New Zealand-born Hikosaemon (who prefers to go by his YouTube moniker) was raised an army brat. His father’s overseas postings allowed him to see a bit of the world at an early age, and a two-year stay in Singapore when he was 7 years old helped spark his interest in Asian cultures. After returning to his home country he later decided to take the only Asian-language course offered at his school: Japanese. Hikosaemon took his first step on to Japanese soil in 1990 with a home-stay in Fukuoka. He returned for a working holiday years later and has been residing permanently in Japan since 1999. Not only has he become fluent in Japanese but he also takes his bilingual ability and applies it to his videos. Made with English and Japanese subtitles, they’re aimed at both Eastern and Western audiences, and clearly illustrate that despite language or cultural differences, people are just people, no matter where they come from.
When did you start studying Japanese?
Japanese was offered as a new school subject in New Zealand when I was 13, and I took it through to university. I was not the most successful student of Japanese, and ended up not getting sufficient grades for third-year university Japanese. However, in an effort to turn things around, I began working at a Japanese-owned souvenir shop in Auckland part-time, which gave me the opportunity to use Japanese almost daily and to make Japanese friends. This experience caused my Japanese to improve dramatically through daily immersion and self-study.
Who are you trying to reach with your videos?
I aim to reach out equally to Japanese and English speakers who are interested in understanding crosscultural perspectives. I try to make my videos accessible and interesting to Japanese people by using Japanese, and I try to make them useful to language students and people interested in Japan by adding bilingual English and Japanese subtitles. My main aim with regards to content is to portray small interesting or funny aspects of my life here that convey a sense of the “normal” Japan I live in that is seldom seen or understood outside Japan, and to foster understanding among Japanese of the existence of long-term foreign residents like myself living in and contributing to Japan just like they do. The result is that my videos often become forums for a great mix of Japanese and non-Japanese, and that’s probably my overall goal with my videos.
You never really rant about Japan. How do you feel about vloggers/bloggers that do?
I think that constructive criticism and advice, or honestly conveying experiences, either positive or negative, is fine, and I have raised issues such as the difficulties foreigners face finding accommodation in Japan. However, there is a difference between that and people who go online to unload on Japan and vent frustration, or to “troll” by seeking to bait people with provocative anti-Japanese or generally negative views. Some people make some videos for the sport of provoking reactions, and others do it unaware of the kind of negative consequences that drawing such negative attention to yourself can lead to. My advice for people looking for a place to rant about Japan is that a video-sharing site isn’t the best place to do it. I think that if you put your face on a video, you have to presume you are accountable for what you say, and basically not say or do anything you wouldn’t want your boss, a prospective future employer, family or friends to eventually see.
You mentioned going to a health checkup recently, and the difficulty of understanding certain topic specific words in Japanese. How do you get through situations like this and have your methods ever backfired?
Generally, I found that while learning to speak Japanese through immersion, the key thing was always to keep the immersion genuine and not ever give the indication to anyone that they had to slow down, baby talk or switch to English with me. So basically, it meant only asking questions sparingly, and getting through the rest by learning to ignore words I didn’t understand and piecing together the gaps based on guesswork and applying my own instincts and hunches. This approach will get you through a conversation and foster an impression of fluency that you are then forced to live up to. However, it also can result in making embarrassing mistakes, particularly in situations where a precise grasp of terms being used is essential, as is often the case in work environments. This is what led to me sitting in the toilet cubicle holding a cup, not entirely sure what kind of sample to provide. Embarrassing mistakes can be the best teachers, but close calls with embarrassing situations can also be powerful lessons, as I found in that case. I suppose that whenever unsure, I tend to lean toward taking the path least likely to result in becoming arrested.
In one video you told a story about when you were working in New Zealand and you drove a group of Japanese tourists from the shop where you working to their hotel. They eventually realized you could speak Japanese and understand the insults they were saying about you. Did the experience alter your impression of Japanese people?
Not at all. To tell the truth, in all the circumstances of that story, if the tables were turned, I probably would have been the oyaji in the back of the bus grumbling about the driver. Plus, English speakers in Japan I think are all familiar with that feeling you get on arrival that your “exotic” language is a cloak of invisibility that means you can vocalize every obnoxious thought you have about everything. Plus, of course, the punchline to that story was the utter shock and embarrassment of the customers, and the super-large tip they paid me. I rate it as one of the most fun experiences I had at that job. I have run into unpleasant and ignorant Japanese before, but I fortunately already knew enough good Japanese people by that point that running into bad people never discolored my view of Japanese as a whole.
Now that you are fluent, how do you deal with experiences like this in Japan?
I don’t think I’ve ever really run into that situation in Japan. In terms of Japanese insisting on talking to me in English, I’ve reached a point where I feel comfortable enough with my Japanese ability that I happily go along and speak in English if the other person wants to practice. I will admit that probably what still bothers me the most is when you speak to someone and, due to their own insecurities and fear of miscommunication with a foreigner, they respond by talking to the nearest Asian-looking person instead. I’ll usually keep talking straight to them regardless, and if they continue not acknowledging me, I’ve been known to begin waving my hands.
