Two of Japan’s most popular “VTubers” — people who use computer-generated cartoon avatars to represent themselves in YouTube videos — have been suspended for three weeks because they referred to Taiwan and displayed its flag during a livestream.
Chinese commenters flooded the livestream with complaints about the alleged implication that Taiwan is a nation independent of Communist China.
VTubers, or “Virtual YouTubers,” employ motion-capture equipment and software that generates a cartoon image to replace them when they upload their video blogs to YouTube or participate in live streams. Most of the popular VTubers hail from Japan and employ female avatars drawn in the style of Japanese animation, or “anime.” VTuber blogs frequently discuss anime, video games, and social media.
VTubers are among the highest-paid content creators on YouTube and have enjoyed that status for years. VTuber Kiryu Coco is reportedly one of the top-earning creators on the entire YouTube platform.
VTubers sometimes pretend they are artificially intelligent computer simulations, as though the cartoon avatar has come to life. Sometimes they interact with flesh-and-blood guests or leave the studio entirely, appearing to be animated characters living among ordinary humans, in the manner of Who Framed Roger Rabbit?
The VTuber trend began about three years ago. An early pioneer was the Mattel toy corporation’s Barbie doll character, who launched her own ersatz video blog in 2015, while the first big Japanese anime Vtube character, Kizuna Ai, became popular enough for Japan’s National Tourism Organization to hire her as a spokeswoman. Some fans of the VTuber phenomenon approvingly cite it as a step toward the future depicted in the book and movie Ready Player One, where people live in virtual space and can choose to appear as anyone, or anything, they please.
The art form now counts millions of subscribers for its top personalities. This includes remarkably large followings among audiences who do not speak Japanese and must struggle to translate what the VTube characters are saying. Sensing a market opportunity, VTube creators are spinning up channels directed at English-speaking audiences.
Kiryu Coco and Akai Haato, another popular VTuber with a female anime avatar, talked about the countries where they have the most followers during their most recent livestream. They mentioned that they have substantial audiences in Taiwan and displayed the Taiwanese flag onscreen, along with the flags of Japan and the United States, while illustrating the breakdown of their audiences in various countries.
As both were using data provided by YouTube, they did not independently add Taiwan to the list — YouTube itself had listed Taiwan as a fellow country along with the others.
Taiwan News reported on Monday that the comments section for the video “was soon inundated by complaints from alleged ‘Chinese netizens’ who railed against the VTubers for implying that Taiwan is a country that is independent from China.”
The skepticism Taiwan News displayed toward the identity of the complainers reflects suspicions that some of China’s huge, rapid, and well-organized “grassroots campaigns” and “consumer boycotts” are actually driven by bot networks and agents of the Chinese government.
Kiryu Coco and Akai Haato are both managed by a Japanese talent agency called Hololive Production. Hololive’s parent company Cover Corp. announced on Sunday that the two have been suspended for three weeks, beginning Monday, for “divulging confidential YouTube channel analytics information” and “making statements insensitive to certain nationalities.”
Observers of the VTuber scene pointed out that the charge of divulging confidential information is spurious because YouTube personalities managed by Hololive have discussed their ratings in the past, without any repercussions. The complaints from “Chinese netizens” about the reference to Taiwan was the only difference in this case.
Furthermore, Cover Corp. also suspended the two VTubers from a Chinese streaming app called Biibii, and the Chinese-language version of their statement to BiiBii users included a declaration of support for the “One China principle,” which holds that Taiwan is eternally part of China. The Japanese-language version of the statement did not include this language.
According to Taiwan News, the three-week suspension did not satisfy those angry “Chinese netizens,” because they demanded the permanent firing of Kiryu Coco and Akai Haato, and even for Cover Corp. to withdraw all of its content from the Chinese market.
Hololive encountered strong pushback from its Japanese customers in the opposite direction, with angry Japanese customers accusing the company of kowtowing to Communist China and insisting the two VTubers did nothing wrong. Some other VTube performers are expressing solidarity with the banned duo and endorsing independence for Taiwan, essentially daring China to get them banned.
For their part, Kiryu Coco and Akai Haato used social media to apologize for their “carelessness” and promised to avoid making any more “inadvertently” controversial remarks in the future. Some disgruntled fans complained that Chinese censorship is getting worse because the Chinese Communist Party has immense financial leverage over the supposedly uninhibited and irreverent VTubers, not only through the Chinese streaming market but through the mobile apps and games that often advertise on VTube shows.