Turning YouTube into yen: Can vloggers become the new foreign correspondents?

by

Special To The Japan Times

In 2015, Sharla of the YouTube channel Sharla In Japan found herself juggling two careers. Since 2011, the Canadian-born creator had been making videos about her life here to a quickly growing audience. But actually making them was tough, as she also had a day job.

“I hated it,” says Sharla, who’s asked us not to publish her last name for privacy reasons. “It was a startup tech company, I liked having the chance to help build the company up. But the hours were insane, it was your typical work-to-death hours, not getting paid for overtime.”

Increasingly stressed out, she soon realized her YouTube channel was actually pulling in about the same amount of money as her tech work.

“I was getting the same income doing something I enjoy, so why am I doing this other thing?” Sharla quit the job, and gambled on making YouTube videos her primary source of income. It paid off.

Sharla was one of the first English-language YouTubers in Japan — sometimes referred to as “J-Vloggers” — to turn what started as a sort of weekly Japanese diary into a full-time gig focused on showing viewers what life in the country is like.

Entering 2017, the number of people creating similar videos of the country has risen drastically. They have been filming themselves and their surroundings since YouTube started, but it has grown by a lot.

“It’s insane! More people have become comfortable vlogging now. In 2015 I could probably count them on two hands,” Sharla says.

The number of people tuning into the videos has grown significantly as well. Sharla In Japan currently sits at more than 493,000 followers, while other upper-echelon English-language creators such as Rachel and Jun (over 755,000), and Simon and Martina (over 1 million) boast more. Many others have six-digit follower counts. Views are typically high.

Interest extends to other online spaces. Fans and detractors mention YouTubers on social media, while message boards devoted to them exist (Sharla’s request for privacy makes much more sense after I see a thread dissecting her trip to the Pokemon Center as if it were the Zapruder film that caught the Kennedy assassination). Domestic and international media outlets frequently cite — or just aggregate — their work, using them as their guide to the latest trends and developments in the country.

English-language vlogs have become the primary eye into Japan for those fascinated with the country from abroad. The number only looks set to grow. Can these social-media-age Lafcadio Hearns realistically make this a career just as Sharla has?

“It is a viable career path,” says David Powell, director of Online Partner Development for Asia Pacific at YouTube. He has been in Japan since 2001, and thinks the online community has evolved a lot. But it has boomed in the past two years.

“I think English-language creators in Japan are actually lucky,” he says. “There’s such a world interest in Japan. If you have a good personality, if you can tell a story, you can find success.”

The actual paths to monetization are well-documented, particularly in the United States where top-level creators pull in millions of dollars a year. Utilizing Google AdSense is the most direct route, while commercial tie-ups can be even more lucrative, or at least offset other costs.

“I usually get five offers a month, though I will often only consider two,” Sharla says. Onsen (hot-spring baths) and ryokan (Japanese inns) frequently reach out to her to come up and film, an avenue she only expects to grow ahead of the 2020 Olympics.

Good old-fashioned hustling still plays a big role. When asked what percentage of her income comes solely from YouTube, Sharla pegs it at 70 percent. She supplements videos with a part-time job in which she coaches actors in English and helps with script translation. Last year, she worked on the set of “Shin Godzilla” (“I freakin’ love Godzilla, I almost cried when I got that offer”).

Though most of her income comes via YouTube, she says the platform still presents a feast-or-famine risk, wherein slight alterations to the site can change her fortunes.

“Recently, they changed their algorithm,” she says. “The videos they show randomly on the side, they totally changed. All (us YouTubers’) views dropped like 50 percent and our income was cut in half.” But she says she plans accordingly for such dips.

Powell says YouTube itself tries to actively assist creators.

“We have account managers, when someone gets over 10,000 subscribers they reach out to them to help optimize their channel,” he says. Beyond that, they hold a variety of Creator Days featuring classes to help YouTubers, along with mixers and parties meant to bring the community closer.

And they have the YouTube Space, a studio located above the Google office in Roppongi Hills. Users with more than 10,000 followers can access it, and potentially make use of the sets, editing rooms and recording booths. They even allow creators to rent equipment, from cameras to a device called Odyssey, which comprises 16 GoPro cameras in what looks like a space-age-dumbbell meant to capture VR-appropriate footage.

“They’ve gotten better, they used to not really include us and only focus on Japanese people, but the current staff is really helpful,” Sharla says about YouTube.

The bigger roadblock to creating video content in Japan, however, might be obtaining a visa. This tends to be a common gripe among YouTubers. It’s possible to independently nab one if you make enough, but that’s a complicated path for one person to traverse.

“If you can find an agency that really believes in you — they have to put lots of money and effort into applying for it — you can definitely get a visa,” Sharla says, noting she was one of the first to get a visa that way, and that it is becoming more common. She originally worked with Yoshida Masaki (Rachel and Jun, Micaela Anne Braithwaite) but joined Breaker (Simon And Martina) this past December. Those two companies are the biggest such entities for English-language YouTubers (one other, Uuum Corp., focuses on Japanese talent which, worth noticing, are also going full-time with YouTube more often than before).

“I’ll probably be with them until I leave Japan,” Sharla says about Breaker. She doesn’t plan on staying in Japan long-term — she has recently gotten engaged and she wants to try living in another country before eventually settling down back in her native Canada. Her video priorities have also changed. Recently, she focuses more on her second, more personal channel and hopes to travel more in the coming years across Japan.

“I think it’s really important to explore outside of Tokyo, the city is just so … cliche,” she says with a laugh.

It isn’t a simple endeavor, but as YouTube continues growing as a content destination and as the primary lens in which Japan is seen — and the country needs to be seen — the possibility for creators following in Sharla’s footsteps is definitely there.

Sharla’s vlogging tips

The community of vloggers in Japan has exploded with the popularity of YouTube and other social media sites.

When starting your own channel, expert J-Volgger Sharla says the best thing to do is research what’s out there and find a way to stand out.

“Don’t expect lots of views or money,” she says. “That takes years for most people.”

Because of the competition to grab an audience, Sharla says above all you should have fun.

“You really need to enjoy doing it, because it will take time before you see any benefits.”