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  • “The Phantom of Akihabara,” Chapter 6: “Endless Game”

    Posted on August 7th, 2009 keving No comments

    akihabara3-1

    “So you’re cosplaying and everything whenever you go undercover like that?”
    “Yes, sir. I didn’t think I’d be able to pull it off past thirty, but it keeps people’s eyes off me all the same. In fact, it’s gotten me a lot of side benefits. People brag to me; they reveal details; they give me their life stories.”
    “What were you dressed as?”
    “I’m sorry, sir; that’s kind of a personal question.”

    Here is chapter six (“Endless Game”) of The Phantom of Akihabara: GAME OVER, a serial novel written by Yoshitaka Ohsawa between 2002 and 2004. You’ll want to start at chapter one if you’re new to the tale.

    On a visit to the twice-yearly underground Comic Market, illicit used-game broker Ryohei Takamizawa runs into the shadowy owner of Sofmap #666, a “game buyer” he’s known for his entire career. The man is neck-deep in the underground game business, and he has bad news: the Japanese government is set to clamp down on every aspect of otaku culture, from what it can depict to how it’s distributed. If they succeed, then otaku-dom has no future, and Ryohei is sent by the man to meet up with a certain someone and figure out a way to stop them.

    Happy readin’.

    The Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry. Good old METI. Before the 2001 Central Government Reform, it was called the Ministry of International Trade and Industry.

    In this ministry is an office, the Commerce and Information Policy Bureau. The office chiefly handles matters related to information processing, and its importance has steadily grown since the spread of personal computers and the Internet. This has caused it to split into several branches: the Information Policy Department, responsible for government IT policy and the handling of personal information; the Information Processing Promotion Department, which develops and promotes IT systems across the industry; the Information and Communication Device Department, authorized to classify and regulate electric and electronic hardware; and many more. With the power to oversee both the PC and network industries, they have always held a deep relationship with otaku culture, which relied on the Internet as a marketplace and trading post for information. It was a surprisingly deep connection, in fact — deeper than either side really thought.

    Video games were also the responsibility of the Commerce and Information Policy Bureau (CIPB), with most of the regulation handled by a subdivision called the Cultural Products Commerce Department. The department’s official charter reads as follows: “To gather and promote the creation and preservation of text, sound, and image data in the area of game software for the purposes of promoting information processing.” You could say, in other words, that they were the go-to people in the government for anything related to video games, though they dealt with far more than that.

    With the suppression that the game industry and otaku culture in general has faced growing even more severe in recent years, a great deal of blame has been placed on the shoulders of the Public Security Intelligence Agency, the outfit responsible for carrying out investigations and arrests. But the METI, and the CIPB within it, was the organization that established the laws and policies leading to this action, taking advantage of video games’ unique distribution scheme, a lack of backlash from otaku publishers and creators, and the comparatively weak financial underpinnings the entire industry ran on. The CIPB, in many ways, was the outfit which pulled the strings that led us to where we are today.

    In one corner of the CIPB office lies the IT Investigation Department. It is a very young division, and compared to the PSIA, it has gone largely unnoticed, sitting in the shadows while the PSIA’s organizations clamped down on net crime and regulated online speech. Walk inside this department, though, and you’ll see a sight that’ll make you speechless. The latest issues of video game magazines like Famitsu and Dengeki PlayStation, anime titles like Newtype and Animage, and porno-game monthlies like Tech Gian and BugBug line the desks in no particular order. They even have copies of Fanroad and Yu-Ge. Famicoms, Super Famicoms, PlayStations from 1 to 3, and a Dreamcast are connected to TVs, and they even have a PC-9801 and X68000. It’s as if you have just stumbled upon some game magazine’s editor room.

    “Wow. Caught ’em again.”

    The department was manned by about three people, but a lone desk stood clean and orderly among the chaos. Behind  it sat a women in a sharp, pressed business outfit, looking extremely out of place in this mess of an office. The rest of the staff were just as properly dressed; that was what made the room seem to strange.

    She was the head of the CIPB’s IT Investigation Department, and her name was Saeko Kanoura. Her office examined and researched the people and things that made up otaku culture, this amorphous blob that the government has branded as an antisocial ill that must be stamped out. In order to embed themselves fully inside the otaku ecosystem, to get inside all of their minds and find out what makes them tick, they have structured their office to look as much like one of their rooms as possible. Sometimes they even dress like them.

    But they had a far more important task to accomplish than simple research.

    “So did you go to the Comiket, Saeko?” asked the woman’s boss from a desk at the other end of the room. She looked up from her PC display and smiled. “Oh? Oh. Yes, I did, sir. It wasn’t anything like it was before, in the end, but it’s pretty neat how they keep the fires burning with all the new issues and things they put out.”
    “Wow. I’m surprised they can even find anyone willing to print all that crap. You’d get reported if you used a print-shop copier for it.”
    “Yes. One of the groups was bragging about how they all got jobs at a publisher so they could sneak into the office at night for their print jobs.”
    “Hah. Poor guys.”

    The department’s chief mission: to transform themselves into “fellow” otaku, to investigate the illegal otaku culture bubbling under the surface, and to occasionally lure them into doing something reportable.

    “So you’re cosplaying and everything whenever you go undercover like that?”
    “Yes, sir. I didn’t think I’d be able to pull it off past thirty, but it keeps people’s eyes off me all the same. In fact, it’s gotten me a lot of side benefits. People brag to me; they reveal details; they give me their life stories.”
    “What were you dressed as?”
    “I’m sorry, sir; that’s kind of a personal question.”

    As she exchanged words with her superior, numbers flashed across her display, one after another. They were IP addresses, groups of four numbers between 0 and 255. It was all the department needed to provide ISPs to have them investigate and find user identities. Send the results of that to the PSIA, and if the man using the computer was unlucky enough, he would have an unwelcome knock on his door within hours.

    “We stage these campaigns X number of times per year, and they just keep letting themselves get hooked.” The woman was using herself as a decoy to catch Internet pirates.

    —-

    akihabara3-2Looking back upon the past few decades, one could easily portray the history of computer software as a neverending battle against illegal copying. Video games were roughly the same price as cassette tapes at the very beginning, but prices shot up before long, quickly putting them outside the realm of impulse purchases. PC games cost 7800 to 9800 yen, and even console titles, which cost 3800 to 4800 yen when the Famicom first debuted, went up to the 8000-yen level somewhere along the line without a fuss from anyone. With games as risky a purchase they are (nobody wants to spend real cash on a bad game, after all), the wild goose chase between publishers and pirates continued on for years and years. Back when cassette tape was the main media, all you need was a recorder to make a copy, but floppy-disk titles soon featured elaborate software protection installed within the game. Any protection could be removed with enough patience, however, and it wasn’t long before game rental shops — all operating under the assumed notion you were copying everything you rented for yourself — sprang up, no doubt dealing some damage to the game industry.

    The very nature of piracy changed in the late 1990s with the rise of the consumer-oriented Internet. “Warez servers” existed wherever there was a network connection, of course, and Napster made the process easier than ever for music fans. Both of those methods of piracy allowed investigators to track down individual users, but with the rise of broadband and software like WinMX in the early years of the 21st century, copying became a socially acceptable activity for an entire generation. This new wave of software let users trade files without going through a host server, opening up a world of games, music and video at essentially no cost. The brilliant ease of it all attracted an audience that neither knew nor cared about the warez scene. WinMX users could still be traced through the direct connections they made with each other, but new methods, like Winny and Bittorrent, spread out the job of file transferral among a mass of users, not just one, making the user tracking process more difficult than ever. It wasn’t impossible, of course, but it required work, and arresting anyone for it had a miniscule effect at best. The authorities arrested people for it anyway, but the resulting furor on 2ch and other anonymous forums only served to popularize file-sharing software, further hurting their cause.

    “Pre-’05 porn games get ’em every time, I swear.”

    With the oppression otaku culture faces today, the role file-sharing software played is more vital than ever. OZ, the program of choice today, encrypts its content on the packet level and does away with Winny’s upload/download delineation entirely, creating an impenetrable virtual space for anonymous users to share files. The IT Investigation Department had neither the manpower nor any interest in trying to break the security in programs like these. Instead, it inserted an IP-revealing virus into game software and anime videos and spread them around the net. Thanks to some government negotiations with the antivirus industry, the virus went unreported by any software you could buy. It was the online equivalent of a bait car, except instead of having the PSIA conduct the sting, it was handled by this all-but-anonymous department — security through obscurity.

    Saeko was the one who devised and established this system. Copy culture had spread across the computer scene like a cancer. It was the greatest enemy of any software company, and establishing this plan was one of METI’s most pressing orders of business. It wouldn’t be going too far to say that Saeko’s entire department was birthed from that sense of urgency.

    Although Saeko stood at the forefront of the move to suppress and report otaku, she herself was as deep an otaku as any of them. All that mattered to her, though, was herself. She conceived this plan to sell out her fellow otaku, to use them as raw material for her career, and to get the out-of-print or banned pieces of media she was seeking. The magazines in her office, the games and books stored in their closets, were in a way her own collection.

    A text appeared on her cell phone. It was from Sofmap #666, and it invited her to meet with a certain man. She had approached the owner of the place in the past, offering his business amnesty from prosecution if he would cooperate with her and fetch the “criminals” and data leaks she desired. It was the oppressed working with the oppressor under the table. To them, the battle was not a direct confrontation, but something that had long been repeated through history.

    [To be continued]

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