In Japan, the rapidly growing popularity and profitability of ‘VTubers’ — or virtual YouTubers — and other online pop idols is an example of how technological advancements are pushing boundaries within the country’s entertainment industry.
Like human idols, VTubers sing, dance, and interact with their adult fans, except that, unlike regular entertainers, they exist only in virtual form. VTubers and virtual avatars are by no means a novel innovation exclusive to Japan: cartoon characters like Paddington Bear and Alvin and the Chipmunks have been brought to life in live-action films; Barbie got her debut as a vlogger in 2015; and aging pop groups like ABBA were brought back together to perform through hologram concerts.
What makes Japan’s VTubers worth watching, however, is how this emerging phenomenon is intersecting with societal norms, especially those related to gender. Alongside its commercial success, this industry is raising ethical questions about the human-technology relationship and how the growing prevalence of the virtual could impact life in the non-virtual world.
The making of a VTuber
The characters on which VTubers are based are usually designed by an artist, sometimes with help from software, and are animated using motion capture technology and voiced by an actor. This means that a VTuber can be a product of one individual but is more likely created by a team of people. VTubers in Japan are usually managed by talent companies, which base their production processes heavily on the Japanese pop idol industry, or the jimusho system, in which an agency controls all aspects of idol production, from recruitment and training to music production and fan club organization.
Japan’s first breakout VTuber was a teenage girl named Kizuna AI, who uploaded her first video in November 2016. Activ8, the talent company behind her creation, modelled the VTuber on aspects of Japanese pop idol, that is, she was an entertainer through song and dance and engaged with her fans through activities like social media challenges. In this sense, she was essentially like other Japanese idols, entertainers, or influencers, albeit without the human aspect. When Kizuma Al, who appeared to be in her mid-teens, was retired in 2021, the character commented that she was no longer that rare, an acknowledgement of how rapidly the VTuber market had grown since her debut five years earlier.
Indeed, VTuber management agencies saw record-breaking profits, a sign of the industry’s surging popularity. The same year, four of the world’s top 10 “Super Chat” earners were VTubers. The “Super Chat” system allows fans to pay to pin their comments on their idols’ livestreams. This kind of ‘parasocial’ relationship between entertainers and fans is significant in the Japanese pop idol industry because it makes fans feel a closer connection to the performer and that their presence is recognized and validated. These top VTubers were linked to talent agencies based in Tokyo, and each earned between C$800,000 and C$1.4 million per year just through the “Super Chat” system. But they can also tap into other revenue streams, such as advertising sponsorships on YouTube and Twitch, business partnerships, and merchandise sales.
Precarious gender perceptions
Despite its economic success, the business of virtual and animated idols also comes with complications. One prominent complication is that the industry is heavily gendered, especially in instances of young female idols interacting with their middle-aged male fans. This interaction is occurring at a time when the “salaryman” ideal of the post-Second World War period of obtaining lifetime employment remains out of reach for many Japanese men.
This precarity began during the “Lost Decades” of economic stagnation in the early 1990s. Since then, Japanese men who have had to take on contract work have been viewed by some as “inadequate” for not living up to this salaryman ideal. Some of these younger men blame their misfortune on being discriminated against, and believe that Japanese women are given better work opportunities. But this belief is based on a false reality; a larger proportion of Japanese women – 51 per cent – are undertaking non-regular employment, compared to 22 per cent of men.
Moreover, some corners of the Japanese media have for years depicted certain types of men as “herbivores” — a phrase used to describe those who are emasculated, ineffective communicators, and uninterested in sexual relationships. Although women receive less of this type of coverage in the media, they have, in contrast, emerged as predatory “carnivores” who aggressively pursue relationships with “herbivore” men.
As a result of these stereotypes, some men prefer to be affectionate with idols or VTubers who will validate their emotions, rather than pursuing relationships with “carnivores” in real life who may be less willing to put up with their perceived flaws, including potentially misogynistic behaviour. These men make up a part of the male-dominated fan base for female idols and are often drawn to much younger Japanese women for an ego boost.
In the non-virtual world, human idols are expected to devote themselves to their fans in exchange for the support they receive from these fans. These expectations are now impacting the space around virtual idols as well. The idol industry relies heavily on celebrity endorsements, and brands are reluctant to support idols seen as violating societal norms, as it may jeopardize the brands’ profitability. But human idols, even though they may have an entire company managing all aspects of their schedules, are, after all, human. That means they sometimes do not conform to the strict moral standards set for them by society. For female idols, this can mean harsh public rebuke and professional sanction for things they do in their private lives. For example, in 2013, AKB48 veteran idol Minegishi Minami was caught spending a night at a male idol’s apartment. In an act of repentance to her fans, she shaved her head and was demoted to “trainee” status in her girl group, typically consisting of new members who have not been assigned to a fixed team. There was no similar sanction for the male idol implicated in this supposed scandal.
Characters in the VTuber industry have a greater separation between their work and personal lives because the VTuber is not a real person. In theory, then, there is a lower economic risk with virtual idols because they are computer-generated and only as flawed as their fans and creators want them to be. This arrangement sets up a more sustainable career for VTubers, since concern about the idols’ aging physical bodies is not a factor, unlike in the human idol industry. In the latter case, as young female idols grow older, most of their middle-aged male fans become less interested in them. In addition, the VTuber industry poses less risk to the idols’ personal safety, as the creators behind VTubers are largely anonymous, and the virtual idols themselves do not exist in physical form.
Accountability in an emerging space
While the virtual nature of VTubers does have upsides, there are also some downsides. For example, the anonymity of the VTuber’s creators makes it more difficult to hold someone accountable when controversies occur. This was the case with one English-speaking VTuber, Enna Alouette, who invoked racist stereotypes during a livestreamed event. Although the character apologized, it remained unclear who was at fault – those who created the character, the voice actor, the management company, or some other individual or group involved in the VTuber production process. In another instance, VTuber Kiryu Coco angered some in mainland China after treating Taiwan as an independent country, which led to her suspension and "graduation” from her agency. Although the character faced consequences for her actions, what happened to the workers who produced her character is unknown.
In addition, even though VTubers are digitally generated, some of them nonetheless contribute to the perpetuation of gender inequality and female objectification in the non-virtual world. For example, although the idol Kizuna AI appears to be only about 16 years old, she was designed to be sexualized by her fans, as shown through her skin-tight outfits in her vlogs, dance covers, and music videos. On the one hand, the emergence of VTubers could have a kind of diversionary effect, whereby certain male fans sexualize a character who is not human rather than one who is human. On the other hand, simply diverting this type of attention does not address the root problem of some older men sexualizing and possibly preying on much younger women, perpetuating misogyny and gender inequality.
The growing VTuber market has shown great economic success so far by demonstrating how technology can be used to create and experience new forms of entertainment. This has given the Japanese market a competitive edge in the race to build a successful metaverse platform. In this process, the entertainment industry is being transformed because the anonymity granted to VTubers potentially gives workers greater protection. But ethical questions and implications for the Japanese entertainment industry – and Japanese society overall – remain unclear. The success of VTubers and virtual avatars shows how dynamic and innovative the Japanese entertainment industry can be. But creators, agencies, and Japanese society at large must continue to call out and eradicate the misogynism and sexism flaring up in the industry.