National / Media | Japan Pulse

Reactions to GoPro sushi train video reflect gaps in etiquette between East and West

by Patrick St. Michel

Contributing Writer

Every piece of content on the internet can be divisive these days, even the innocuous stuff. This truism was on full display over the past week and a half thanks to a now-removed YouTube video set in a Tokyo sushi restaurant, which charmed many Western viewers and angered a few Japanese.

On March 6, Tokyo-based American YouTuber Tkyosam posted a video to his channel showing him placing a GoPro on a conveyor belt at sushi restaurant chain Sushiro. The device moved around the revolving belt, recording other customers as they eat. Some don’t see the camera, others point it out, while several happily wave at it. When it reaches the back, an employee plucks it off the belt, and consults what appears to be a manager about what to do. After a minute and a half of being pointed at a wall, the camera is returned to its owner.

The video, originally titled “Camera goes on Japanese sushi conveyor belt — TROUBLE!!!” before being taken down last week, features some cute shots. However, it’s not completely original. Several dozen videos of GoPro cameras placed on conveyor belts come up on YouTube, some set in Japan (“not the first of this kind, I know” reads a description from six years ago) and others from abroad. Some focus on the “sushi train” aspect of the journey, while others misuse the “Yackety Sax” theme song from “Benny Hill.” Examples exist even from early internet days — see this 1998 music video.

Yet those clips feature a couple hundred views at most, or in the case of the music videos are lost curios. Tkyosam’s video went viral, and topped 636,000 views before it was removed. Dozens of English-language websites shared it, while the seven-minute work appeared on the front page of Reddit.

So how did it manage this? Whereas other videos typically face the camera forward, Tkyosam pointed it toward customers. This allowed it to tap into a trend Western media has embraced in regards to Japan in recent years.

“Putting a GoPro on a sushi conveyor belt makes for a surprisingly relaxing video” says Mashable. “Charming footage gives glimpse into the lives of chatting diners,” reads part of The Daily Mail’s exhausting headline (which still shows a part of the original video). The bulk of aggregated posts and comments left in threads related to the clip echo a similar sentiment — it’s a calming watch, and one offering snapshots of (perceived) daily life in Japan.

It’s not far off from how Western media have written about the reality show “Terrace House,” reflecting an emerging interest in mundane footage. RocketNews highlighted a Reddit comment saying, “All those untold stories are laid in front of us without context and I find it beautiful.” They must break down when they go to supermarkets.

Japanese netizens had a very different reaction. An article on J-Cast News highlighted the major complaints, primarily hygiene concerns and the lack of permission given by those filmed. The story spread to sites such as Yahoo! News and Livedoor News, each featuring photos of Tkyosam and a friend — but with the latter’s face blurred out, underlining the permission issue. Sushiro issued a press release saying they did not consent to the video being taken, and promised customers they had cleaned the conveyor belt. On Thursday, the chain banned customers from filming inside its restaurants altogether.

YouTubers spoke at length on the video, and many Japanese netizens left negative comments beneath the video, prompting Tkyosam to respond to the “haters” in a passionate post that was soon replaced with something resembling diplomacy.

That, however, is no longer visible, as Tkyosam appears to have either removed the video or made it private. This might be due to further media scrutiny — morning show “Mezamashi Terebi” aired a report on the saga, featuring a lawyer saying the YouTuber could face three years in jail or a ¥5 million fine. That sounds like a worst-case scenario sprinkled in for some extra drama, but it does underline how negatively many in Japan perceived the stunt.

“When I took the video everybody was happy with it, not a single person came up to me and asked me to delete the video,” he wrote, adding that he was originally inspired by a Japanese person uploading a similar video. He even threw in some sarcasm at the end by noting that the staff and him “all went out for ice cream and high fives afterwards.”

YouTubers, domestic and international, often find themselves in situations where Japanese netizens rage against them for reasons related to cleanliness and consent. Plenty of filmers simply walking around the city capturing footage of other people are committing the same basic faux pas as Tkyosam. In many ways, it’s a simple albeit low-stakes reminder to keep certain etiquette in mind.

Yet the sushi video reveals a new tension. Many of the aforementioned articles refer to Tkyosam as “an American YouTuber” or “foreign YouTuber,” and imply (or directly link) his behavior to that of Logan Paul, whose antics accelerated existing friction. Putting the fairness of this aside for a second, Japanese netizens and media are lumping this together, and future creators might find similar hurdles. Western media, on the other hand, which was unified against Paul, embraced the sushi video.

It turns out there are some GoPro-size gaps that continue to exist between perceptions of charm and disrespect that still need to be straightened out on all sides.