National / Media | Japan Pulse

Understanding the need to shame someone on social media for not exercising self-restraint during a pandemic

by Patrick St. Michel

Contributing writer

Most people have embraced the internet in response to the COVID-19 outbreak, shifting their ordinary daily activities from physical spaces to an online environment. Few people catch up with friends in restaurants, bars or clubs these days, instead they organize drinking parties online, listen to sets played at clubs remotely and generally distract themselves from reality through a range of entertainment that has been adjusted for the web.

One activity that has been attracting more attention recently is the act of shaming others online. The spread of the new coronavirus has given netizens in Japan who were already quick to point out bad behavior a new level of online authority in trying to right perceived wrongs.

Such users are being dubbed jishuku keisatsu, or the self-restraint police. As it implies, this refers to a user who shames individuals, stores or other entities that fail to follow government recommendations in response to COVID-19. While much of this has played out on social media, it has also spilled over into the physical world, with some people putting up signs on storefronts in the capital in the hope of embarrassing places they think are still operating as normal.

In recent weeks, those described as the self-restraint police have become a target of derision from other online users in Japan.

The internet, of course, has long been a hub for people who believe they are doing the right thing by virtually calling out others who are presumed to be doing something wrong. Japanese netizens have been particularly good at this game since the 2000s. In recent years, social media users in Japan have exposed “part-time terrorists” and people behaving badly in public.

COVID-19 has ramped up behavior like this tenfold. Again, this isn’t a Japan-only phenomenon — anger has also been directed at celebrities who go out during the pandemic in South Korea, while tweets in the United States showcase crowds of people seemingly breaking social distancing guidelines. However, it’s a situation that a number of social media users excel in and it hasn’t been helped by the fact that Japan’s official response to the outbreak has been to issue a series of recommendations for people to follow, meaning that authorities can’t do much to enforce them.

The self-restraint police have been active since mid-March, with the arrival of cherry blossoms sparking many to head outside and document all the other people ignoring calls to stay home (with the irony of those same people also being outside ignored).

As the country’s state of emergency settled in, however, this behavior became more entrenched both online and in real life, with news outlets reporting on abuse aimed at stores that stayed open (or were accused of doing so … despite closing), people participating in parties or residents of Tokyo traveling to other prefectures (a phenomenon extending to some non-Japanese residents, too).

This trend has, in the past couple of weeks, become a focus of attention from other users and media outlets, with news organizations trying to understand what makes the self-restraint police tick.

Bunshun Online went so far as to suggest that these types of “justice addicts” had been active on social media well before the pandemic broke out. The writer points to people who have been doing this since the 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake and tsunami, while also identifying those who treat hunting down offenders as a game. The self-restraint police, the writer argues, is just a new iteration on this for 2020.

Yahoo Japan published an extensive analysis of the issue on May 7, which included an insightful interview with a social psychologist. The discussion taps into something far more simplistic, arguing that the actions are the consequence of social media users’ elevated feelings of anxiety and frustration.

Some netizens have used the emergence of the self-restraint police as a therapy of sorts in its own rights.

Twitter user @doyobi_san parodied the concept by dubbing over an old police show before delivering one of the biggest (and cleverest) viral responses to the subject. Some have questioned such behavior, while others were more blunt in their criticism. At least one Twitter user was dismissive of the name, implying that “police” was too noble a moniker to give anonymous types seeking out alleged COVID-19 violations.

After almost two months of life in a COVID-19 environment, it’s clear that some people are starting to fray at the edges online. What’s needed in such times are feelings of empathy, as the country looks to get through this period of uncertainty together as one. The internet has never been the best place to explore exactly what it’s like to put yourself in another person’s shoes, but there’s no time like the present to start trying.

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