Memes from the East: A Look Into Japanese Meme Culture

Memes have become a big part of our society. While they used to be simple funny distractions you’d occasionally send to your friends, they are nowadays found everywhere from ad campaigns to the Twitter pages of politicians. But, have you ever thought about what memes look like in other parts of the world? After all, we usually only see memes from English-speaking countries like the US, the UK, and the country we live in.

I recently pondered about this myself for a while when I magically found a video about memes from Japan in my Youtube recommended tab. Scary how great that system can be at finding out what you want to watch sometimes, huh. Anyway, the channel that uploaded the video is called ‘Japanalysis’, and I’d like to share with you two of the memes he covered. Why? Well, this is my blog post and memes can be pretty funny. But if those weren’t good enough reasons for you, I’d say that you can learn quite a lot of stuff about a country and its culture based on the memes they produce (which I’ll try to do by explaining the context behind each meme). Anyway, intro over, let’s get into the fun stuff!

“The Enoden Bicycle Bro” (江ノ電自転車ニキ)

The Enoden Bicycle Bro in all his glory

This was the first video of Japanalysis I saw. The thumbnail was particularly eye-catching and the video itself did not disappoint. It all started when Dylan, a taco restaurant owner in Japan, was cycling home next to a train after a night out. When he turned a specific corner, however, he was surprised by an incredible amount of people pointing cameras in his direction. He was probably more surprised though, when in response to his friendly waving, they started shouting for him to die and nearly physically assaulted him. What did Dylan do? He had unfortunately incurred the wrath of the toritetsu (撮り鉄), a person whose hobby is taking pictures of trains. Trains like the one Dylan was accidentally cycling directly in front of. One of the photographers had recorded the altercation and the video went viral, inspiring many to recreate the now famous shot of him waving, or drawing characters in the same position.

It also sparked a discussion about toritetsu. You see, they aren’t very popular in Japan to begin with. There are numerous stories of unacceptable behaviour from toritetsu who put everything on the line to get the perfect shot, even at the expense of others. There are even stories of them chopping down trees because they’re disturbing their frame. Fortunately, this story has a happy ending. Dylan ended up getting a ton of support online and his taco restaurant saw an increase in customers wanting to meet the now legendary Enoden Bicycle Bro.

“Beef Bowl with Cheese” (チーギュ)

The original chi-gyu image from 2008

Beef Bowl with Cheese, or chi-gyu (チーギュ), is based upon this image which, while created in 2008, gained traction on Japanese chat forums and Twitter around 2018. It features a nerdy-looking guy who is pictured saying: “Excuse me, I’d like an extra-large three cheese beef bowl with a soft-boiled egg.” To give some more context, the three cheese beef bowl (sanshoku chi-zu gyuudon 三色チーズ牛丼) is a popular item sold by Sukiya, one of the biggest restaurant chains in Japan. It’s not only cheap, but also a filling comfort food for many Japanese people. Having eaten it myself, I can attest to the deliciousness.

The delicious three cheese beef bowl

Now, I don’t know if this image specifically inspired it, but there’s a not-so-great stereotype about people who order beef bowls with cheese. They’re described as being inkya (陰キャ), meaning ‘antisocial’, or ‘having a negative personality, and are generally considered nerds, losers, and not very popular with the opposite sex. There’s another version of this image on the internet with some more descriptors like ‘child-like hairstyle’ (子供のような髪型) and ‘despite being an adult, has some creepy middle schooler-like tendencies’ (大人なのに中学生のようで気持ち悪い).

Joshua Wong

Nowadays, people who fit these descriptions, or just look like the guy from the picture, are often called chi-gyu online. One example given in the video is the boyfriend of a Hong Kong protestor who is well-known in Japan, Joshua Wong (who is a Hong Kong protestor in his own right). Thankfully, he wasn’t offended at all and even leaned into the joke by collaborating with a restaurant selling beef bowls topped with cheese which were named after him.

After the original image gained massive amounts of popularity, many parodies started popping up depicting people, fictional or not, in the same pose. In fact, it went so viral that someone made a pretty catchy song about it!  

Witness the transformation from a chi-gyu to a player

Those were all the memes I wanted to let you know about today. Hopefully, you learned some interesting stuff about Japan. Otherwise, the memes themselves are pretty entertaining in their own right. If you’re interested and want to learn more about Japanese internet culture, definitely check out Japanalysis yourself sometime! He has a bunch more videos talking about this kind of stuff.

The videos I referenced:

Enoden Bicycle Bro:

Beef Bowl with Cheese: