Meet the Japanese YouTube stars hoping to go global
YouTubers around the world have found fame on the online video platform, with a select number achieving mainstream success as their millions of fans propel them to brand endorsements, best-selling books and cameos in major films.
While still far behind the likes of Sweden’s PewDiePie, who has amassed the world’s highest number of subscribers at 56 million, top YouTubers in Japan have achieved followings in the millions and are also seeing signs of breaking into mainstream pop culture.
But as they will attest, the daily grind of creating content for the Google-owned platform is no walk in the park, especially if the ultimate aim is to gain subscribers on a global scale.
The seven members of Fischer’s, a YouTube comedy channel with a fan base approaching 3 million, have developed a taste of fame after seven years of creating videos.
“Just walking down the street, we get recognised,” said Masai, one of the Tokyo-based channel’s leading members. “[Fischer’s member] Dama is an average guy, but he’s recognised even with a mask on.”
But Japan’s top YouTubers have yet to adjust to the kind of celebrity experienced by some of their counterparts around the world and in the United States, where this year’s VidCon, the world’s biggest convention celebrating online video, recently drew 30,000 attendees to Anaheim, California.
“He hides when people ask for pictures,” Masai said of Dama.
The young men behind another popular Tokyo-based channel, Mizutamari Bond, have also been sought out in real life by the most passionate of their 2 million subscribers, most of whom are 17 – to 23-year-old males. Some of the top comments that Kanta and Tommy receive online are from fans hoping to meet them, and even offering discounts to encourage the duo to visit their stores.
Mizutamari Bond takes on a variety show style with overemphasised subtitles and superimposed images. At the time of its launch around three years ago, there was a sharp rise in Japanese youth showing interest in YouTubers, according to Rene Paulesich, global alliance lead at the Tokyo-based multichannel network UUUM, which acts as Mizutamari Bond’s management team.
UUUM – founded by HIKAKIN, another of Japan’s most popular channels on the platform – counts Japan’s top YouTubers, such as Hajime Syacho and Yuka Kinoshita, as part of its clientele and handles the day-to-day business side of YouTube, including brand partnerships and mental health checks.
Paulesich points to 2014 as a watershed year in the growth of interest in YouTube personalities. UUUM, founded a year earlier, “grew exponentially” as a result, he said, with the company’s clientele increasing from 40 “influencers” to 2,500 that year. Now, UUUM works with more than 3,500 YouTubers in Japan.
These clients work with some 500 Japanese brands, crafting entertainment content around products as an important source of income.
“Advertisers are just starting to see the benefit of working with these new stars and celebrities,” he said.
Despite strong growth, Japan is “not yet there” compared to the US YouTube community, where Paulesich noted the prevalence of “teens who value those stars or YouTube celebrities more than maybe TV or music artists”.
In 2016, YouTube won over US children 6 to 12 years of age as the most popular brand, according to market research firm Smarty Pants, outranking Disney, McDonald’s and Netflix.
VidCon, which this year was headlined by more than 300 of YouTube’s top creators, saw nearly double the turnout of the largest such festivals in Japan.
Kanta of Mizutamari Bond, who attended VidCon for the first time in June and met several non-Japanese viewers, said “It shows you just how many YouTube fans there are in the world.”
“It would be cool if YouTube were treated like that in Japan, too,” he added.
YouTubers in Japan are enjoying an increasingly high profile, a trend reflecting the worldwide trend of “cord-cutting” – cancelling cable television subscriptions in favour of an online streaming service. Hajime Syacho, incidentally, has the most subscribers with his total close to 5 million.
“I’m very grateful that today’s elementary and middle schoolers are saying they want to be YouTubers when they grow up,” said Kanta, 23. “I think they understand it’s hard work, that we lose sleep, that at first you get ridiculed.”
Masai of Fischer’s and Kanta both said that making their hobby of performing comedy a full-time profession has involved adhering to a schedule of daily video uploads. Publishing one video involves four hours of editing and a significant amount of time filming, Kanta explained.
“Some people think it’s easy money,” he said. “But this is a world where you don’t know what will happen tomorrow.”
“But you keep doing it. If people end up making fun of what I post, I just work harder,” he added.
Fischer’s is beginning to think on a global scale as its subscriber count climbs. “If all seven members of Fischer’s learned English, we could make an English channel. That’s the dream,” said Masai. “Japan is great, but I think America is [a] priority.”
Fischer’s has posted daily videos of the members’ recent travels to various Japanese prefectures as well as Taiwan and Los Angeles.
“We’re spreading our wings these days,” he said.