Over the last month or so, the hottest topic on the Japanese Web scene has been inconsiderate and shocking behavior by convenience- and food chain-stores employees who messed about with appliances and food, and then boasted with photos on social media, mainly on Twitter. While the initial so-called enjō (to burn — as in it spreads like wildfire) criticism and severe bashing of the culprits was on the Web, it has now spilled over into mainstream media.

The first of the recent incidents that caught people’s attention happened on July 14 on Facebook, where a man posted a picture of himself lying on an ice-cream refrigerator. Netizens rapidly identified that the photo was taken in a Lawson convenience store in Kochi Prefecture. On the very next day, Lawson announced the halting of the store’s franchise contract, the closure of the store for an undetermined period and the sacking of the employee responsible for the prank.

In the same week, on July 15, a Family Mart employee in Kanagawa Prefecture uploaded a photo to Twitter of a professional soccer player’s private visit to the store. The employee had salvaged the image from the shop’s surveillance video. Family Mart apologized for the incident on its website.

Other antics that have been shared on Twitter by young employees at various large chain stores over the last month include: lying on bread buns at Burger King, sleeping on ice creams at Mini Stop, placing shoes in the fridge at Hotto Motto and Bronco Billy, biting frozen ingredients at Marugen Ramen, putting their genitals on the price scanner at Mini Stop, and so on. And just this past Monday, KFC had to issue an apology for an incident in May in which a part-time employee at one of its Pizza Hut restaurants masked his face in pizza dough.

Generally speaking, Japanese value cleanliness, and the anti-bacterial products clearly displayed at many shops hint at a society that leans on germophobic-side. People always get very upset when there is news of food contamination.

The casual show-offs on social media faced a harsh reaction, with hundreds to thousands of people attacking them on Twitter. On 2-channel bulletin boards, anonymous group investigations began to identify the culprits in the posted photos, and whatever private information could be discovered about them was released online. Then the buzz took the usual route these things do — appearing on 2-channel summary sites, shared over tweets, blogs and ultimately on Internet news portals.

Some angry people made phone calls to the franchise headquarters of the stores identified in the photos, and asked if playing with food was a daily business.

Many bloggers have now taken up the topic, offering their opinions on why these people did what they did, and why more incidents continue to occur every week.

So why did these people share their misbehavior on Twitter despite the risk of being flamed? Some suggested that the culprits never check major news services, so were unaware of the potential backlash. Others said that young people like these can’t imagine that their small circles of friends on social media are directly connected to the wider Internet. Polemical bloggers even brought up the possibility that the reason some commentators were unable to understand the culprits’ actions is because of class differences.

Almost all the foolish photos that have been popping up online have been of employees at national chain brands. There may well be others from independent restaurant employees, but so far they have not be revealed. It may be that anonymous Web hunters target nationwide chain-stores because they are a larger target.

In the recent events, companies have quickly apologized with press releases, which might be because social-media marketers these days are taught that when something bad happens, making a public apology as soon as possible is the best way to recover. However, issuing a company press release makes the incident news beyond the Web — that is newspapers and TV may pick it up. Seeing a prank photo from Twitter make the news on TV might encourage some people online to find more — and that is why the number of incidents continues to rise.

Those big chain stores, which have hundreds, or thousands, of branches throughout the country, are using more part-timers these days so it must be very difficult to train them all regarding Internet and social-media etiquette. And actually, it may even be true that these young people are not Net-savvy enough to know that when they share fun images with their friends on Twitter or Facebook those images can end up on the Internet.

Although most of the incidents that have gained attention over the past month were recent, there are also ones from several months ago, but only uncovered by Net users this month. There are people on Twitter, and 2-channel who make it their business to uncover such indiscretions in old tweets. For them, finding new high jinks by shop employees and then tracing the culprit’s name, address and private information is kind of like participating in a game show.

If training part-timers on the ways of social media is impossible for these stores, then the only thing they can do is damage-control as soon as possible after the event. One of the latest incidents (on Aug. 6), when two part-timers at a Bronco Billy steakhouse uploaded photos of themselves in the store’s fridge, was followed by an announcement only seven days later that the branch would shut down. The release said that they are thinking of demanding compensation from the two employees, who were fired the day after their prank.

Severe punishments are something that are being considered in a similar case in Osaka, where the Osaka District Public Prosecutor is deciding whether to charge a college student with forcible obstruction of business after he committed several annoying activities in Universal Studio Japan and boasted of them on Twitter this April.

To calm down angry consumers, chain stores need to make it very clear that they do not support any such jokes, and more importantly, that none of their other nationwide stores are doing such things.

Customers will expect that employees misbehaving and attracting negative attention on social media will be treated harshly under both civil and criminal codes. But will that make young part-timers be more careful? I doubt it.

There will always be employees who do stupid things, but the proliferation of phone-cameras and social media is working like a giant surveillance system — so Big Brother is watching.

Akky Akimoto writes for Asiajin.com, an English/Spanish blog on the Japanese Web scene. His Twitter account @akky is followed by 120,000 users.

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