For You/Me/Us Page: Identity Building Through TikTok

How is the Nikkei community represented on TikTok, and how will digital identity- and community-building affect our current generation?

In all honesty, I am a very, VERY casual user of TikTok. Unlike most TikTok users—90% of whom visit the app more than once per day, for about an hour at a time—at most I’ll go on once a week and watch a couple of videos before logging off. Maybe because I am more of an Instagram and Twitter user, I usually don’t spend hours scrolling my For You Page (FYP) and usually just watch the TikToks my friends send me outside of the app. For those unfamiliar with TikTok, its algorithm recommends users content based on a combination of various factors: user interactions, video information, and even your device settings. Things such as likes, comments, shares, hashtags, language preference, country setting, device type, and even blocking or restricting interactions with accounts all have an effect on what you’ll see on your FYP. Unlike other popular social networking sites, the number of followers you have doesn’t have that much of an effect on whether you’ll end up on someone’s FYP either. Even if you only have a few followers, you could still appear on anyone’s FYP and go viral overnight.

Unlike other popular social networking sites, the number of followers you have doesn’t have that much of an effect on whether you’ll end up on someone’s FYP either.

A couple of months ago, I noticed that because of my limited usage my FYP was a mix of only a couple of things I actually consume. Somehow it became an interesting case study of mostly Japanese and Japanese diaspora TikTok creators, with the occasional English teacher in Japan explaining the cultural differences they experienced—once again showing me first-hand that the Nikkei community is not a monolith. The videos would range from “Things to Do In Japan” tourist guides to thirst trap dances, people cooking Japanese food, cosplay and anime enthusiasts (and weeaboos), Japanese skateboarders, Japanese-language speakers of all levels, and even esoteric Japanese videos that were posted with zero explanation or context (thanks to my brother). I observed that within my FYP, most of these users were Shin-Nikkei, and their viral videos mainly discussed growing up “in-between cultures”: making jokes about being bilingual, not fitting in with either part of their identity, traveling between countries to the family that they had back in Japan, etc. There was also a new, positive attitude toward anime and anime-watchers, and a push for more education about Japan’s history and current political climate that definitely did not exist when I was growing up. Most of the feedback on these videos was overwhelmingly positive, with comments coming from users all over the world. Many TikToks were also by mixed-race creators, who talk about their experience and all the nuances that come with it. 

There was also a new, positive attitude toward anime and anime-watchers, and a push for more education about Japan’s history and current political climate that definitely did not exist when I was growing up.

With more than 1 billion active users as of February 2021, I’m not surprised when I accidentally stumble across unique subcultures that exist in different corners of the app. TikTok has given a voice to the historically voiceless, and has become a platform in which anything is fair game to go viral. However, while these communities are not new, I noticed that their experiences were completely unrelatable to me. It was a different side of the Japanese diaspora than what I had become involved in within the past 5 years, and a side of the internet that I was somewhat unfamiliar with. 

When I was in middle and high school, I watched a lot of Asian American YouTubers. Wong Fu Productions, Anna Akana, AJ Rafael, Jenn Im (just to name a few) were rewriting what it meant to be Asian American in their own words, and I loved it. Asian American representation on-screen was something that I felt passionately about, and YouTube was a platform that allowed for creators to take charge of how they were portrayed in the media and finally say what they wanted to say. The wave of Asian American representation helped me to make sense of—and more importantly, take pride in—my Asian American identity during a time where I was confused about who I was and who I wanted to be. Now almost 10 years later, it’s been interesting to see how this phenomenon is occurring again on a different platform. Not only are content and ideas being repeated, once again I’m watching teenagers and young adults become more aware of their identity and learn about issues within the Asian diaspora community for the first time. And due to the pandemic, this time this exploration seems to be happening solely online. 

When I was in middle and high school, I watched a lot of Asian American YouTubers. Wong Fu Productions, Anna Akana, AJ Rafael, Jenn Im (just to name a few) were rewriting what it meant to be Asian American in their own words, and I loved it

Building your own identity can be something very daunting, let alone building it digitally in front of the whole world. TikTok is arguably the biggest driving force in the creation of identity formation and performance for Gen Z. The participatory culture of the app and culture of memes is so interwoven into society and the youth experience today, because TikTok makes it so much more accessible than ever before. Whether it be for entertainment purposes, or politics, any topic is fair game now that anyone with an account can create a video about it. Especially during the pandemic, I witnessed a surge of content that focuses on uplifting these topics and global issues that the media overlooks—with many of the videos traveling to other social media sites. While there have been allegations of a racial bias in the algorithm, many Black, Indigenous and People of Color (BIPOC) have been utilizing TikTok as an educational tool.

I am fully aware that TikTok might not be the best platform for these conversations, but they’re happening. With 41% of users between the ages of 16 and 24, I can’t help but wonder what effect this might have on the current generation, and specifically Nikkei, based on the handful of videos I watched. For the Nikkei who don’t see themselves in these videos, I am curious to see which communities they’re drawn to. Do they seek representation on TikTok, or are they merely scrolling for entertainment purposes? Do they find themselves subconsciously fetishizing themselves for views and likes, or rejecting being Nikkei completely and instead becoming a part of a different subculture (since there are literally endless possibilities)? Is this a healthy way for young people to be internalizing aspects of their identity and experience? 

In high school, I had the privilege of being involved in the Japanese American community in Little Tokyo through volunteering, tagging along with my grandparents to events, and participating in programs like Kizuna’s Leadership that explored the identity and history of Japanese Americans, and discussed current issues we face. I was fortunate enough to have the space to explore who I was, and physically meet others who felt the same. Can TikTok be a valid replacement for in-person community building and organizing? If not a replacement, can it foster these connections when huge followings lead to less discussions amongst users and more one-way interactions?

I don’t have the answers to any of these questions, but I know that both the Nikkei community and TikTok will continue to change and evolve. Whether people might be physically separated from the Nikkei diaspora, prefer online interactions, or were just limited because of the pandemic, the internet has become a placeholder for many of these connections and a space for conversation. We as a community will have to keep adapting to the ever-changing digital landscape in order to stay up-to-date and alive, and I am interested to see how this platform and especially its usage during the pandemic will affect the current generation. Anyway… 


"I understand it's easy to keep watching videos, and trust me — I've been there before. Those videos will still be there tomorrow, so go get some extra sleep. Turn your phone off, do yourself that favor, and have a great night."
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