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TikTok video app has become a petri dish for youth culture

by Patrick ST. Michel

Contributing Writer

It’s a question that haunts almost everyone over the age of 30 as they grow older: What exactly are the kids into today?

If you put this question to young people in Japan this summer, the answer appears to be La Bouche’s 1995 smash hit “Be My Lover.” A popular online dance craze sees teenagers — and a few daring adults — busting out moves to a Eurodance track that is in many cases older than those dancing to its brisk beat. Contextually, the moves come from a viral clip by American YouTuber Roy Purdy, while the recent domestic resurgence of Eurobeat led by Da Pump’s “U.S.A.” has perhaps helped fuel interest in the track.

Look more closely at the domestic interest in the dance craze and it’s worth noting the platform that is being used to share the loose-limbed moves. Short-video application TikTok has become something of a petri dish for online youth culture in Japan over the past 12 months or so, with high-school students in particular uploading 15-second clips that sometimes go on to become viral hits.

TikTok was launched by Chinese company Bytedance in late 2016 (the app is known as Douyin in China). The app gradually became a hit across Asia, making inroads in English thanks to a “Riverdale”-inspired meme titled “Karma Is A Bitch.” The meme subsequently attracted a little attention on Twitter, but TikTok has remained a force across the continent ever since.

The app has been especially popular in Japan, becoming the most downloaded free app on the App Store in a matter of months. Indeed, 30 percent of TikTok’s downloads now come from Japan.   

The app is not in and of itself anything new. Six-second video app Vine was popular with teenagers in Japan from when it was launched in 2012 until when uploads were disabled in 2016, resulting in a number of funny clips and memes.

Video platform MixChannel took over where Vine left off, attracting a new generation of users looking to share dance moves and memories with followers nationwide. And then there’s Musical.ly, which is well known in the West and is built around lip-syncing videos. Musical.ly was acquired by Bytedance and merged with TikTok earlier this year.

Livedoor News believes TikTok rose to prominence in Japan because Bytedance was able to adapt to the domestic market, most critically offering a wide variety of J-pop clips that users can select from the creation screen. An online survey earlier this year found that a quarter of teenage girls used TikTok, with many respondents praising the app’s song selections and simplicity of use. Such factors set it apart from MixChannel, where many users use other video editing apps for their clips. It’s probably worth remembering that TikTok is also the newest option available, and one constant with teenagers throughout history is that they are extremely fickle.

Over the course of a year, TikTok has been home to all sorts of things that young people find amusing. Clips in a style that aren’t so different from Vine remain popular, while bits mined from Japanese comedy routines can spread quickly. Dances tend to dominate, whether it be shuffling, clapping or finger movements. Even footage of a child placing his head on the palm of someone else’s hand seems to merit a video.

Part of the charm of TikTok from a casual viewer’s perspective — and this probably applies to a lot of short video content created by young people — is just how detached from time it all seems. This is certainly the case with music. This year, popular TikTok soundtracks have included 2015’s “Slow & Easy,” forgotten Maroon 5 cuts and the aforementioned La Bouche. Koda Kumi has just released a new album, but the J-pop star’s 2018 will most likely be defined by a song she put out in 2010, which mutated into a TikTok mega-trend and has even been picked up by Japanese media.

TikTok has created a whole new digital ecosystem in Japan. A handful of “influencers” have emerged from the site, and they often appear in compilations devoted to ikemen (good looking men) and kawaii (cute) women. One of the more surprising names to emerge from TikTok in Japan is a Russian adolescent named Rodi Kun, who is popular enough to be mobbed by groups at parks — the sure sign of digital age success. Meanwhile, bona fide celebrities have also started migrating to it, from Hikakin to Kyary Pamyu Pamyu (who also did an ad for them … hmm). Music videos now appear to be conceptualized so that they eventually become memes.

Even other sites rely on TikTok content. YouTube is packed with clip compilations, while YouTubers recently indulged a new trend wherein they would put some liquid in their mouth and then watch random TikTok uploads, trying not to spit it out. Even haters get in on it, with challenges to see how long you can last watching teens sing and dance.

For the time being, there’s no better online space than TikTok to figure out how Japanese teenagers view pop culture. Like all trends, however, it might not last. Many have observed this month that more and more 40-year-olds are using TikTok, the same problem that ultimately sunk MixChannel. Worse still, it isn’t even an attempt to blend in with the teens, but because they are documenting their own children. But never fear, for a new platform is bound to arrive and dictate the pace of pop culture in Japan soon enough.