to gain plenty of political capital as one of the LDP’s strongest russiophiles and through the influence he exerted on japan’s ministery of foreign affairs. japan’s relations with russia have always been on edge, from a war that was fought over manchurian ports and japan’s creeping east asia sphere of influence, to a border conflict that resulted in a short-lived non-aggression pact where stalin announced he would attack japan after he had finished his job with germany, to an ultimatum where the soviets made good on their word and declared war on japan between the bombings on hiroshima and nagasaki. this war eventually brought about japan’s final surrender in world war two, but more critically to muneo’s ambitions, it ended japan’s total claim over the kuril islands, which were previously given the global okay for annexation in the yalta agreement, and which japan had previously taken claim of from the ainu. while muneo eventually ascended to hold minsterial positions in his party’s cabinet, most of his influence was exercised through meetings with russian diplomats, often where control of the islands was a focal point in negotiations, and backroom politics where senior advisors had more influence on shaping foreign policy than inexperienced foreign ministers that revolved in and out of the cabinet. muneo became one of the key proponents for what would be branded the 2+alpha policy, where two of the kuril islands would be returned to japan and economic activity on the islands would be joint with russia, rather than maintaining japan’s previous hard-line claim over the territory. those negotiations have always failed to materialize in anything formal, but muneo nevertheless has exerted significant influence over the foreign ministery by projecting hopeful optimism that has enduring appeal even with no successes to show for it, a stock that would later in his career find him in shinzo abe’s good graces as an informal adivsor.
muneo’s back channel connections to russia have been, at times, uncomfortably cozy. more recently, he has projected that ukraine should stand down territorial claims to russia because they had the obvious upper hand. when his political fortunes were their strongest, he would have informal meetings with visiting russian dignitaries at sushi restaurants in roppongi on the days before they were scheduled to meet with japan’s heads of states. as part of those diplomatic efforts, muneo continued to focus on the kuril islands by informally helping to develop them as a gesture of good will in relations, visiting the main island to plant sakura trees and also leading development of a “japan-russia friendship house” which was built as an evacuation facility on a 400 million yen contract. it would later come to light that construction bids for that house had been artificially restricted to hokkaido firms that later donated millions of yen to muneo’s election committees. a scandal-driven japanese press easily zeroed in on the japan-russia friendship house, but that name was very quickly becoming a mouthful to repeat. all the best scandals deserve proper attribution, and while he’s still never admitted that he’s really had anything ever to do with it, the house was christened by the press with the only name anyone would ever really come to know it by: the muneo house.
cynical romantics turned cynical creatives
with plenty of background on japanese-russian relations, as we pivot back into how this all ties into 2ch, you might think I’m going to say it acted as the bedrock for some radicalist netto-uyoku propaganda movement. instead, you should feel free to let everything you’ve just read until now drain out of your mental faucet. the edges of that story are far too rough, and far too heavy, for it have any hope of traveling very far online. just as with biden and trump playing wii sports, or george bush dancing to a late 90s house hit, political figures are much more entertaining as charicatures of themselves that aren’t necessarily rooted in a strict political reality. here, a pun travels more easily, and before people tweeted their uselessly bad puns from the toilet, one post to 2ch’s /techno/ board unknowingly planted the roots for a movement that was initially welcomed there with the 2ch equivalent of a groan:
muneo house equals acid house. the next reply minced no words of its own, calling it a shit thread. another few replies would go on to sage it for having nothing to do with music, a very visible signal that they would prefer that the thread expire off the board altogether. people mostly used the thread for throwaway jokes more akin to toilet graffiti, and it was likely fated to be just another forgotten relic, until one poster returned a week later to take the assignment literally with an MP3 that likely took far less time to make. overnight, the thread started to take on a new life:
original content is the gold at the bottom of the flowing river on a bulletin board, and posters especially this early in the site’s history would rally their support around even a crude attempt at one. flash was still a new phenomenon on the japanese web, as its 2ch home had only been created a few weeks earlier off of a cross-board collaboration that led to the creation of a festival-style song about dicks. posters were very clearly excited by the potential for this new medium, and it quickly became the collaborative output of choice for 2ch posters before online video was an accessible option, with public figures like celebrities being an especially useful target to skewer as they began vocally objecting to these new, very uncontrolled uses of their image. before “muneo house” had any aspirations of being anything more than a goofy one-off track, it was finding its roots spreading into other corners of the site. in digital media, remix culture ruled over every piece of original content no matter where it originated from, and muneo house was no exception as it was now excitedly emerging as a fad.
