The bike safety campaign that backfired

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 Japanese youth, authorities in Chiba in July launched a collaboration with talent agency VTuber (virtual YouTube) Vase on a bike safety campaign. Specifically, they worked with Linca Tojou, a golden-haired anime-style female character and local mascot now VTuber Bakegoro. The pair appeared in a three-minute video that was uploaded in early September in which they looked at the rules of cycling.

In theory, this was a wise move by the Chiba police. VTubers have become a pop cultural force in Japan and this has brought them a huge following abroad, which means that the best creators can make a lot of money from fan donations and advertising campaigns. The VTubers gradually take on the role of promotional mascots, or yuru-kyara, which proliferated in the 2010s. This led local governments to launch their own digital ambassadors, such as Sachiko Iwate from Iwate Prefecture, or to transition their yuru-kyara online, as has been made with Bakegoro (who has also been referred to as “the first yuru-kyara to become a VTuber”). .

For the most part, governments and other organizations outsource their mascot and VTuber offerings, which is the case with Tojou. She represents the town of Matsudo, Chiba prefecture, but is she not an official spokesperson… or, a spokesperson?

The partnership was in full swing until the Alliance of Feminist Representatives (AFER) filed a complaint with Chiba police about the campaign. The group’s letter, which was summarized in English by Anime News Network, says Tojou is described as a sexualized minor, citing her wardrobe and physical movements as particularly problematic. PSA was later removed from official prefectural channels, although Vase still has a version of the September video on his YouTube.

After the complaint and the withdrawal, a familiar back-and-forth erupted. Once the news reached the internet at large, it sparked a backlash from netizens, some of whom were baffled that a public safety campaign would be called off because, in their words, it was not. quite “feminist”. The story caught the attention of domestic media and complaints from overseas anime-centric YouTubers who bristled in the effort to (ironically) police Japanese culture.

The Tojou controversy, however, represents a much older and broader issue that plagues VTubers and drives them in general. While there are many male VTubers out there, their female counterparts have long drawn criticism from many women in Japan over their physical appearance.

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

In the early days of VTubers, the appearance of trailblazer Kizuna Ai in NHK was criticized as some viewers felt she was too sexual for the national broadcaster, and more recent characters have sparked similar complaints online – with even more. of worship. However, this is an argument that has plagued mainstream anime for decades as well, with more recent controversies regarding Shima City’s portrayal of Mie Prefecture of its “Ama” divers, a poster from the Forces of self-defense in Shiga Prefecture and a hubbub over the “big-breasted” character Uzaki-chan, who appeared in a blood donation campaign for the Japanese Red Cross. In the latter case, after the arguments were over, the Red Cross simply brought Uzaki-chan back from his time out. Ultimately, Uzaki-chan’s success in getting the blood of his male fans pumped may have gotten the better of more conservative concerns.

Lots of nuanced readings on how VTubers relate to feminism and patriarchy exist, like this piece by Katie Gill on the Anime Feminist website, but online forums usually turn into a war of flames between the ‘warriors of social justice ”and those who believe that“ enlightenment is out of control. ”Ultimately, this is where the Tojou situation ended until Setsuko Itakura, who runs the Vase VTuber project , intervene. Via Twitter, she expressed surprise at the allegations of misogyny and said she was trying to create a safe space for women to speak out through VTubing.

Negative reactions to VTubers often treat them as if they were anime characters produced by a factory of chauvinistic men. In reality, each is created and controlled by an individual, many of whom are young women looking for a way to be entertained, connect with others, and express themselves. She adds that how they choose to do it is totally up to them.

A clear winner of all of this, however, is Tojou herself. She received new attention and a flow of support from around the world. Now if only she could get Chiba’s kids to wear their bicycle helmets.

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