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Wednesday, April 17, 2024

Who Owns 4chan?

Over the past 19 years, the imageboard 4chan has been tied to Gamergate, the inception of QAnon, the incubation of a particular brand of online racism, and a raft of domestic terror attacks that have killed scores of people.

Tragically, references and tributes to 4chan are littered throughout a 180-page screed believed to be written by the 18-year-old who is alleged to have shot 13 people in a predominately Black neighborhood in Buffalo, New York, on May 14. All 10 victims killed in the massacre were Black. Just this week, 4chan’s users spread transphobic misinformation about the identity of the school shooter who killed 19 children and two adults in an elementary school in Uvdale, Texas, that quickly reached the feeds of a right-wing member of Congress.

Even as the imageboard continues to rise in infamy, a question lingers: Who actually owns 4chan?

For years, its ownership has been murky: Invented by an American, sold to a Japanese businessman in 2015, its corporate structure is largely unknown, beyond a pair of Delaware-registered corporations.

New information, shared exclusively with WIRED, provides greater detail into 4chan’s largely unpublicized relationship with a major Japanese toy firm called the Good Smile Company. Legal documents, corporate records, and interviews with those familiar with both companies show that Good Smile played a role in 4chan’s 2015 acquisition.

In addition to being 4chan’s silent partner, Good Smile has struck major deals with some of the world’s largest entertainment companies, including Disney and Warner Bros. Good Smile also produces figurines depicting underage anime girls in various states of undress.

The company said last year that it is just a passive investor in 4chan. Records of a nondisclosure agreement, however, reveal that Good Smile Company and a major Japanese telecommunications company were involved in the 2015 acquisition of 4chan by its current owner. Court records, first detailed by The Hollywood Reporter and Kotaku in September and reviewed by WIRED, allege that Good Smile employees were disturbed by their company’s engagement with 4chan, but executives ignored their concerns.

As the United States grapples with 4chan’s toxic influence, from its role in enabling the January 6 insurrection to its alleged influence on mass shooters, its clear that attempts to hold someone accountable and perhaps even reduce its role in radicalizing young men will not be possible without a better grasp of its corporate structure.

From his dorm room in Arkansas in 1999, Hiroyuki Nishimura created 2channel.

The Japanese-language imageboard is built on several successful text-based usenet and message boards. But Nishimura offered users something rare and exciting: the freedom to be completely anonymous.

“It’s where idiots can be the idiots they want to be. It’s where they are allowed to say things they don’t need to take responsibility for,” Nishimura would tell The Japan Times years later. That freedom would prove wildly popular in Japan. Within a decade, Nishimura became the bad boy of Japanese media, cultivating a career as a self-help guru and even inking a deal with Japanese telecommunications giant Dwango to set up the hugely successful video-sharing site Niconico. Nishimura was the celebrity face of Niconico until he left in 2013.

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While the message boards were largely inscrutable to English-speaking audiences, they had a small cult following stateside. On the Something Awful message boards, where a particularly edgy brand of internet humor was taking shape, a group of users became enthralled with the anime popular on 2channel (and its offshoot, 2chan). They shared their finds on Something Awful’s Anime Death Tentacle Rape Whorehouse forum.

Amongst those early devotees was Christopher Poole. In 2003, looking to replicate the vibe of the Futaba board, from a 2channel spinoff, he grabbed the open source code underpinning the website, translated it, and officially opened 4chan. He called himself moot.

In the early days, 4chan users could share anime on /a/, and everything else on /b/, the random board. The website quickly grew, branching into all manner of internet culture, hardcore pornography, news, and, eventually, the politics board, /pol/.

Over its first decade of life, 4chan defined and shaped troll culture. There was a mischievous streak: Its users harassed white supremacist radio host Hal Turner and hacked Sarah Palin’s email. But 4chan also had a persistent problem with child sexual abuse material, while its users used their anonymity to make threats against their schools. (At the same time, 4chan users reported their fellow users who, they feared, could commit acts of violence.)

In 2014, a more coherent, and conservative, ideology started to take hold on 4chan: The Gamergate harassment campaign against game journalists and women game developers began to define the channel—/b/ and /pol/, in particular—as more angry and reactionary than it had been previously. 

In early 2015, just as 4chan was wrestling with its burgeoning toxic identity, Poole suddenly exited his 12-year-old creation.

“4chan has given me some amount of notoriety,” Poole told Rolling Stone at the time. “But it certainly hasn’t provided me with wealth.”

There was only one person who knew as much as, if not more than, Poole about running such an imageboard: Hiroyuki Nishimura.

Nishimura had lost 2channel a year earlier when it was seized by its registrar, Jim Watkins, who would go on to snap up 4chan’s even-less-moderated rival, 8chan (now 8kun). In September 2015, nine months after 4chan’s founder said he would be exiting the site, Poole announced that he was handing over the reins of one of the most popular sites on the internet to Nishimura.

When Nishimura held an AMA on 4chan soon after his takeover became public, amid a torrent of racist comments, one user asked how he financed the sale. “I borrowed money,” Nishimura answered.

