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Japan’s celebrities are using social media to turn criticism on its head

by Patrick ST. Michel

Contributing Writer

Social media present a tightrope for celebrities in Japan. An increasing number of high-profile people are becoming savvy with platforms such as Instagram and Twitter, helping them to develop an online fan base. However, the internet also opens them up to criticism, and the past couple of weeks have highlighted how confusing the conversation about celebrities in Japan can get.

The biggest celebrity story online over the past two weeks has revolved around Ryuji Higa, who is better known as Ryucheru. The fashionable influencer-turned-TV-presence-turned-performer welcomed a son into the world earlier this summer. To celebrate, the 22-year-old celebrity got tattoos with the name of his progeny, Link, and one of his wife, fellow celebrity Peco. (He also released a pop song about his baby but, er, let’s ignore that.)

Many reacted negatively to his ink. According to articles on Cyzo and J-Cast, some responded to images of Higa’s tattoo with criticism. Some suggested that he was bound to feel bad about being unable to take his child to a pool or hot spring one day, while others went as far as to argue he would end up regretting getting tattooed altogether.

Others described the move as being selfish, with some arguing that he now couldn’t donate blood (although in general, Higa would probably have to wait a year). Fans defended him, while plenty also had more reasonable pro-and-con discussions.

Higa responded on Instagram, posting a familiar kind of celebrity response to social media-born criticism that mixed earnest positivity about family life with “haters gonna hate” posturing. Nestled near the end was a line about how he wants to fight prejudice against those with tattoos in Japan.

いろんな意見を、ありがとうございます。 言いたいこと、きちんと書くね!! まず、今まで応援してくれていた方が、冷たいコメントだけを残し、ぼくのことを一瞬で嫌いになるのが本当ならおどろきです。 それなりに予想はしてたけど、こんなにも偏見されるのかと思いました。 こんなに偏見のある社会 どうなんだろう。仕方ないよね。ではなく、僕は変えていきたい。 優しい言葉を投げかけてくれる人が好きと言うわけではなく、本当に僕のことを応援してくれている方と、そうでない方のコメント、言葉の違いくらい僕にも分かります。 結婚して、子供がいつかできたら、 家族の名前を身体に刻もう。と結婚する前、3年前から決めてました。 その3年でたくさん考えて、それなりの覚悟で入れました。 ぼくたちは、日本の温泉や、プールには行かないとおもいます。 その理由は名前を刻んだということとは関係ありません。 ぼくたちは、子供の顔を出していないので 子供の写真を盗撮されると困るし、子供がびっくりしたり、怖くなってしまうことが、あるかもしれないので、大勢の人が集まる場所には なかなか行かないと思います。 でも、そんな僕たちのお家を選んで生まれてきてくれたんだから、僕たちだからこそしてあげられることもたくさんあるし、僕の身勝手な行動で 大切な子供の楽しい思い出作り、人生を邪魔することは絶対しません。 そして僕のお父さんも、僕が生まれたとき 背中に 龍 (ドラゴンの絵) を入れました。僕は一度も嫌な思いをしたことがないし 嬉しかったです。 不自由をしたこともないし、ママからも パパからも たくさんの愛をもらい、育ててくれました。 だから、僕自身、偏見もなにもありませんでした。それも大きいかもしれません。 この体で、僕は大切な家族の笑顔を守るのです。なので、この体に、大切な家族の名前を刻みました。隠すつもりもありません。でも意地でも出したいわけでもありません。自然に生きていきたいです。偏見が無くなりますように。 そして最後に!!! 僕も色々こうしてSNSで発信することが怖いときもあります。またどんな風に どんな見出しで ネットニュースにされてしまうのか 怖いです。だけど何かにおびえて何もせずに生きててもこの社会は変わりません。世の中への思いや、変えていきたいことを どんどん発言、発信していかないと何も変わらないんです。だから、今回も勇気を振り絞りました。共感してくれる方がもしいれば、自分らしく、そして社会を変えようという強い気持ちで一緒に明日も頑張ろうね。こんなに長分なのにここまで読んでくれて、どうもありがとうございました ????✨

A post shared by Prince Ryuchell (@ryuzi33world929) on

Intentionally or not, Higa managed to flip the conversation about his personal choices to a broader discussion about Japan. It prompted tweets about sexism in the country, but above all else pushed the topic of tattoos to the forefront. This had been bubbling up in relation to the Tokyo 2020 Olympics, but carried over domestically.

