National / Media | Japan Pulse

Understanding how social media can land you in hot water

by Patrick St. Michel

Contributing Writer

Only seven weeks into the year and Japan already has a new buzzword to worry about. In the past few weeks, baito tero (part-timer terrorism) has become a major talking point on social media following a string of incidents featuring workers at various chain establishments behaving badly. If you’re eating while reading this, it might be a good idea to finish what’s in front of you before going any further.

The issue started to crop up at the end of January after a clip that was uploaded on YouTube included footage of a Sukiya employee throwing ice around the restaurant and while another placed a piece of kitchen equipment on their crotch.

However, that was just an appetizer for a video that would turn this into a much larger discussion online. The upload captured a worker at a Kura Sushi restaurant in Osaka throwing sliced fish into a trash can before bringing it back to the cutting board.

It didn’t take long for a persistent trickle of videos highlighting gross antics in the workplace to go viral online. Footage from December of a Big Echo karaoke box employee rubbing frozen chicken on the ground before throwing it into a deep fryer grossed netizens out, while a clip of a 7-Eleven worker eating oden and then goofing around with cigarettes drew similar outrage. Someone preparing pizza at Domino’s left a slice out on the metal counter after taking a bite from it. A Family Mart employee licked several items before placing them in a bag in Aichi Prefecture, while a cook at restaurant chain Bamiyan lit a cigarette using flames from a stove … and, er, smoked in the kitchen.

Online reaction was, as you’d expect, harsh. A few vowed to refrain from ordering food from karaoke joints ever again, while other observers suggested this was just the beginning. Some proposed ways to counter such hijinks, with one user calling for the introduction of a system that’s common in China in which footage from the kitchen is broadcast to patrons. Others were quick to joke about the issue and praised local convenience stores for seldomly having to deal with such behavior.

The companies affected by this behavior apologized, though by this stage the damage has been done. Kura Sushi appeared to suffer a significant drop in profit following its incident, which led a number of people online to express surprise at how one person’s social media creation could hit a company so hard.

Trying to figure out why this seems to be happening so much lately became just as important as being disgusted by the videos themselves. Many attributed the incidents to the low wages part-time workers receive for their work. Since the money many make is as close to minimum wage as part-time workers can get, they don’t have much incentive to take the job seriously.

Others argued that the labor dynamic needed to be examined, though plenty of web publications did explore this angle. Toyokezai dug deep into every angle of the story, while another blog post examined how McDonald’s appears to rarely have this problem, and why its practices appear to cultivate a better workplace. Still, some poked fun at this idea on Twitter by pointing folk back to the time a fancy kaiseki restaurant in Ginza found itself in hot water for reheating and serving leftovers to customers.

However, the real reason such incidents are becoming more prominent online at the moment has less to do with underpaid part-time workers and more to do with internet users becoming more vigilant. Well, that and the fact that the young adults in the videos don’t seem to get how social media works. J-Cast noted that the original clips had all come from Instagram Stories, and it speculated that users didn’t appear to realize such uploads could be shared. It isn’t far-fetched to believe these individuals acted as they did with the intention of sharing their behavior with their friends.

Nothing online is hidden and social media in Japan has turned into a watchdog of sorts in 2019. Users have used it to highlight cases such as a man shoving women at Shinjuku Station, an incident ignored by police but embraced by netizens as they tried to figure out who the person was. It’s far from perfect — take the recent copyright flap over tiramisu, which revealed a multitude of layers of allegations many ignored to shame the company they felt had acted inappropriately — but it’s becoming the norm. Who needs Chinese security measures when internet users in Japan can use evidence straight from the horse’s mouth to highlight such issues?