Fredrick Brennan, the 8chan founder who later left the site and repudiated its toxic influence, says he was intrigued when Nishimura bought the site. “I was always suspicious that he could afford 4chan,” he says.

The month after Nishimura took over, Chris Harper-Mercer posted his intent to carry out an attack at a school in the northwest to 4chan’s incel board, /r9k/. Unlike previous threats, this one wasn’t idle: Harper-Mercer killed an assistant professor and eight students at Oregon’s Umpqua Community College before turning the gun on himself. It would be the first of several mass killings linked to 4chan and the incel ideology.

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By 2016, Nishimura announced that the costs of running 4chan were simply too high and suggested the site’s closure was imminent. In 2018, Nishimura attempted to cleave the site in two—leaving 4chan intact, with its obscene and pornographic boards, but creating a safe-for-work alternative, attractive to advertisers, on 4channel. The separate domains continue to this day, but both sites rely on the same self-serve advertising platform. The not-safe-for-work 4chan domain seems mostly to show ads for porn, while 4channel features ads for Steam games, cryptocoins, and NFTs.

Website analytics firm Similarweb estimates that both 4chan and 4channel are still within the 1,000 most popular websites in the world.

When the Select Committee to Investigate the January 6 Attack on the United States Capitol sent a letter to 4chan last August, asking it to preserve documents that could shed light on the insurrection, the committee sent it to 4chan LLC and addressed it to Nishimura. Congressional investigators want to know what role, if any, 4chan played in the storming of the Capitol building.

Asked whether 4chan had even responded to the request, or whether Nishimura may be called to testify, the committee declined to comment.

4chan LLC is incorporated in Delaware but has registered businesses in New York, Virginia, and Ohio. 4chan Community Support LLC, the company listed as the owner on the 4chan website, is similarly incorporated in Delaware. According to documents filed with the state of New York and the United States Patent and Trademark Office, 4chan’s American headquarters is listed as Los Angeles. Both limited liability companies report their address as a post office box in central Los Angeles.

Nishimura has said he is based in Paris, though in 2019 he mused to BuzzFeed News about obtaining a Latvian visa.

4chan does not appear to have an independent physical office in the United States, nor any staff. But there is another Japanese company, with offices in Los Angeles, which could explain a lot about the image board’s murky ownership and operations.

The Good Smile Company is a massively popular toy and hobby company—its brand of plastic figures, called Nendoroids, have attracted licensing deals from Disney, Marvel, Warner Bros., and a host of other American and Japanese companies. (Neither Disney, Marvel, nor Warner Bros. responded to WIRED’s requests for comment.)

In 2018, Good Smile released a Nendoroid of Yotsuba Koiwai, a popular anime character who also happens to be 4chan’s unofficial mascot. On Instagram, fans picked up on the connection “4chan represent!” one wrote. “Congratulations 4chan!” wrote another.

Many of Good Smile’s toys, some of which are marketed with sexually suggestive language despite depicting underage girls, are popular on 4chan, where sexually explicit anime is incredibly popular.

Sources with knowledge of Good Smile say the company owns at least a part of 4chan, and that Good Smile is more involved than it lets on publicly. WIRED is not naming those sources, who fear retaliation for speaking publicly about Good Smile.

Internal Good Smile documents obtained by WIRED reference a “confidentiality agreement” dated April 2015—just months after Poole announced he would be leaving 4chan, but some five months before Nishimura was announced as the buyer. One document names Dwango, Future Search Brazil, and Hiroyuki Nishimura as parties in the “consideration of M & A [mergers and acquisitions] regarding 4CHAN, LLC.” The executive responsible for the five-year deal was listed as “安藝”—Good Smile CEO Takanori Aki.

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While it’s not clear whether all those parties were ultimately part of the acquisition deal for 4chan, the documents say the “start date” for the nondisclosure agreement began the same month it was signed.

While Nishimura’s role in acquiring 4chan was well publicized, it has never been reported that Dwango—the telecommunications company with which he had a business relationship—was part of the consideration around that deal. WIRED has not seen the text of the deal itself, and Dwango’s current involvement, if any, remains unclear.

In 2016, Dwango featured Nishimura as a special guest—billing him as “4chan manager”—on a live election broadcast streamed to the video-sharing platform Niconico.

The other company named in the agreement, Future Search Brazil, is another Tokyo-based entity founded by Nishimura. The company sought to build a search engine that could crawl the expanses of imageboards like 2channel and 4chan. Indeed, in his Q&A with his new site, Nishimura had mused that “one of my idea [sic] is adding a search engine in 4chan.” Since then, Future Search Brazil has branched out into content creation and digital currency platforms. A cached version of its website advertises that it “provides various know-how about online communities”—once clients have signed the requisite NDAs.

Future Search Brazil, named for Terry Gilliam’s dystopian dark comedy, is currently headquartered in the Shibuya district of Tokyo, a major financial hub. But up until 2020, according to publicly available listings and photos of the building’s mailboxes, its address was in the Chiyoda City neighborhood, in the same building as Good Smile Company. Good Smile occupied most of the building but shared the third floor with Future Search Brazil, according to a building directory.

