All the Chiba Prefectural Police wanted to do was promote bicycle safety. Instead, they found themselves in the middle of an online culture war.

In an effort to connect with Japan’s youth, Chiba authorities launched a collaboration in July with VTuber (virtual YouTuber) talent agency Vase on a bicycle safety campaign. More specifically, they worked with Linca Tojou, a golden-haired anime-style female character, and local mascot-turned-VTuber Bakegoro. The pair appeared in a three-minute video that was uploaded at the start of September in which they reviewed cycling rules.

In theory, it was a savvy move by the Chiba police. VTubers have become a pop cultural force in Japan and that has brought them considerable followings overseas, which means top creators can pull in big bucks through fan donations and ad campaigns. VTubers are gradually taking over the role of promotional mascots, or yuru-kyara, which proliferated in the 2010s. This has led local governments to launch their own digital ambassadors, such as Iwate Prefecture’s Sachiko Iwate, or transition their yuru-kyara online, as was done with Bakegoro (who has also been branded “the first yuru-kyara to become a VTuber”).

For the most part, governments and other organizations outsource their mascot and VTuber deals, which is the case with Tojou. She represents the city of Matsudo, Chiba Prefecture, but isn’t an official spokesperson … or, spokesavatar?

The partnership was going strong until the Alliance of Feminist Representatives (AFER) lodged a complaint with Chiba police over the campaign. The group’s letter, which was summarized in English by Anime News Network, says Tojou is depicted as a sexualized minor, citing her wardrobe and physical movements as being particularly problematic. The PSA was subsequently pulled from official prefectural channels, though Vase still has a version of the September video on its YouTube.

After the complaint and drawdown, a familiar back-and-forth erupted. Once the news reached the broader internet, it prompted a backlash from netizens, some of whom were bewildered that a public safety campaign would be canceled because, in their words, it wasn’t “feminist” enough. The story attracted national media attention and complaints from anime-centric YouTubers overseas who bristled at the effort to (ironically) police Japanese culture.

The Tojou controversy represents a much older and broader issue that plagues VTubers and anime in general, though. While plenty of male VTubers exist, their female counterparts have long attracted criticism from plenty of women in Japan over their physical appearances.

A poster featuring the 17-year-old anime character Aoshima Megu, who was adopted by Shima, Mie Prefecture, was denounced as sexist and demeaning.
A poster featuring the 17-year-old anime character Aoshima Megu, who was adopted by Shima, Mie Prefecture, was denounced as sexist and demeaning.

In the early days of the VTubers, pioneer Kizuna Ai’s NHK appearance was met with criticism as some viewers felt she was too sexual for the national broadcaster, and more recent characters have attracted similar complaints online — alongside even more adoration. However, it’s an argument that has also plagued traditional anime for decades, with more recent controversies surrounding the Mie Prefecture city of Shima’s depiction of its “Ama” divers, a Self-Defense Forces poster in Shiga Prefecture and a brouhaha over the “busty” character Uzaki-chan, who appeared in a blood donation drive for the Japanese Red Cross. In the latter case, after the arguing died down, the Red Cross simply brought Uzaki-chan back from her timeout. Ultimately, Uzaki-chan’s success in getting her male fans’ blood pumping may have won out over more conservative concerns.

Plenty of nuanced reads on how VTubers relate to feminism and the patriarchy exist, such as this piece by Katie Gill on the website Anime Feminist, but online forums usually devolve into a flame war between “social justice warriors” and those who believe “wokeness is out of control.” Ultimately, that’s where the Tojou situation ended up until Setsuko Itakura, who runs the Vase VTuber project, chimed in. Via Twitter, she expressed surprise at the claims of misogyny and said she was trying to create a safe space for women to express themselves via VTubing.

Negative reactions to VTubers often treat them as if they’re anime characters churned out by a factory of male chauvinists. In reality, each is created and controlled by an individual, many of them young women looking for a way to entertain, connect with others and express themselves. She adds that how they choose to do so is totally up to them.

One clear winner from all of this, though, is Tojou herself. She has enjoyed newfound attention and a stream of support from around the world. Now, if she can only get Chiba’s kids to wear their bike helmets.

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