Do virtual YouTubers dream of online controversy? Maybe not but they sure are good at courting it.

One of the most buzzed about developments in online culture in Japan over the past 12 months has been a boom in virtual YouTubers, animated characters operating their own channels, upon which they behave much like their human counterparts. They play video games, partake in memes and provide meta commentary on their existence.

It’s still a niche pocket of Japanese pop culture and hardly a new idea — digital characters acting like people stretch back decades, especially if Max Headroom counts. However, the buzz around virtual YouTubers prompted Sanrio to have Hello Kitty take up the occupation, and the BBC recently gave the field the feature treatment. It all comes off as an entry in the slightly weird Japan trend stack. Yet the past couple of weeks showed it’s far more complicated domestically.

The top virtual YouTuber in Japan at present is Kizuna AI. She kickstarted all this and boasts several million subscribers spread out over two channels. Due to her popularity, she’s shilled for SoftBank and the Japan National Tourism Organization, among others. Most recently, she was picked to appear on an NHK show about recent Japanese winners of the Nobel Prize. She asked prize-winning scientists questions, which they answered in detail.

What was an effort to goose ratings for educational programming ended up sparking one of the year’s biggest online debates to date. Several criticized NHK’s decision to use a female character that they argued was sexualized in this show, with some wondering why they couldn’t find a real female scientist to take her role. The first big volley came from Musashi University professor Senda Yuki, who penned an article for Yahoo! Japan criticizing the national broadcaster’s move and its decision to have the virtual YouTuber respond in interviews with single-syllable answers (which wasn’t entirely accurate … more on that later).

The article was praised by plenty … but it also attracted many who wished to defend Kizuna AI. Twitter user @harukazechan wondered why the character needed to cover up, while others noted that a woman had actually designed the character in the first place. In a real “through the looking glass” moment, Kizuna AI herself might have commented on this, first by donning a lab coat and then wondering why people frequently complain about the things she does.

It might be because virtual YouTubers in general have evolved from being a nifty sideshow into a new avatar for long-standing cultural debate in Japan. Virtual YouTubers started as a point of curiosity, with many mostly charmed by the new technology. Popular characters such as Kizuna AI then attracted strong fanbases, resembling what you see with idols, actors or even human YouTubers.

However, greater attention also brought greater scrutiny, albeit familiar criticism. The anime-style design and the wardrobe selections for virtual YouTubers has gotten them tagged as “moe,” a slang term applied to cartoon characters who generate an intense attachment from fans. Moe, along with the image of “otaku,” have long been contentious topics in Japan, mainly due to how women are portrayed in animated form (see, for example, the recent controversy over “moe-style” fairy-tale books). Unsurprisingly, another recent criticism of virtual YouTubers is the lack of male characters. They do exist, but come nowhere close to appearing on “top ranking” charts or representing the community beyond the internet. Check out this virtual YouTube event in Akihabara, which features all female characters, or simply note how most viewers are male based on data collected by CyberV.

The flap over Kizuna AI’s appearance on TV for the Nobel panel became less about virtual YouTubers, and more about using virtual YouTubers as avatars for different talking points. Those offended by NHK’s move talked about the sexualizing of 3D bodies or the negative effects of “moe” in general. One much-shared essay placed the Kizuna AI incident among other recent controversies on TV, showing the rough position women have in society today.

As for the other side, Gizmodo Japan put a more positive spin on the impact that virtual YouTubers are having worldwide by inspiring new types of creativity online. Many claimed that it served as a continued attack on moe culture (with one user going so far as to call it a “genocide on 2D characters”), which itself offered some a chance to tease feminists and “social justice warriors,” and this carried over to English-language observers as well. The original critics then became the focus of criticism, via a popular Blogos entry about those “attacking Kizuna AI,” emphasizing how the original Yahoo! article got information wrong. Due to heavy criticism online, Senda made her account private. Along the way, someone drew Kizuna AI in Ku Klux Klan clothes to shock people.

However, one of the most popular blog posts to come out of this didn’t even take a side — it simply observed how, while discussion between clashing parties can be good, nobody involved in this seemed like they were reaching out to the other in good faith. It’s a mess and, ultimately, the virtual YouTuber debate over the past week became a something of a microcosm for many of the strains of discourse online in 2018.

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