with a newfound momentum, more posters began throwing in their hat to contribute with tracks sampling muneo’s voice. many of these featured iconic lines that were already being chopped up by news broadcasts, but the real magic developed in how they were coupled with a variety of musical styles, creating an exceptionally strange sound that a commercial outfit would never dream of an audience for. trance. hardcore. jungle breakbeat. with muneo’s story still developing, the tracks composed could be reactive to the news and newly available source material, and one poster perceptively cut muneo’s testimony to the diet about his misdeeds into a two-minute dance floor hit before newspapers had a chance to report on it the following day. the skeleton of a character cast was already being assembled as well, as additional debuts from muneo’s sphere were introduced into the mix like john muwete muluaka, a congolese native that was then muneo’s personal private secretary2. more narratively minded posters developed them with divorced personalities and character arcs, giving them DJ backstories that were recounted on muneo house’s largest hub site.
with the first push coming from the interest around muneo’s testimony, fanatics had already assembled enough music around the man to scrounge together a compilation album, and work began to cut it as a proper release. for some sense of how far back on the timeline we are, this first album was uploaded to winMX, japan’s first real taste of P2P sharing as it was one of the first solutions to support multi-byte character sets, before it would also be mirrored to now-defunct services like yahoo briefcase that offered a cool 30 MB of free storage. more users that were roped in by the excitement contributed their own takes on jacket art, some producing limited or european cover editions. judging by the praise being scattered for this new fount of content, this kuso thread had finally been polished into a wonderfully shitty shine:
just as soon as this first album was finished baking, work had begun on a sequel. muneo house, at this point, begins to run away with a success that is probably difficult to fully capture in just one isolated examination of it. after this initial impromtu thread, the movement would then regroup as a general, already the custom on 2ch at this time, and spawned 40 threads that would go on to produce 24 complete albums. back when yahoo still maintained a curated directory, its intial claim to relevance, muneo house was distinguished as a category listing a sampling of personal sites that buckled under a surge of new traffic. it’s also difficult for us to remember well removed from its time, but ideas of the internet as a creative function rather than just a destination for content were still rather new, and muneo house’s cross-appeal into living, breathing politics found it receiveing a decent amount of attention from mainstream, old media press.
it’s probably important that we also step back for a moment and ask what is no doubt a nagging question: why? what sort of appeal does muneo suzuki command that an entire grassroots musical movement could be inspired around him? while it’s tempting to discard the prompt, knowing a joke is almost never told better when you dissect it, it is valuable to reconsider muneo house’s appeal in the broader political and unruly contexts that 2ch operated with. while pockets of 2ch may have found their strength on the site organizing campaigns around nationalist propaganda, there is a greater overarching quality that unites that obnoxious faction with the rest of the cynical romantics that were consuming and producing crude flash content: a coy desire to defame. certainly, there is an inherent danger in elevating a controversial political figure as the core of an entertaining aesthetic, and it is also an approach that more modern radicalist movements have attempted to capitalize on with music, but the obvious entertainment embedded in muneo house is more clearly an uncouth, humorous treatment of muneo himself. muneo is a highly public, remarkably photogenic person, which already made him a desirable target for subterfuge, but his very public struggle to have any control of his image as he was caught in the net of a political controversy is what made him especially appealing to prop up, like a drunk uncle caught up in the winds of rhythm. muneo house has never much been about muneo’s politics, and its members would also freely tell you that it operates to be politically neutral, but rather the public concept of muneo and the mass media fame he represented. muneo was only one of the many possible public, famous, and corrupt figures that could have been chosen as 2ch’s target — he was just conveniently timed to be a 2ch puppet before other politicans had a chance to truly make a case for themselves.
