National / Media | Japan Pulse

'This is a pen': Taking a preposterous COVID-19 hypothesis to another level on social media

by Patrick St. Michel

Contributing writer

Morning news shows tend to focus on the, some might say, “fluffier” aspects of the domestic media industry. Analysis of current affairs tends to co-exist happily alongside reports on newly observed trends in the food sector as well as decidedly more banal features such as how zoo animals occupy their time during the COVID-19 pandemic almost irrespective of the importance of news. Generally, such programming isn’t anything to get worked up about, as it’s the virtual equivalent of having a cartoon of no-pulp orange juice at the ready upon waking up each day.

Sometimes, though, such fare verges on the ridiculous. On May 21, TBS’ “Hiru Obi” aired a segment that examined one theory as to why Japan has seemingly handled the outbreak of novel coronavirus better than other countries. The program’s hypothesis — spoken Japanese isn’t as pronounced as spoken English, implying that the virus spreads less easily as a result. To illustrate this point, the production crew hung a tissue on a clip in front of a woman who was asked to say the phrase, “This is a pen” in both languages, with her English delivery of the final word causing the tissue to be propelled forward in a somewhat violent fashion.

“I saw it in my Twitter feed and I thought it was ridiculous. The woman in the video was obviously exaggerating,” recalls Ben Olson, an assistant language teacher based in eastern Japan. “I made the video to send to a friend as a joke. It took me as long to make it as the video is.”

Olson’s friend encouraged him to share the eight-second-long creation on Twitter, and the clip has since received more than 31,000 likes and 12,000 retweets. It was the first response lambasting the “Hiru Obi” segment, but it certainly wasn’t the last. More parodies popped up soon after. Some countered the segment’s claim about native English but many just made fun of it.

“I watched it with my Japanese fiance, and we just laughed at how absurd it was,” says Brittany W., who runs a YouTube channel titled TokyoBriBri. “We made a joke about the ‘PPAP’ song (by Japanese artist Pikotaro) and he suggested that I make a quick video about it while our dinner was on the stove. It took me less than a minute to film.” The end result has racked up over 155,000 views to date. “With a few quick edits, it was up by the time our dinner was ready!”

National exceptionalism has always been a big juicy target for internet mockery, and it only becomes more inviting when paired with school-science-fair-level presentation that anyone can do at home. The news show clip morphed into the #thisisapenchallenge, inspiring memes to proliferate not just on Twitter but also TikTok (where Pikotaro continued to hog the spotlight) as well as YouTube.

While non-Japanese residents of the country got the jokes rolling, it was Korean users who took it even further. As is often the case when viral content from either country crosses over to the other, a subset of hardcore users on one side jumps on it and uses it as proof that the other side is out of its mind. Videos on YouTube translated the clip and the claims implied within, while others tested out the theory using myriad languages. However, as if to really underscore the situation, the clip even started appearing on other news networks, which takes the argument to a whole new level.

“I’ve actually gotten some hate comments from Japanese users who were angry I was exaggerating, completely missing the point of the video,” Olson says.

For the most part, however, he has found many Japanese commenters to be apologetic for the segment.

Brittany W. agrees.

“The overwhelming majority of the comments have been apologizing on behalf of Japanese mass media and many of them hope that people from overseas won’t have a bad impression of Japan,” she says.

What’s more, plenty of Japanese netizens have criticized TBS for the segment as well. Some have framed their argument from a more serious perspective, while others simply adopted a goofy approach. The entire issue has served as another example of the “masu gomi” phenomenon, wherein social media users have become increasingly quick to publicly express a deep distrust of traditional media platforms.

When considered among the recent flap that grew over another TV program using old footage of Harajuku to show how crowded the city was getting during the COVID-19 outbreak, TBS’s footage offers ammunition for such social media users to be critical of the ineptitude.

“I made my video just for laughs but, as more people watch it, I can see that a lot of Japanese people are embarrassed by the media,” Brittany W. says. “I can only hope that they pick up more sensible and accurate information from now on.”

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