Even the most innocuous upload can carry political baggage online in 2018. It’s a truth Western users have become used to, where a pancake restaurant’s idiotic rebranding strategy can become a discussion about the appropriation of gang culture. Recent examples show that Japanese netizens are just as interested in dissecting content that in years past would have just been expected.
The story actually starts in the United States with actor Donald Glover’s musical project Childish Gambino and his newest song “This Is America.” That release — and the video accompanying it — are pointedly political. It inspired no shortage of praise and analysis that was both insightful and internet-y in equal measures. It also ushered in memes, parodies and re-imaginings. Attempts at riffing on it were sometimes met positively, but mostly generated controversy, whether it was via “This Is Nigeria” or a “women’s edit” of the clip accused of stripping away the meaning from Glover’s creation.
Unfortunately, Japanese dance crew Alaventa don’t appear to monitor U.S. online controversies closely. The trio typically performs routines to pop songs but, instead, it went and created a video called “This Is Japan” that riffed on Gambino’s release. Collaborating with production team Creators, they posted a short video to Instagram of them dancing in the streets while singing retrofitted lyrics about omotenashi, Instagram poses and youth slang.
If the reaction to the clip resembled a “This Is America” text meme, Glover would be labelled “netizens” and the guy with the gun to the back of his head would be “This Is Japan.” Users ridiculed it, so much so that it snuck into the country’s top trending bar (to the confusion of some). Many targeted Alaventa for missing the meaning of the original, swapping out serious social issues in favor of youth trends and tourism buzzwords. People wrote in-depth articles about why the trio missed the mark, while others argued a real “This Is Japan” would focus on overwork and concealment of information. Alaventa quickly deleted all traces of their take from the web and issued an apology. The only winners out of this ended up being a band named This Is Japan, which got some free PR.
Online users in Japan have long loved to rip into goofy internet ephemera, but “This Is Japan” felt different. The anger stemmed from Alaventa missing the political message of “This Is America,” and being angry at how simplistic their representation of Japan was. Part of it stems from embarrassment that this represents the country’s online culture, but so much of the criticism came from how it wasn’t serious enough. That’s a significant shift in a country often alright letting entertainment and politics stay far apart from one another.
The band Radwimps, best known for their soundtrack to the hit film “Your Name.”, learned about the intersection of pop culture and politics soon after “This Is Japan” stopped trending. They released a new single on June 6, featuring a song called “Hinomaru.” “In this world, it feels like people in Japan don’t sing about their country in song,” the group’s vocalist Yojiro Noda wrote on Instagram, adding that he wanted to sing about his nation with no ideological bias. “I hope it will be received that way.”
It was not. The song, which features lyrics with a nostalgic bend and lots of flags-fluttering-in-the-wind imagery, was accused of being nationalistic and pro-military. Summaries and reaction videos emerged, along with no shortage of netizens commenting on it. Noda himself tweeted out two clarifications, which only enraged more people. From there, a familiar discourse emerged — fans defended it, while everyone else took sides, including a call for protests outside of an upcoming Radwimps’ concert. Other bands and people rolled their eyes.
It’s messy and often defined by people bunkered into one view or the other, but it did spark discussion about whether a song can really be free of ideology. Similar cases have cropped up — the last soccer World Cup saw something kinda like this happen around Sheena Ringo’s “Nippon” — but they’re beginning to feel constant in 2018, maybe reflecting a faster newscycle on social media. Besides Radwimps and “This Is Japan,” conversations have happened around comedy group Woman Rush Hour and the duo Yuzu’s “Gaikokujin Tomodachi.” Even the New Year’s Eve blackface scandal spurred more talk among online types than before, a signal that issues once brushed aside are becoming central on social media.
However, not all pop culture has experienced such self-analysis just yet. During both these social flair ups, the most discussed song online was a chipper and cheesy Eurobeat throwback called “U.S.A.” by Da Pump. It’s attracted many not as a result of any deep analysis or controversy, but because the whole package is so corny it has charmed the internet. It seems that escapism still has a place, after all.