the digital underground surfaces into the physical underground
before real life became inextricably linked with the internet, there was a fresh novelty in seeing elements of digital culture cross over into the real world. in some senses, a fad had “made it” (or expired, depending on your perspective) when it received attention outside of its original context or manifested very physically in ways that confused those not in on the joke. doujinshi events continue to organize in convention halls and distribute physically not necessarily because of any ongoing belief that limited distribution continues to shield them from copyright concerns, but because inter-sectional operations and organization in physical spaces foster a camradery that cannot be wholly replicated online. while muneo house may have uniquely developed among anonymous contributers on 2ch, early participants still aspired to see it exist in a world beyond their screens with concerted campaigns like burned CDs and live events. those channels had already reared doujin distribution for almost three decades, and in a nascent online movement, they were still the clearest path to making it feel legitimate.
by the 10th album’s release, still only two months out from the beginning frenzy, the guardians of muneo house managed to scrounge together enough interest to hold MUNEO HOUSE PARTY, a live event at loft/plus one in shinjuku. this would not be the first time an otaku-born genre like muneo house would hit clubs — it is very clearly descended from nerdcore and other netlabels steeped in that sound from around the turn of the century — but it was still uniquely novel to see the faceless posters of 2ch, otherwise using only mona as avatars, show that they were actually made of flesh and blood. four DJs were headlined and 300 tickets were sold to the venue’s capacity, with many of the participants reporting the event as being their first time having ever gone to a club. even hiroyuki, 2ch’s owner and most prominent cheerleader for the site, was in attendance, being as excited as anyone else to see the site legitimize itself in the real world3. most of its organization was stewarded by umai bow, a name that had already broached the possibility for an event at the tail end of the first thread:
by the latter half of 2002, the boom had died down dramatically, and muneo house’s regular releases abruptly ended. while a year is now impressive longevity for an online fad, personal sites and file shares that sprung up overnight to support the movement evaporated just as quickly, an impression you might not get from the impressive endurance today of small-scale sites that can be run for close to zero cost. attention and buzz around muneo house dissipated, and the /techno/ board considered it to have reached a natural resting point after MUNERE’02 was held at shinjuku MARZ in late july, the fourth event following muneo heaven in early june and muneock festival’02 in may. between these last two events, muneo would be arrested for a separate incident entirely unrelated to his house troubles after he accepted bribes from two hokkaido lumber firms that wanted to curry favor on logging contracts. while impressions from MUNERE attendees were favorable, there is an interestingly common criticism peppered across many of the surviving event reports on it: there was too much muneo house music. the reason for the event, its impetus for existing at all, had tired out even the most devoted wotas that had taken the initiative to attend it.
muneo’s troubles continued to extend well past his arrest, and he failed to run as a representative in 2003 due to an ongoing surgery to treat stomach cancer. even before he had made a full recovery, he reemerged to make a bid for the house of councilors in 2004, lost, and then still resolved to make a comeback in 2005 by winning a seat in the house of representatives, this time with his own newly formed party after he was expelled from the LDP. muneo house showed similar resolve, persisting at the hands of a few remaining diehards that kept their personal sites alive and religiously monitored thread discussions. while the energy behind it was never as concerted after album releases stopped becoming a rallying point, surprise track releases would still pop up in the years that followed. for these contributors, muneo house was, and never could be, about the money or the fame, because it was far too exotic to attract any real commercial attention, and everyone involved was largely nameless. it was a unique arrangement that underground clubs didn’t have to subsist on cultivating a broad appeal, nor did the hundreds of uniquely niche boards that 2ch maintained as humble homes for otaku to exercise, rather than compete, creatively.
by 2006, muneo house pulled together enough interest for a final club event, 100% muneo night, held at SIMOON in shibuya. we would be remiss not to recognize, though, that its resurrection was decidedly less homegrown, as it was organized by eastpress, a book publisher that a few months prior had put out a tell-all with muneo that included roundtable conversations with his celebrity political purse. even in a most impossible context, commercial interests had found a way to worm into what was once a decisively community effort divorced from profit, riding the remaining ripples of a much larger wave. muneo, now beginning to reimagine himself politically, was invited as the guest of honor, in what I can only characterize as a feign triumph over his image4. as amusing as it is to watch him scratch a turntable aimlessly and perform a repetitive call and response, it rings hollow the way a youtube poop would if it were repackaged by an ad firm to push a product. he was, now, fully in on the joke.
