The Closure of GeoCities in Japan Will Be a Disaster for Preserving Early Japanese Internet Culture

The Closure of GeoCities in Japan Will Be a Disaster for Preserving Early Japanese Internet Culture

The early internet can be a little cringeworthy to look back on from a modern day lens. The low quality JPEG images that would be looped repeatedly as an excuse for a website background, autoplaying MIDI files, glitter text, low-quality GIFs (ok, they still exist), it is certainly nothing like the cleaner and more refined internet you find today. That’s before we get into the MySpace boom… these rather crass websites had their charm, though, and the chaotic, almost anarchical elements of the internet Wild West have been lost as MySpace evolved and Yahoo stopped offering their GeoCities service. Except for one place: Japan, where their GeoCities web hosting service, a relic of this early internet era, was still alive and well.

Although the international GeoCities closed a decade ago at this point in 2009, taking much of the early western fan communities and internet culture with it, in Japan the service continued to function. It was still being used by a wide array of people for a variety of reasons. Sure, this usage was nowhere near that which it reached at the height of its popularity, with social media and other web usage far outstripping it, but there is a reason it has stayed in operation for long after the western branches of Yahoo abandoned the service.

That is, until October last year, when the company announced that the Japanese GeoCities service would receive this same fate and close for good in March of 2019. Unlike the attempts by the Internet Archive to rescue GeoCities and archive all these websites to ensure that this crucial data was not lost that occurred upon the western closure of the service, this news has mostly passed by completely undetected. While a group of people did note that they would like to archive this data, no update on the project has been given since November, meaning we are now just days away from the forced and permanent loss of this data on March 31st.

Why should you care though? It’s likely you, the reader of this article, never knew this closure was set to occur, and surely it can’t be all that important, otherwise we would have heard about it before now, right? That’s where the issue lies, however. Too little emphasis is placed on archiving our internet history, meaning the importance of this information is so emphatically understated. Many of these sites remain unchanged since the early 2000s or perhaps even earlier, and contain huge amounts of archival information that haven’t been backed up anywhere else. Never mind that, many of these websites provide a fascinating insight into Japanese internet culture while it was still in its infancy, and many of today’s big trends can be traced back to communities formed through these websites. GeoCities like this provide a fascinating insight into understanding the way that internet and otaku culture has developed since the early days of the internet, and we are just days away from losing this invaluable resource for good. It’s hard to overstate how bad this loss could be for our understanding of early otaku and internet culture.

The Closure of GeoCities in Japan Will Be a Disaster for Preserving Early Japanese Internet Culture
One page from the GeoCities website for kzcollection

Many fans used GeoCities for a variety of different purposes. Some used it as an archive of sorts, a place to store content relating to their favourite media. In turn, this meant that such sites would often hold archival content that had not been backed up anywhere else. One such example of this type of usage would be a site run by a user known as kzcollection. Their site is a treasure trove of old, scanned copies of animation cells for a variety of iconic classic anime series whose influences can still be felt to this day, even if their names are less recognisable. Aim for the Ace, or Ace o Nerae, begin its manga print run in 1973 and remains to this day one of the best selling shojo manga of all time. It’s popularity at the time inspired many to pick up a racket for themselves, while some of its most iconic moments can still be traced to modern genre pieces. This site contains many scanned animation cells for this show and its multitude of sequels, many of which aren’t backed up elsewhere. It’s likely that at least a proportion of these animation cells are in the collections of wealthy anime fans or, at worst, have been damaged or lost and no longer exist.

It’s not just this series either. The site is home to animation cells from Onii-sama he, Cats Eye, Space Adventure Cobra and more. Even if some of them are less recognisable names, these are some of the most iconic shows from the early years of animation, and these collections of animation cels are unprecedented elsewhere online. Not only does it include more iconic and historical anime, but more niche products like Nayuta, a small OVA anime based on a manga of the same name from a few years earlier are also represented. This is an incredible resource, and it’s just days from being lost for good.

The Closure of GeoCities in Japan Will Be a Disaster for Preserving Early Japanese Internet Culture
A piece of cell animation from the 1981 anime feature film, The Fantastic Adventures of Unico, one of many pieces of cel animation found on kzcollection’s GeoCities web page

Then it comes to fan-created content. It can be very difficult to find some of the older and abandoned GeoCities which, due to their status as abandoned and likely forgotten websites, make them almost undiscoverable. In the end, partially inspired by its return to mainstream, I decided to set my mind back to 1999 and the debut of the magical girl anime Ojamajo Doremi. From there I was able to stumble upon an example of a fan-created game, screensaver and desktop accessory on a website by a user called Playtown-domino. A virtual machine would likely be a requirement to utilise such creations nowadays, and its questionable as to whether they would hold up, but it is interesting to find the sorts of content fans of the show were making at this time.

That doesn’t really answer the question though. I can give these questions of seemingly random websites and explain what they have now, and explain that these things will be lost in just a few short days, and it still won’t help you understand why it should be worth saving this content. Even if it may seem more obvious to back up the content from the first site, you could very easily argue that there’s nothing special about the Ojamajo Doremi site I just highlighted.

You may be right about that, too. But the point I’m trying to make isn’t necessarily that these sites should be raised as a holy grail that symbolises the best of what GeoCities had to offer during its life. Some of those best sites may be so deeply hidden that I couldn’t find them, or they couldn’t be found under the search parameters I used.