Buzzfeed Japan looked into the onsen issue, while no shortage of others used the news to defend tats. AKB48 member Rino Sashihara scored online cheers thanks to a nuanced take on TV that found her saying Higa should do what he wants, but understand as an online personality he will face criticism — and that it isn’t really prejudice.

Others showed off their own tattoos, including one that was just a part of the Constitution that Prime Minister Shinzo Abe wants to change. You know things have taken a turn when the discourse goes from “Harajuku model” to “Article 13.” Thankfully, someone brought the tension down with a joke about Russian pop duo t.A.T.u.

It’s important to note Higa’s online reputation before this tattoo snafu. While having a large fanbase of young folks built around social media, he’s also always been made fun of, mainly for all the same reasons people trying to be an influencer get mocked for (plus his terrible music). Social media networks develop their own heroes and villains — not restricted to Japan; just look at Taylor Swift’s transformation from “critical darling” to  “snake” — and Higa has long been an easy target to mock. Some have pointed out that other Japanese entertainers have tattoos as well, but only Higa is criticized for it.

But Higa showed he can also use social media to fight back, rally fans and change the narrative. Another case involves model Rola, who has at times been embraced online but recently lost appeal after moving to Los Angeles and … becoming pretty LA in the process (a whole other can of worms there). She recently donated a large sum of money to UNICEF, and was criticized by some for just being “celebrity pretension.” Again, part of the judgment came from her claims of wanting to change the world for the better.

今回UNICEFのイベントに参加しました。わたしはいま頭の中が子供達や動物の幸せと地球をまもることでいっぱいです。それと調べるほど許せないこともたくさんあり、悲しい気持ちになります。今回は自分ができる事として1000万円を寄付する事にしました。まだまだ足りないです。何をするために生きているか何をしないといけないか冷静に考えて自分の感情を信じて生きて行こうと思います。リスクがあっても嘘のない、人にとっても地球にとっても幸せが続くことに精一杯力を注いで頑張っていきたいです。 I attended a UNICEF event! I've had the welfare and happiness of children and animals, as well as ideas about how to protect our planet on my mind a lot lately. There's a lot of sad feelings and actions I just can't forgive on my mind as well. Therefor, I've made a $100,000 donation to UNICEF, because I really believe they're working to improve these conditions that really need to change. It's still not nearly enough, though. I've been thinking lately, "What is my purpose in life?" and "What do I have to accomplish during my time here?" and I've decided to follow my heart from this point forward. No lies, finding ways to make people happy and save our planet are the things I've made up my mind to put my energy into. I've gotta try my best!

A post shared by ROLA (@rolaofficial) on

Yet many defended Rola, criticizing the article above and arguing that her move should be praised regardless of the optics of it. It became a celebration of earnestness, with some netizens pointing to the similarities with Higa’s situation. The discussion evolved because the celebrities themselves were able to speak for themselves — both Higa and Rola can connect with people and get them on their side.

Compare their cases with what’s happening to Arashi member Sho Sakurai. Shukan Bunshun reported that the J-pop star is having a tryst with a 21-year-old college student. This allegation made many online feel uncomfortable about Sakurai, leading to more criticism of him.  Sakurai doesn’t have any social media presence — as is normal with Johnny & Associates entertainers — and while some do defend him, he doesn’t have a chance to steer the discussion in another direction in the same way as Higa and Rola have done. As a result, it’s all criticism for this celebrity, which is rare in Japan’s online environment in 2018.