National / Media | Japan Pulse

Social media backlash against bubble tea fails to dent enthusiasm

by Patrick St. Michel

Contributing Writer

While the internet can play a crucial role in pushing trends in Japan, it can be just as effective in turning people against the crazes it helps to hype.

What’s the latest fad to find itself caught in the crosshairs of social media? Bubble tea. The drink comes from Taiwan and consists of flavored tea, often mixed with milk and sugar, and black tapioca balls that line the bottom of the cup its served in. 

It’s not new to Japan, but has definitely enjoyed a surge in popularity in recent years. That’s likely due to social media-savvy teens, arbiters of all that’s cool, deciding bubble tea looks great in their snaps, especially on Instagram

With influencers on board the great Japanese teen-trends media machine roared to action. The first wave of coverage came from online sites producing lists of the best spots to try the drink (I’m still partial to The Japan Times’ own article on this). Then, more in-depth pieces began to focus on the stores selling the bubble tea — complete with ratings guides that touched on every aspect of its production — as well as the neighborhoods these shops are popping up in, like Shin-Koiwa in Tokyo’s eastern Katsushika Ward.

In between there was a smattering of Twitter posts that alerted readers to new places to buy it and, soon enough, YouTubers started doing live taste tests and reaction videos. 

If none of this convinced you to try out bubble tea then the hype machine had one last play: mainstream variety programs on TV. Bubble tea arguably hit its peak when dynamic television personality Matsuko Deluxe featured it on his “Matsuko no Shiranai Sekai” (“The World Matsuko Doesn’t Know”) at the end of May. 

It’s safe to assume that anyone who hasn’t noticed swarms of teens lining up for bubble tea at this point must be living under a rock.

So now that everyone and their grandma is drinking the stuff, the inevitable backlash arrives. This past month has seen what was once a quirky beverage re-imagined as a social pariah.  

Criticism initially popped up in early June, when Livedoor News published a report on the growing problem of the plastic cups used for bubble tea being improperly disposed of in Tokyo’s teen mecca of Harajuku. The author of the article in question walked around the neighborhood and observed countless stray containers that had been stuffed into bins designated for PET bottles.

If this sounds vaguely familiar, it’s because writers have lobbed similar complaints at other Instagram food trends in recent years. People love to express outrage on social media — and Japan is no different in this regard — so the selfie-taking teens have been a pretty easy target for this ire (factor in the typical “kids these days” mindset and these teens have no chance). As with many social media issues, though, there’s more to the story. 

The people behind Tokyo Fashion note that the trash problem in Harajuku has been brewing for a while already and is likely caused by a number of issues unrelated to the bubble tea boom, including the fact that a ton of people visit the area and there aren’t that many trash cans (or people emptying them). 

Nevertheless, the negative press continues. A viral story about a teenager in China who had to be admitted to hospital after having more than 100 tapioca pearls in her stomach gained a lot of attention (it’s up for debate as to how accurate it is), and then came a report that the yakuza is getting involved in the bubble tea game. Health scares and criminal connections? That’s not going to endear anyone to bubble tea, especially parents. 

The final nail in the coffin, however, has to be when the media starts to point out the calorie count. The trend machine has milked what it could out of this drink and now it looks like bubble tea is on a deathwatch with the website Zakzak pondering how much longer people can tolerate rising prices and annoying lines for an old fad. 

The internet isn’t a particularly positive space these days, and trends appealing to younger consumers are eventually mocked by more cynical netizens. 

If the 2010s have taught us one thing, however, it’s that the only thing that’s as powerful as bad press is a good meme. In the past couple of weeks, young people have come up with a new approach to bubble tea: the Tapioca Challenge. The challenge, mostly done by women, is to drink the tea without using your hands. It may sound simple but the trend has gained traction all over the world, giving birth to a plethora of fan art and even a few attempts at the challenge by men

And it seems that even the media has come around with a few online outlets writing up reports on the Tapioca Challenge with no mention of all the bad stuff we’d come to learn about bubble tea.

Will the internet be won over by the drink after embracing a new challenge, or will bubble tea become public enemy No. 1 again when someone takes the challenge to new levels and ends up choking on a tapioca ball? Whatever the outcome, one thing is for sure: By the time you read this, Japanese teens will most certainly be onto an entirely new food fad.