National / Media | Japan Pulse

When jumping on the social media bandwagon to score political points backfires

by Patrick St. Michel

Contributing writer

J-pop star Gen Hoshino’s “Uchide Odorou” (“Dancing on the Inside”) was arguably supposed to be a simple distraction during uncertain times. More a sketch than a song, the musician invited others to share their own adaptations to a melody that touched on life amid COVID-19. And a number did, from other prominent musicians and actors to a very quick-thinking dog.

It was a charming meme that doubled as an activity in which people staying inside could engage in to kill some time, one of many celebrity-powered pastimes that have been created during the state of emergency. And then Prime Minister Shinzo Abe got involved and ruined the fun, sharing his take on Hoshino’s challenge on April 12.

Abe didn’t actually add any musical flourishes to “Uchide Odorou,” but rather contrasted the video of Hoshino playing guitar with shots of himself sitting on a couch, drinking coffee and watching TV, among other activities. It was meant to be a somewhat whimsical message of support encouraging everyone to stay home — look, Japan’s prime minister has a dog, how unexpected!

Abe (and whoever might help run his social media content), however, misread the online atmosphere in Japan right now. Before all of this, political parties in Japan were trying to court younger voters by playing on the same digital ground as the younger population, which often meant engaging in memes and internet humor bordering on self-aware irony.

Abe’s ruling Liberal Democratic Party has so far excelled at this, whether via the prime minister’s own appearances at real-life online events such as Nico Nico Chokaigi and Instagram-shared footage of him installing a beaver-shaped door knocker he received from Canada or from Defense Minister Taro Kono’s somewhat absurdist tweets.

This works when life is relatively normal and people want to see individuals from the old-fashioned realm of politics get ridiculed online. Nothing about 2020, however, could be described as normal.

Abe’s upload would naturally have been met with criticism, because he’s a divisive figure. In other words, he’s a politician. Yet the reaction to the “Uchide Odorou” video was laced with far more vitriol in COVID-19 times. Articles like one posted on Harbor Business Online came out swinging at the upload for its tone deafness, while tabloid Nikkan Sports scored a viral hit of its own by comparing the prime minister to France’s Louis XVI (that phrase landed on the Twitter trending bar shortly after).

Hoshino, meanwhile, tried to limit any blowback by taking to Instagram stories to say he was never approached by Abe or the LDP for any of this. Once you put something out into the online wilds, however, it’s tough to control — just ask Pepe the Frog.

The sticking point had nothing to do with musical permission or even general corniness, but rather how many felt the video failed to understand how so many actually live in Japan. The actual message isn’t the issue itself — the phrase “stay at home” is being echoed by many at home and abroad right now, and Abe’s primary motive was commendable — but a number of people saw his nice house and presumably comfy couch and saw the type of comfort few can actually have while in quarantine. Indeed, Abe’s biggest mistake in all of this is one that other world leaders who have broadcasted from home have dodged — don’t show too much of your residence.

Other politicians dug into this, pointing out how Abe’s video missed its mark. Some highlighted that the number of homeless people and cases of child abuse had been on the rise due to recommendations to stay home, while others were reportedly just as shocked by what they had seen. While a few defended Abe’s main message, others commented on how he was approaching the situation incorrectly or how Abe’s take on the meme didn’t really make sense (a world leader, after all, does kind of have to be the public face of government). The mayor of Osaka arguably threw shade at the prime minister by sharing a parody.

There’s an element of politicking to all of these responses, but it also reflects a greater global online mood where the usual lightheartedness has been replaced with something far more serious. The line between entertainment and outrage has blurred, including in Japan, where people want something more encouraging and helpful, rather than silly.

Which is why Tokyo Gov. Yuriko Koike won so much praise for her interview with YouTuber Hikakin a few days before the Abe upload. Despite talking with a guy who became famous thanks to beat-boxing and making giant aluminum foil balls, it ended up being an informative discussion that offered genuine insight into COVID-19 and how to curb its spread in Japan. In an alternate world, Koike could have thrown a freestyle rap into the mix. In the current climate, however, people don’t need politicians jumping in on memes — they have more serious concerns.

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