The Closure of GeoCities in Japan Will Be a Disaster for Preserving Early Japanese Internet Culture
The GeoCities website for user Playtown-Domino

Picture the situation, though. You may be an academic, or simply a fan with a burning desire to understand the growth of magical girl anime over time. If we were to take the Ojamajo Doremi site as an example, it means little on its own. But it wasn’t the only Ojamajo Doremi fan site I found. Many more existed, some acting as an early precursor of twitter where fans showed off their merchandise, some where fans partook in cosplay of the shows characters and many more. Ojamajo Doremi is a tentpole anime within the magical girl genre, acting as a precursor to the dominant PreCure series we see today.

Although the PreCure series may be aimed at young girls, its fan base is much more divergent and wide-ranging, and similar trends can be seen with Doremi’s fanbase, for similar reasons. The ability to take on more mature subject matters within a child-friendly exterior without scaring off this audience, the strength of its animation and friendly designs have a broad appeal. If I wanted to understand the fandom and development of the PreCure series, I would want to understand the fandom surrounding Doremi, and access to fancies where fans created games, or I would want access to long guestbook logs on Doremi fan sites where fans discussed these games. This isn’t to suggest such content was never available anywhere other than on GeoCities, but a huge chunk of it is there, abandoned and soon to be deleted. Suddenly, the attempt to understand the fanbase that was cultivated by non-targeted audiences becomes a much more difficult challenge.

Knowledge is power, or so the saying goes. To gain a deeper understanding about a fandom, about an industry, you need to understand its past. By understanding the Doremi fanbase, you can understand the PreCure fanbase and why these fans became invested in a series they should be opposed to based on their demographics. It helps the wider anime fandom understand the appeal and gain more appreciation for classic works that may get overlooked in a relentless seasonal anime cycle. You can’t gain this knowledge if the sources no longer exist.

The Closure of GeoCities in Japan Will Be a Disaster for Preserving Early Japanese Internet Culture
Just one example of the painstaking collecting done at The Private Familia’s Archive, a site that was hosted on GeoCities and has been saved by its created. It is now hosted elsewhere

In those circumstances, you’re left at the mercy of the site creator, and you just have to hope that the creators remembered about their website and saved it. The Private Fami Archive was saved for example, and that’s a good thing. This is one fan’s attempt to archive old advertising, unreleased software and so much more related to retro gaming, mostly focused on the Famicom but also covering other consoles including the SEGA consoles of that era. Classic adverts for a variety of titles from the more popular releases from Namco such as Dig Dug to more obscure titles like Sqoon and Bugtte Honey can be found here. The most fascinating and most detailed section is the Fake Secret Tips Exhibition Room, where magazine scans from Family Computer Magazine were collected showcasing fake gaming techniques. This is a particularly unique and undocumented example of historical gaming culture. Not only are many of these scans reproduced to such a high resolution, but the sort of fake tips, like the ones that could convince you that Mew was hidden under a car in the original Pokemon, were all compiled and made readily available.

Luckily since this site was saved by its creator and moved to a new hosting service, this archive won’t be lost next week. Many other sites will not be so lucky. There will be more like this, maybe with just as insightful and fascinating archival content, which will be lost, possibly seeing the destruction of vital historical documentation alongside it.

Throughout my journey back in time to the internet landscape of the 1990s and early 21st century, some sites I uncovered had no real historical value, yet struck me just as much if not more when I thought about how they would soon disappear. There were websites long-since abandoned where people documented their lives like a diary for years on end, pouring their feelings and daily activities into the endless void. One that particularly struck me was ‘A Book of Travels’. It may lack the kind of pop culture relevance that we often discuss on this website, yet I found myself enamoured by it. Through this site, this person documented their travels throughout a huge variety of places, sharing a diary and itinerary and coupling these stories with hand-drawn sketches of the places they visited.

The Closure of GeoCities in Japan Will Be a Disaster for Preserving Early Japanese Internet Culture
Chronicles of a journey to Lake Biwa, taken from the GeoCities website for a_book_of_travels

Any single one of these sites may contain unique and interesting content that could be of interest to the right person. Yet collectively, they represent something so much more. Each of these sites has a part of that person injected into them; their lives, their highs and their lows, their hobbies, their sense of identity, any single element or perhaps every single one of these elements is found on these web pages. Even taking away the personal aspect, you can use many of these sites to examine the historical development of otaku culture and otaku communication and begin to understand the ways in which people communicate online today, simply through the examination of these sites.

GeoCities at its peak, both internationally and within Japan, was one of the most popular web-hosting services and helped shape the early days of the internet. It’s closure is not just the end of an era, but the end of a chapter of history we now may never have the chance to fully examine. While many Western websites were recovered before the 2009 shutdown, that hasn’t happened here, and it may soon become that much more difficult to understand how early internet communities were formed as well as early internet expression in Japan. Deletion like this not only deprives the world of vital historical information for understanding this period of history but also potentially permanently harms our ability to understand our shared history.

It would now be too late to attempt to recover most of this information before it is switched off this weekend. I don’t think there is any positive way for me to end this article with this knowledge looming over my head, and I can only hope our current internet era is not lost to the annals of time in the same way.

Webpage screenshots © a_book_of_travels, omokuros (The Private Familia's Archive), Playtown-Domino, kzcollection; Yahoo Geocities logo © Yahoo; Unico image © Tezuka Productions; Legend of Zelda advertisement © Nintendo Co. Ltd.
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