It’s relatively easy for those involved in the entertainment industry in Asia to get caught up in geopolitical scuffles, with social media accelerating and magnifying any faux pas. Put on an ill-advised shirt or get the wrong tattoo and suddenly you’ve raised diplomatic tensions tenfold.

A recent case involving Japanese virtual YouTubers inadvertently wading into some of the diciest discourse around highlights the reality of navigating the region’s myriad political flashpoints.

Kiryu Coco hasn’t courted much controversy in the past, at least not the type that makes diplomats look warily over their shoulders. Like most YouTubers, virtual or human, the majority of Kiryu Coco’s output online has involved chatting with fans or livestreaming video game sessions (with dips into J-pop karaoke), albeit delivered with more frantic energy and a knack for utilizing Western memes.

Yet, since debuting at the very end of 2019, the 3,500-year-old character has become one of the standout personalities in the world of Hololive, a virtual YouTuber talent agency owned and operated by Japanese company Cover Corp., which is responsible for some of the most popular creators in this realm. In August, Coco reportedly became the top-earning Super Chat earner, a reference to a comment left in a livestream thread that comes with a monetary donation.

This acclaim took a turn for the worse in late September, when Coco and fellow Hololive virtual YouTuber Akai Haato shared a graph on a livestream that showed where their views came from. A few days later, the pair received a three-week suspension for divulging “confidential YouTube channel analytics information” and for “making statements insensitive to certain nationalities,” according to a statement from Cover Corp.

The company’s Chinese-langauge version of the statement helped clarify what the second part referred to — the implication that Taiwan was its own entity offended Chinese viewers, which Cover Corp. stated goes against the “one China” policy, which it supports (as does the Japanese government, something the statement mentions).

Given that Hololive has global ambitions that include a series of virtual YouTubers in China, the apology and punishment mirrored a long string of compromises from companies from all over the world to stay in the good graces of the lucrative market (something virtual YouTubers have faced in the recent past).

While neither virtual YouTuber intended to make a political statement — they simply showed a graph and thanked fans for their support — the diplomatic faux pas quickly morphed into something more online. Netizens in China and Japan reacted strongly, with the news prompting multiple China-related terms to trend on Twitter the day after the suspension was announced. Little of it is surprising given the strained history between the two nations and continued tensions — online users from each side have latched onto stories allowing them to mock the other. The furor over this — and Cover Corp.’s Chinese statement — prompted the company to release a second comment, elaborating on how it came together quickly in order to protect its artists and ensure they could continue working in the market.

Japanese online media outlets such as Yahoo Japan, Huffington Post Japan and Cyzo Woman, among others, published material on the issue, while it also appeared on Taiwanese news and was discussed by at least one Japanese lawmaker. Lesser-known Japanese virtual YouTubers, humanoid and canine alike, also reacted to the news.

Yet the real intrigue lay in how it went well beyond web spheres in China or Japan. Hololive has developed a strong following around the globe — it recently launched a set of English-language personalities — so plenty of fans on Reddit and Twitter reacted harshly, which was to be expected. Yet it also became part of a larger political conversation about China emerging in Western countries — especially the United States, where similar posturing has surrounded TikTok, the recent “Mulan” movie and the NBA, among others — wherein something like Hololive becomes a talking point, sometimes for people who have little idea what it even is.

While some elements of the story are familiar — namely, the tension between Japanese and Chinese netizens — the key takeaway from this controversy is that these episodes generally aren’t limited to geographic regions or fandom corners in a highly political era of social media. Anything from anywhere can become fodder for online debate, and Japanese creators would be well advised to keep this in mind. A harmless virtual YouTuber, for example, is only a word away from becoming the center of diplomatic attention.

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