Details of 4chan’s American connection first emerged thanks to an ill-fated lawsuit filed by Good Smile against three former Los Angeles-based employees in Los Angeles County court. The Americans had joined the Japanese company as part of an arrangement to acquire their companies that went south. In the lawsuit, Good Smile alleges that the former employees were actively competing with the company, in violation of their contracts.

The former employees countersued, alleging, among other things, that Good Smile had a close financial relationship with 4chan that it had not disclosed.

Two former employees allege in the lawsuit that they were told by Enna Hozumi, the vice president responsible for Good Smile’s American operations, “that Aki provided, directly or indirectly, funding for 4Chan.” The employees said in their submissions to the court that they “were even asked if they wanted to collaborate on a fan design contest using 4chan’s mascot, Yotsuba Koiwai.”

The lawsuit alleges that two of the now-former employees would “forward articles to Hozumi pertaining to 4Chan,” specifically about its connections to white supremacy and neo-Nazis and domestic terrorism, “to express their ongoing and increasing concern and discomfort with the association. Hozumi never responded to any of these written communications.”

These allegations were not tested in court, as the parties settled the case in November 2021.

A lawyer for the former employees declined to comment, except to say that the legal proceedings were “mutually and confidentially resolved.”

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Details of the countersuit were previously reported by The Hollywood Reporter and Kotaku. Citing a representative for the company, the magazine wrote that Good Smile had a “passive investment in 4chan but isn’t involved in day-to-day operations.”

WIRED has reached out to Nishimura, Future Search Brazi, Dwango, and Good Smile for comment. None of them have responded.

It might not be immediately obvious why a toy company would want to own at least a piece of a politically toxic message board linked to several far-right and neo-Nazi movements and mass killings. As Nishimura expressed publicly, placing ads on the forum is a tough sell for many companies.

But Good Smile, since its inception in 2001, has diversified well beyond just toys. It has branched out into animation, e-commerce, and music production. It even has a subsidiary, Good Smile Partners, tasked with acquiring companies based on “interestingness” and “synergy,” according to translations of the company’s website.

In the past, 2chan has offered Good Smile a ton of synergy.

In 2007, Billy Herrington became an unlikely Japanese celebrity. The New York-born gay porn actor had recorded a series of homoerotic wrestling videos that became surprisingly popular on 2channel, then still run by Nishimura—KnowYourMeme likened Herrington’s appeal to rickrolling. Soon his ironic popularity crossed over to the Dwango-owned Niconico video platform.

When Harrington visited Japan in 2009 for a Niconico livestream, he also appeared at the Good Smile offices to unveil a figurine made in his likeness.

2chan had the power to turn Good Smile’s toys into hits. A Nendoroid of a moderately popular SEGA character became a massive hit after 2channel users began photoshopping her into odd places. Good Smile rereleased the Nendoroid in a specific nod to her popularity on 2chan.

4chan has a half-dozen boards devoted to video games, television, and anime that rack up about a quarter-million posts per day, according to 4stats.io. On boards devoted to toys and anime, in particular, Good Smile’s Nendoroids generate a flurry of excitement and buzz.

For a company looking to produce toys to meet a hungry market of anime fans—one in which firms are otherwise reliant on Google Trends and other third-party sources to tell them which anime properties are popular and will sell and which will not—4chan provides direct access to core Good Smile customers.

On 4chan, sexualized anime, particularly of young girls, is especially popular. Good Smile offers plenty of products that fall under that category.

Scroll through Good Smile’s online shop and it’s impossible to avoid sexualized images of young girls. A figurine of Wendy, a character from anime Gun X Sword described as being in her “early teens,” features her in only a nightie. The English description of the product advertises her “sex appeal made by the crevice in the panties and her wonderful thighs. Caught defenseless whilst changing, a truly dioramic pose for a figure.” Dozens of other products are similarly suggestive, with some depicting characters who are canonically pre-pubescent.

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Brennan, the former owner of 8chan who has followed both his former rival and the Japanese 2channel, says that if 4chan helps drive sales and traffic to Good Smile’s website, the investment is worth it.

Nothing about Good Smile’s products is illegal. A plethora of companies offers sexually explicit anime. What makes Good Smile unique is its ownership stake in 4chan and lucrative licensing deals with some of the world’s most famously family-friendly companies.

Last week, New York attorney general Letitia James announced that her office would open an investigation into the social media platforms that, her office says, enabled the Buffalo shooting.

“The terror attack in Buffalo has once again revealed the depths and danger of the online forums that spread and promote hate,” she said in a statement. “The fact that an individual can post detailed plans to commit such an act of hate without consequence, and then stream it for the world to see is bone-chilling and unfathomable.”

While the attorney general’s investigation will look into the role Twitch played in broadcasting the killings, and how chat platform Discord played host to the alleged killer’s diaries, 4chan holds the unique position of being cited by the alleged killer himself for molding his racist ideology.

In his screed, filled with racist memes and images taken from across the imageboard, he writes, “I only really turned racist when 4chan started giving me facts.”

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