Short-form video app TikTok doesn’t seem — at least at first glance — like the sort of social media platform that would find itself in the middle of geopolitical drama. In Japan, the platform typically allows teens to create dances, gives space for celebrities to take part in challenges and offers the truly ambitious the chance to turn the goofiest schtick into viral gold.
What appears at first sight like a solid way to kill some spare time, however, has morphed into a diplomatic flash point. First, India banned it, citing security concerns related to user data being harvested by ByteDance, the Chinese-owned company behind TikTok. It’s a mix of legitimate concern and political theater as China expands its power globally. U.S. President Donald Trump has warned that he might impose similar restrictions.
The Japanese government is also considering something similar. While the rhetoric around potential regulations isn’t as fiery as it might be elsewhere in the world, lawmakers in Japan have already pointed out TikTok’s data risks, and the Chinese government has also warned that a potential ban could impact relations between the two nations.
Plenty of media attention has focused on these broader issues, but netizens in Japan — including TikTok users, a growing demographic that has helped make it a permanent fixture in the most-downloaded rankings — have shared their own reactions to the proposed restrictions, showing both how important the app is and that TikTok’s rise represents something of a divide in how people use the internet in Japan.
A good snapshot of how people on all sides could be affected by potential TikTok regulation can be found in a Nikkei article about how it could impact high school girls. The key quote comes from a 16-year-old student in Kanagawa Prefecture, who said if you can’t use the app, you can’t live. This predictably became something to make fun of on bulletin boards and Twitter, with many highlighting the absurdity of such a claim.
While perhaps a touch dramatic, that quote isn’t altogether wrong. TikTok is much more than a digital warehouse for dance challenges. It’s a social media platform in its own right, offering what Facebook or Twitter offer for a younger audience. It can provide entertainment, a place to showcase one’s own artistic endeavors and develop connections with others. It can even be a source for different perspectives on breaking news — TikTok offered first-hand footage of the flooding in Kyushu in July, showing to many on the app just how serious it was taking itself.
It’s understandable why users could be shaken by restrictions. One report courtesy of Abema TV found popular creator sayansa34 expressing confusion over potential regulations, and noting that even though other visual-first platforms such as Instagram and YouTube exist, they simply aren’t the same. She, like others, has devoted a lot of time into the social media platform, and to see it change suddenly would be heartbreaking.
Ironically, a trending phrase on Twitter from users who mostly dislike TikTok underlines how important these types of websites are to people. Once reports emerged that Twitter itself was interested in purchasing the U.S. operating unit of TikTok, a phrase opposing the partnership climbed the trending rankings in Japan. Many Twitter natives didn’t appear to like what the new future might be like, and used a hashtag to express how they didn’t want a flood of young users on Twitter, while also making a few jokes (others noted, correctly, that Twitter users seemed way more aggressive about this than anyone on the short-form video service).
Twitter users simply wanted to maintain the social sphere they had used for so long — which is exactly what TikTok users also desire. As tempting as it is to write off these platforms as online ephemera, many people have developed deep connections with them, and they’ve become part of daily life. Security concerns are real, but it’s important to take an empathetic look on how losing these platforms could impact people.
This situation, though, might just reflect the harsh realities of social media. TV personality Mina Ogawa wrote an illuminating blog post on Ameba TV about the TikTok situation, arguing that the app will ultimately undergo some form of restriction, as Japan generally follows the United States’ lead. However, she thinks people shouldn’t simply rely on just one platform, because they can vanish or change at any minute, adding that the situation is probably true even for platforms such as YouTube. One could even make the argument that being online in the 21st century is most likely to end in heartbreak for all concerned.