YouTube in Japan had an identity crisis in 2018. The video-sharing site only grew in importance this year, as the top creators associated with the platform achieved acceptance by the country’s mainstream media gatekeepers while famous names migrated over.
But, at the same time, the makeup of the most popular contributors on YouTube changed significantly, becoming much younger — some actual children — and less real. Many notable names found themselves embroiled in scandals, while content from competing social platforms proved more influential than anything that had originated on YouTube.
Still, in terms of mainstream respectability, this was a good year for YouTubers. Since the platform became the go-to online destination for video in Japan, it has developed its own ecosystem with stars mugging for the camera and taking part in various challenges. While plenty popular, traditional Japanese entertainment had largely shunned these creators.
Not anymore. Possibly due to changing attitudes — or most likely because more young people are turning to YouTube first for entertainment, forcing the old guard to adjust to new realities — YouTube now feels embraced by the establishment. Formerly internet-allergic entities such as Johnny & Associates have jumped on board, while child-friendly YouTube troupes such as Fischer’s and Sky Peace crept closer to the center.
The crystallization of this came in March, when NHK’s series “Professional,” which documents famous people doing their jobs, zoomed in on Hikakin, the face of YouTube in Japan. The program gave legitimacy to what the 29-year-old digital star does for a living, and in part showed that the platform can be a career (but even Japan’s youth have realized it’s a tough bet, and “YouTuber” fell down a ranking of desired careers after being No. 1 a few years back). Since, Hikakin has appeared in myriad advertisements for the likes of Coca-Cola and SoftBank.
But even with this respect acquired, YouTube stared down many controversies. The site has always been a mess, but it felt more pronounced in 2018, with Japan at the center of its biggest controversy via Logan Paul’s trip to the country (which saw the online personality visit a notorious suicide spot and run amok in the streets of Tokyo, brandishing seafood and staging mock fights). Every nation has its own brand of snafus, and Japan saw plenty from its homegrown creatives. The past year has seen all kinds of scandals result in YouTubers donning suits and offering up their sincere apologies. This is arguably another sign YouTubers are making it — they now have to do the deep-bow routine like every other celebrity. Other notable flare-ups shaping 2018 included a video of users calling random women “ugly” for laughs and the whole camera-on-conveyor-belt-sushi incident that further made people roll their eyes at tourists with cameras.
A far bigger issue, however, might be the feeling YouTube’s actual impact on pop culture is waning. The most popular uploads to the platform this year were music videos from the likes of Kenshi Yonezu and Twice, which puffs up the site’s status as distributor for content coming from established companies. More troubling for the idea of YouTube culture is the sense that trends were birthed on other platforms in 2018. TikTok became the darling of the adolescent set, inspiring dances and comedy trends along the way. On YouTube, you can watch all kinds of TikTok compilations and try-not-to-laugh challenges built around TikTok memes. Again, YouTube is spreading content and offering a place for people to react to it.
There are a few critical exceptions to this shift. YouTube helped make pop group Da Pump’s “U.S.A.,” the surprise hit of 2018, partially for being ground-zero for gawking at its “cool dasai” (lame) aesthetic and for inspiring the “U.S.A. Game,” which only stoked interest in the song further. The site remains the premier place to watch other people play video games and talk about them in Japan, illustrated by the channel 2 Bro Entertainment logging its best year to date.
YouTube also remains champion at housing deeply unnerving children’s content. One of the bigger moral panics online came when people started zeroing in on unsettling clips involving characters geared for or acts featuring young children, which feature kids mindlessly opening toys at best and, at worst, Peppa Pig immolating herself. Some of Japan’s most popular channels exist in this void, with clips finding toddlers screaming because they are stuck in a car with a skeleton being among the year’s most popular.
If there’s one defining thing YouTube will be known for in Japan following 2018, it will be the rise of Virtual YouTubers. Digi-characters such as Kizuna AI and Mirai Akari became popular at home and abroad. Part of the charm lies in their anime appearance and their wit, though they tend to still engage in the same dippy dances as human YouTubers. They’ve also managed to stumble into similar controversies, which is on-brand for the year online.
Still, it’s the freshest thing found on YouTube at a time when the platform’s identity has slipped a bit and ceded ground to smartphone applications. YouTube is established enough for Sanrio to get in on the Virtual YouTuber boom, but it needs to find a way to keep cultivating fresh ideas from new voices.