National / Media | Japan Pulse

Japanese teen's aborted bid to hitchhike across the United States divides social media

by Patrick St. Michel

Contributing Writer

Twitter user @REIbahobahoanta had an ambitious dream: The 15-year-old junior high school student wanted to hitchhike across the United States.

This wasn’t the teen’s first attempt at traveling around a region via another person’s car, as he has already traversed Hokkaido, Tohoku and Kyushu by this method. However, he wanted the U.S. trip to be something of a masterpiece, and he has been making preparations for the journey for some time already, collecting funds and calling for help online.

In early February, @REIbahobahoanta set off for California to begin his journey. However, it didn’t take long for netizens in Japan to start questioning his attempt, fearing for his safety and doing what they could to get him back home.

It was a brief but intense flare-up on social media, captivating a number of people in Japan and highlighting a bunch of interconnected online trends all at once.

This instance saw internet users jump into another person’s situation in an attempt to try to help that person from themselves, while also getting a chance to educate. Beyond that, the reaction revealed a generational gap between Japanese netizens.

At first, @REIbahobahoanta’s hitchhiking dream garnered praise. When the user shared a video clip in which he was seeking donations for his trip in Shibuya, a number of adult Twitter users lauded his efforts and big-upped his plans (while also advising him to take care). He received so much support online that he actually felt emboldened, viewing his trip as a chance to inspire other young people.

@REIbahobahoanta arrived in the United States and started his hitchhiking adventure by traveling from Hollywood to Pasadena in Los Angeles.

However, he quickly noticed that he was treated very differently in the United States compared to Japan. The police picked him up but, after talking to his parents, let him continue his quest. Posts on Twitter became less frequent, prompting him to post a message informing followers that he was still alive.

In social media circles online, Japanese users started becoming increasingly worried about @REIbahobahoanta.

One Twitter user jumped in to share a handy chart that showed which states in the U.S. prohibited hitchhiking (spoiler alert — the vast majority of them). Another provided a more detailed breakdown of the situation. One person — who lives in Egypt — called the Japanese Consulate and local police in Las Vegas in order to get help for the young vagabond. Others reached out to him directly, telling him to try again another time or leave because it was too dangerous.

The conversation on social media also touched on general issues of personal safety in the United States. One blog post summed up the situation well, highlighting racism against Asians, gun violence and U.S. President Donald Trump and suggesting that hitchhiking leaves one vulnerable to a variety of violent crimes. This in itself isn’t all that wrong.

In any case, @REIbahobahoanta eventually ended up at a Youth Protection Center in Las Vegas and, a short time later, decided to return to Japan. Despite the online attention, he says he was not influenced by web pressure — although he did admit that the decision was mostly due to the fact that it’s illegal to travel alone under the age of 18 in the United States. He later posted a tweet in which he was thankful for all the attention his trip attracted.

Unfortunately, @REIbahobahoanta isn’t alone in this regard. One Twitter user pointed out that a number of teenagers have been gallivanting around the globe, using social media as a way to raise support (and sometimes funds).

Of course, young people traveling around the world on a shoestring budget isn’t anything new and is hardly restricted to Japanese youth (Tokyo TV’s “Why Did You Come to Japan?” frequently features foreign travelers hitchhiking across the country with a minuscule amount of money in their wallets). However, this generation of youth is far more likely to document it all online, which catches a lot of older folk off guard. More often than not, the older generation start questioning the feasibility of the plan.

However, not everyone pins the blame on the kids. Some have criticized the people online who have been cheering the traveler on and encouraging others to indulge in activities like this. One Twitter user drew parallels with Nobukazu Kuriki, a mountain climber who died climbing Mount Everest in 2018 after attracting support online.

Actress Makoto Toda wrote a popular essay after being inspired by the hitchhiking snafu, urging young people not risk their lives because of social media.

It’s simple advice for anyone who travels, really. Next time you take a trip, don’t rely on hitchhiking to impress your followers, just post pictures of food like the rest of us.