One of your vlogs mentions how to avoid copyright infringements within a video blog. What inspired you to speak about this topic?
I think that one of the biggest fears that creators of video content have is of being hit with a copyright claim. Media companies and copyright organizations have set out clear positions that they consider any inclusion of content that they control in user-generated content to be something in their eyes equivalent to theft and/or piracy. That of course makes sense when people are directly recording and sharing television shows and music, but where people genuinely intend to create a work that they consider to be the fruits of their own labor, having a video taken down and even losing their online account because a commercial song was audible on a PA system in one of the shots, it seems unfair and counterintuitive to ordinary people who use the Internet and consume media. I know cases where people have had home videos of their children, or memorial or tribute videos for deceased loved ones, slammed with copyright claims for music content. Aside from wanting to ensure that my own videos are clear, I just want to help people understand that it is possible to make videos incorporating third-party content so long as they avoid using commercial content and stick to using content from sites like Jamendo and Flickr which provide material with advance permission given by the artists to promote and spread their work through remixing and sharing. That’s why I do volunteer work for Creative Commons Japan, which is part of a worldwide organization that creates and promotes licenses that people can attach to their own original content, allowing sharing and reuse of their work. I think increased awareness of Creative Commons and access to material with those freedoms attached creates a win-win situation where commercial media’s desire to be excluded from user-generated content is respected, and creators can still make high-quality content knowing that they can do so in a way that supports deserving artists and does not put their own hard work at risk of deletion, or at worst, legal claims for damages.
Where do you see the future of Japan blogging headed? Do you feel it will stay the same?
At present, there is generally a big gap between the style and format of mainly Western video bloggers, who favor open social networks such as YouTube, Facebook and Twitter, and many Japanese content creators who prefer to be active in the more closed communities on Nico Nico Douga, Mixi and 2channel. I think that in the future we’ll see convergence between these communities and different styles of video-making as well as convergence with content creators in the music, podcasting and text-blogging genres to create content that matches and often exceeds the quality of a lot of commercial media. (Hikosaemon talks more about this in more detail in the embedded video so have a look and feel free to leave comments on the subject.)
How do you feel about live vlogging on sites such as Ustream?
I think when it is done well, the genuine interactivity and reality makes live streaming on the Internet more compelling than other talk formats that already exist on radio and television. Live video streaming sites have already existed for a long time, on Stickam and BlogTV, but the increasing investment and commercialization of live Web broadcasting, through Nicodouga and more recently Ustream, shows that user generated content sites recognize the genuine potential this format already has to win audiences from existing talk television and radio. Some great examples of live vlogging that already exist in Japan are TokyoCooney (BlogTV), ActionTeacher (Nico Nico Douga) and HirokoChannel (Ustream), not to mention Joseph Tame, who broadcast the entire Tokyo Marathon live on Ustream from his iPhone as he ran in it.
You seem to be very active in the Japan vlogging community. What would you like to see more of in Japan-related scene?
Primarily, I would like to see more Japanese people active in the vlogging scene, and for more Japanese language content to become accessible to non-Japanese. I’m also hopeful that well-informed columnists and commentators from other media discover the benefits of the vlogging genre and become more involved. My greatest hope and expectation is that in the future, there will be greater opportunities for collaboration between Japanese and Western vloggers that will unlock a the wealth of untapped material that exists on relatively closed Japanese websites at present, and this should lead to Japan winning greater recognition throughout the Web as a leading source of innovative content.
What do you think the pitfalls are of consumer-generated media?
One of the problems with consumer-generated media is that the barrier to entry is so low. An 8 year old with access to a computer can figure out how to create and post content without much trouble nowadays, and it is because of this that people often go in at first without any consideration of the risks, which can include loss of privacy, online and offline bullying, the risk of legal issues, and posting of inappropriate content that can put your job at risk. In this regard, I think it is a good idea to first think ahead and draw up your own rules for what you will and will not put in online content linked to you. The final big risk is addiction. It might seem strange, but there are a lot of people also addicted to creating user-generated content. The interaction and feedback one gets from posting content can often be such a rush for some people that it starts to overtake their lives and compromise their home and offline life. It is good to keep a healthy perspective on this, and remember to walk away sometimes and ensure you keep a healthy balance with the non-virtual people in your life.
Are their any vloggers in particular that we should keep an eye out for?
If you are interested in getting a good feel for worthwhile Japan related vlogs, I have a more extensive list of recommended vloggers on my YouTube channel page. Among these, I would rate the following as standout vloggers in their genres: TokyoCooney and Hirokochannel (for TV show-style vlogs about Japan and streaming live talkshow vlogs), Hanafubuki and Helpmefindparents(for creative/artistic vlogs), JetDaisuke (for Japanese language vlogs),Gimmeaflakeman and Tofugu (for Japanese language learning vlogs), MissHannahMinx, ThatJapanesegirl, Ciaela and ManTrousers (for entertaining Japan vlogs), and BruceIno and PsKim731 (for up-and-coming topical discussion vloggers). There are many more channels I recommend, but I think this is a good cross section to begin with.