Japan has something of a reputation for sophistication and refinement. This could explain why visitors are surprised by the nation's cavalier attitude to passing out in public. And it could be a reason why the Instagram account @shibuyameltdown is attracting some attention.
The account captures the partygoers of Shibuya in various stages of public inebriation. The account's creator is an Australian-born, Tokyo-based fashion designer who originally took the photos for his own amusement. After all, no one in Australia can fall asleep publicly without being viciously robbed, bashed, and then arrested. But Japan's Instagram crowd has recently taken notice, and the feedback seems positive so far.
We spoke to the guy running shibuyameltdown, Thom O'Brien, about the ethics and hilarity of photographing drunk people.
VICE: Are you doing this because drunk people are funny?
Thom: Yeah, for some reason it's the funniest thing in the world. People are always tagging friends in it saying, "Look at this shit." But also it's just daily life, you know?
As in, passing out in public is legal?
That's right. I think it's because for salarymen, they work super long hours and their release is to drink. Also the last train is at midnight. So if people miss the last train, and they can't keep drinking, they fall asleep. So it's totally kosher to fall asleep in a club or a bar or a restaurant. If you look around, you'll see it all the time. You walk past a MOS Burger or something, and fifty percent of the people in there are asleep. Nobody tells you to move on or get out. People here work so much that they just get a little wink of sleep anywhere they can. Maybe that's why so many people sleep on the train. I've seen dudes with their hands in the train hooks, and they're just sleeping, standing up, swaying with the train. They're not drunk; they're just getting a rest in. I think they say that Japanese salarymen only sleep four or five hours a night. It's just a busy culture.
But most of the people on your Instagram are drunk right?
Yeah, I'd say more of them are drunk than anything else. I don't put up homeless people or anything like that. They've got to be salarymen or partygoers. But you see the businessmen in these all-you-can-drink places, and there's no doubt you'll see someone passed out. There was this one spot that was all-you-can-drink, and I just preyed on the place because I knew there'd be someone vomiting on himself or passed out every night. I don't know what I'm going to do with them all. I'm just sort of data-basing it.
Do other people contribute to your Instagram?
Yeah, people send me photos. And for me to be out capturing these things, I have to be out partying as well, and that's not ideal, you know? But actually, last week, some famous Japanese dude tweeted about it, and it went viral. It's gained like eight hundred followers in the last day.
Was the tweet positive?
Yeah! I translated it, and it was just like, "Look at this account, it's so funny." Most of my followers were foreign, but all of the new ones are Japanese.
Are you making money from this?
Not at all. It's something that you don't see anywhere else in the world, and it's interesting. It's got to the point where I leave a bar and cut a lap on my bike to see what's going on. I see heaps, but these days, it's got to be a novelty meltdown. There's got to be vomit or some strange position or something.
Do you question the ethics of capturing people in such a shitty state?
Definitely. I've been abused several times. When you are using a point-and-shoot, you've got a bit of a sudden flash, and people wake up and get pissed off. Half of them are sleeping, but if they're crawling and vomiting, they're still awake, so they know what's happening and they'll get angry. Or their friends will tell me to stop.
So how do you defend what you're doing if they don't like it?
I guess my take is it's fair game if you're on the street.
How do you regard this aspect of Japanese culture, personally?
I don't think it's bad. In fact, you couldn't do it anywhere else in the world because you'd get robbed. I see people with their iPhones on their chest, and nobody touches them. Their wallet is next to them on the ground, or their whole handbag is open. Nobody takes their stuff.
Interview by Mimi LaMontagne.