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.
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 2channel’s vibe, 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.)