the legacy is back below the surface
muneo house, as you might guess, is not very active or recognized in a modern context except by those old enough to fondly remember it in a nostalgic sense. muneo, pulled up by his bootstraps, charted even more incredible valleys in his own story after his final DJ event, as he was eventually sentenced to prison in 2010 on a failed appeal over the bribes he had received. while he was paroled after serving only one year, he was prohibitted from running for office until at least 2017. it should now not surprise you to know that he made a bid to become a representative again in 2017, failed once again, and defied political odds to become a councilor in 2019 through the national proportional representation block, where he is now incumbent today. in a beautiful, almost poetic sting of failed justice, he now serves as the chariman of the disciplinary committee that would have been responsible for his own initial downfall, should he have been a councilor instead of a representative back in 2002.
examining a doujin movement is, in many ways, like getting a good look at the cross-section of an iceberg. while muneo house doesn’t command much explicit relevance, it was, by pretty much all examinations, the first class of sound MAD (音MAD) to ever be produced, emerging in the early days of flash before solutions like aviutil had matured enough to dramatically expand the possibilites available to editors. for the uninitiated, sound MADs are essentially the east’s much older equivalent of YTPMVs, though how divergent you find those two concepts to be probably depends on how pedantic you’re feeling on the day. what they do unquestionably share in common is a use of existing source material to produce a musical symphony, in many cases done collaboratively at grand scale with independent visual and musical artists. much of muneo house’s boom is owed to posters that ferried the musical sounds of muneo house to 2ch’s /flash/ board, where creators there could breathe life into them with visual flare. muneo house’s most prominent PV showcases what passed for a good visual compliment in 2002 and featured still images, likely pulled from a search engine, superimposed with text, an accessible repurposing of content much in the vein of the west’s discovered animutations. sound MADs, for their part, began to thrive on a similar repurposing of otherwise discordant content sources, from politicians to university lecturers.
this muneo PV actually guards a secret that its creator isn’t likely to reveal willingly: it was created by wakamuraP, one of the most influential producers through the golden nico era of MADs defined by the big three nico genres (ニコニコ御三家). that, too, is a designation that wakamura would later escape, as he would go on to be hachioujiP’s and kz’s frontman with toy’s factory for a slew of official vocaloid PVs throughout the 2010s. with that output, he’s willingly celebratory, but details linking wakamura to his muneo house days are found only buried in dusty nostalgic recounts. while it’s understandable that someone would want to sweep away their dark history, this is one of those discovery roadblocks that obscures the very direct creator through lines going between kitschy flash videos and sound MADs to an impressive professional output that could be more usefully recognized if it wasn’t being deliberately masked or hidden. muneo house, in its own strange way, was the invisible blueprint for asyncronous, online collaboration, yet it’s a fact that seems to have been buried under the mountain of content that it inspired.
digital media, being as young as it is, offers much opportunity still to be “first” to a new creative expression. for muneo house, that is characteristically the case, as if it weren’t for muneo, another figure would have materialized as the focus for a different politically-flippant music fad. looking back west, where muneo house’s influence has certainly never been felt on any scale, jibjab’s musical numbers made in flash also made similar opportune pokes at our politics, and schmoyoho developed a more analogous chopped and screwed take on mass media defamation by repurposing news clips for autotune songs. both of these examples lack a collaborative component that 2ch brought to the table for muneo house, but it’s also important to recognize that community online in the west didn’t develop in much parallel at all to the way it did in japan, and 4chan’s mass adoption would only occur many years after 2ch had already blazed trails discovering its creative firsts. whether it be YTPMVs and MADs, or muneo house and schmoyoho, if there’s really anything that a globally connected network brought us to the same page on, it’s most obviously the inescapable galapagos syndrome of our regionally isolated contexts. creating alone, together.
this is a playbook all successfully online nationalist groups have adopted at some point, and it’s probably one you’re more likely to have seen in action as an english speaker by groups like the alt-right that take to social media to post pictures of greek statues or white american suburbia ↩
while muneo did previously make an appearance at a club event in 2004, it wasn’t associated even in name with muneo house, and as far as we do know, no muneo house music was played at it: https://underdefinition.hatenadiary.jp/entry/20170421/p1 ↩