If you’ve spent any time at all on Japan TikTok, you’re bound to have come across thepaperpat. Through short skits and anecdotes, Patrick Smith offers insight into his life as an English teacher in Japan. His videos are the perfect blend of funny, insightful and human, which is how most of them have gone viral beyond TikTok and onto other platforms such as Instagram and Twitter. These days, his 15-to-45-second videos are microdoses of wholesomeness for his 1.9 million followers to enjoy.
Smith, or ‘Mr. Patrick’ as he’s known to his students, wasn’t always doing skits or ‘story time’ videos, as they call it. In fact, he wouldn’t even have a TikTok account had it not been suggested to him by a friend back in October 2019.
Debuting on TikTok
“That friend told me about ‘dance tok’ and suggested that I should make an account to post videos of me attempting some dance trends that are popular on the app. I like dancing and I often make simple dances for my students at school so I thought I would try it, but I didn’t see much success from my uploads,” says Smith.
However, through using TikTok, he was exposed to other kinds of content on his ‘FYP’ (‘For You Page’ that shows videos to the user based on their preferences) and this was how he came across vlogs and skit-based videos. He was drawn to the creativity involved in making videos as it required editing, post-recording audio for voiceovers and other filters and features that the app offered.
“I started using my phone to go around Japan to film footage which I would then add my layer of narration about what it was I was showing,” he says. “My first ‘viral’ video was actually one of me introducing a public bath in Japan and its facilities. It was just a video to show what things are like here, but for many of my American viewers, it blew their mind.”
The timing of the pandemic truly factored into the success of his platform. April 2020, saw Smith starting a new job which took him from Sendai in Miyagi Prefecture to a school in Tokyo. The uncertainty of the situation and the move to teaching online gave him more time to make videos. TikTok users around the world who were also at home were consuming content more frequently. The number of his followers skyrocketed.
“TikTok is unique due to its virality and its algorithm. Prior to TikTok, having your content reach such critical mass was something that you’d think wouldn’t happen to you. But on TikTok, it can really happen to anyone,” he says.
A typical thepaperpat TikTok takes about 30 to 45 minutes to produce. It usually starts with a concept or an idea that Smith mulls over throughout the day. Editing isn’t always done in one go. He sometimes comes back to it after letting it sit for a while. The last part is recording the audio to give his ‘students’ a voice and adding captions to make the video accessible.
The most popular of Smith’s videos are parody skits from the school where he pokes fun at some of his students’ reactions. Half of the humor lies in the situation, the other is how he manages to portray every single role. Still, as with most things on the internet, not everyone is complimentary.
“Some people leave rude comments, attacking the behavior of my students and calling Japanese people racist,” Smith reveals. “It’s disappointing to see this because my one video or my one experience doesn’t represent Japanese people as a whole. And people forget that these students are five years old. How can you call a child racist?”
Being Black in Japan
Smith sees the other side to his videos as also having an educational and informative lens, “I hope to show people the reality of being Black in Japan. I have a lot of teenage Black Americans who contact me because they are very interested in coming here. Which is great, but I also want them to know what to expect,” he says.
To Smith, living in Japan is still much safer than his home country, the United States. He believes the likelihood of being a victim of violence here is much lower. What other Black people coming to Japan might experience instead is curiosity and questions about their appearance which might not be the norm in the country they’re from.
“Be prepared to be stared at a lot, especially when going to places like an onsen,” he says. “And sometimes it can be hard to make friends with Japanese. But if you are able to come to Japan, you should still embrace this opportunity and there is a chance you’ll be able to make long-lasting relationships here.”
As popular as Smith is, he just really cares for his students and loves being a teacher. He plans to keep working in education while continuing to make videos and content on the side. Earlier this year, he spoke at the TEDxWasedaU conference on the topic of connections.
Photos by Lisa Knight