Could the chilling note have been written by Mamoru Takuma, the 37-year-old man police say confessed to the knifings? Ikeda Elementary School, where 21 second-graders were stabbed, is affiliated with an Osaka university. Other evidence suggests Takuma, a drifter with a history of psychological problems, harbored resentment against the school. His father, long estranged from his son, told Japanese newspapers that Takuma once took, and failed, an exam there. Takuma was also accused, in 1999, of poisoning four teachers at another school by spiking water for tea with drugs. Osaka police refused to comment on the bulletin-board message.
Circumstantial evidence? Perhaps. But it would be folly to ignore the disturbing notes that pop up on Channel 2 and too often foreshadow real-life horrors. In May last year a 17-year-old boy hijacked a bus in Fukuoka prefecture, held 10 passengers hostage and stabbed one to death during a 15-hour, 279-km ride of terror. An hour before boarding the bus, he had left a cryptic message on the Channel 2 bulletin board: "Saga City (near Fukuoka) 17-year-old, heh heh heh heh heh." A week later, another 17-year-old announced online that he intended to "shock the world." He then assaulted a man on a Tokyo train with a hammer.
Who needs reality TV? For hundreds of thousands of Japanese voyeurs, sensational drama unfolds regularly on Channel 2, which claims some 8 million hits a day and is the country's eighth most accessed site. The bulletin board wasn't meant to be a soapbox for deranged malcontents but rather a rare haven for Japanese to discuss normally taboo subjects, like the yakuza, the royal family and discrimination against Koreans—topics the mainstream media either sanitizes or simply won't touch. "The Emperor is a war criminal. How is it that we haven't yet done away with the Imperial system?" asks an outspoken visitor to the history page. "In Japan, the press has had a monopoly over information," says Tomofumi Akiyama, a lawyer who specializes in multimedia law. "The Internet has opened the door for everyone to gather and transmit information."
What lurked behind the door has proved shocking. Created in 1999 and managed by 150 volunteers, Channel 2 is the brainchild of an unlikely rebel: soft-spoken, 24-year-old computer consultant Hiroyuki Nishimura. Free to users, the site pulls in a mere $25,000 or so a month in advertising. "I wanted to provide space for people to discuss their interests," he says, adding that he doesn't censor a word. "Helpful or harmful, information is information," he says. "It's not up to us to question the impact or consequences." Nishimura may be forced to tighten up, however. In March, Nippon Life Insurance asked the court to order Channel 2 to delete entries that appeared to slander one of its executives. "If the webmaster is aware of the defamatory postings but refuses to take action, then he can be held responsible," says Yasutaka Machimura, a law professor at Asia University in Tokyo. When loyal Channel 2 users heard of Nippon Life's legal action, however, they launched vicious online attacks against the company and called for a boycott.
Surfing through Channel 2 is like taking a ride on Japan's wild side. On any given day you can read messages about users' schemes to assault their bosses, murder their teachers or blow up a neighborhood kindergarten. Most are by harmless attention seekers. "There are so many of those, I can't keep count," Nishimura says. Police are starting to take notice, though. Last month, after someone left a message identifying a schoolgirl and threatening to rape her, anonymous callers tipped off police, who immediately surrounded the girl's school in Ibaraki prefecture. Fortunately, this one turned out to be a sick prank. Most prefectures have high-tech departments dealing with Internet and related crimes. But it's difficult to catch the author of an anonymous message if the bulletin board is accessed through a public computer. "Sometimes all we can do is advise the callers about how to protect themselves," says Masao Tatsuzaki, life division officer of the National Police Agency.
Two days after the Ikeda murders, another incendiary message appeared on Channel 2. The killer "did an impressive job," the anonymous writer said, adding that he had something even more shocking planned for June 26. Several Channel 2 devotees called the police. Now Japan can only hope that the message is a hoax and that the freewheeling bulletin board won't become Exhibit A again as officials struggle with an increasingly violent society.