Mr. Yabatan wasn’t quite satisfied with the attention he was getting on YouTube in late 2017. The Tokyo-based Norwegian creator had connected with an audience with the short, humorous videos he’d made, in which he spoke heavily accented Japanese in the style of numerous European languages.
“My videos were going well — abroad,” he tells The Japan Times. “I had lots of foreign fans on Facebook and Instagram. I thought that was really cool, but I was still lacking what I came to Japan for, which was the Japanese audience.”
It didn’t take him long after to become a hit with domestic viewers. On Dec. 2, he uploaded a seasonally appropriate clip that found Mr. Yabatan — Yabatan is the name of the French character he has settled on — taking in the lights at Tokyo Midtown. It’s part slapstick and part wide-eyed wonder. Two days after putting it up, Yabatan says he glanced at his phone to see it overloaded with notifications from Instagram.
“Somebody told me, ‘You are everywhere on Twitter.'” he says. “It was really scary! Finally I found the source. Someone stole my video, uploaded it to Twitter and it went super-viral in Japan. She didn’t tag my name — someone in the comments wrote my name and linked to my Instagram. That was my breakthrough.”
Since that lucky moment when digital theft turned fortuitous, Yabatan has enjoyed a strong following among Japanese viewers. His videos, spread across multiple online platforms, can count on tens of thousands of views and a stream of supportive comments in Japanese. He’s also made the jump to the slightly larger screen. Yabatan has popped up on NHK World and on Nippon TV’s “Sukiri” morning show.
Yabatan is part of a small group of non-Japanese creators making popular content primarily in Japanese. Generally, YouTube gives viewers outside of Japan a chance to take a peek into the country via Japan-based vloggers — sometimes referred to as “J-vloggers.” Though many of these Japan-based personalities dabble in Japanese, their focus is on English-language creations.
More Japanese people, meanwhile, are turning to YouTube as their first stop for entertainment. The bulk of that, though, comes from Japanese YouTubers. These two sides of Japanese online video rarely meet.
But there does exist a small but notable number of creators filling that space, with some boasting impressive numbers of subscribers and views. Every creator in this gap goes about connecting with viewers differently — some don’t even live in Japan — but each has managed to do something that has allowed them to click with a Japanese audience.
“I was living alone in the countryside in Japan when I started watching YouTube,” says the YouTuber known as Mimei. Her channel features a wide variety of uploads, ranging from makeup tutorials and popular Japanese YouTube challenges to more personal vlog-style entries, among others.
She moved to the country from New Zealand in 2009 to learn the language and experience the culture (“and see my favorite bands”). Freed of her super-slow internet back home, she says she was quickly charmed by the “alternative media source.”
“I especially loved watching Japanese YouTubers because it helped improve my Japanese. And yeah … living alone felt less lonely when I was hanging out with someone through the screen.”
Mimei soon started creating her own videos, primarily in Japanese. “That way I could practice! Recording myself speaking and then playing it back and editing it meant I could see where I was making mistakes. Sometimes people would even help correct my Japanese in the comments, which was awesome because I self-studied Japanese.”
Hannah Kentridge turned to the video platform for a similar reason. Currently finishing up her last year at Oxford University, she launched her MissHanake channel seven years ago.
“I had already been making videos, but I’d never heard myself talk in Japanese before, so basically just as an experiment I filmed a video trying to introduce myself in Japanese,” she says.
Kentridge had developed an interest in the language at a young age and learned it her own — “I still think the soft consonants in Japanese have a kind of ASMR quality to them” — but the clip offered her a chance to share with others. She sent it to the prominent Japan-based vlogger Gimmeabreakman, who offered comments and shared her channel with others, giving her motivation to keep at it in Japanese.
Since then, she’s made videos from England and during a year-long stay in Japan, and her channel currently boasts around 59,000 subscribers.
“According to my analytics page, more than 85 percent of my views are coming from Japan now,” she says. “I started making videos looking for a mix of Japanese people who could give me advice on my Japanese, and English speakers who perhaps were also interested in Japanese, and I believe that’s what I’ve got.”
Making the connection
Yabatan’s route was a bit different. He grew up in a house of entertainers, and knew it was what he would do, but he became focused on Japan via the country’s comedy.
“It was Downtown, the comedy duo — the no-laughing series. I found that on YouTube and that was my gateway,” he says.
After spending two weeks on the archipelago in 2012, Yabatan committed himself to language school in Japan the following year. Over the next few years, he ping-ponged between Norway and Japan, settling into Tokyo in early 2017.
Language school led him to his breakthrough idea. He says he was surrounded by people of many nationalities, and that he had a knack for imitations.
“So I started doing accents, in Japanese,” he explains. “Very simple, in my room.” The results are funny and at times collar-tugging, but did feature the development of his future go-to persona. “This character kind of became Yabatan. He’s innocent, pure. He sounds a little weird. He misunderstands things, but he has that respect for everything.”
He also gets Japanese humor. Yabatan videos are built on wordplay, with his Franco-Japanese patois filling out the rest. His general approach is to find a good location and then think from his non-Japanese perspective why it’s cool (he believes non-Japanese viewers are drawn to the backdrops as much as his gags). “Then I take the Japanese language and find the funny things present in the language to try to come up with things that they will think is funny.” While he sometimes writes a scripts, he prefers improv.
“You have to stop thinking like a foreigner, you have to become a Japanese person. Fortunately for me, I’ve watched a lot of Japanese variety TV,” he says with a laugh, adding that his Japanese friends also keep him up on what’s going on.
Kentridge says her most popular upload with Japanese viewers is about her first trip to Japan.
“I talk a lot about how excited and nervous I am and how my dream from childhood is finally coming true, and I think when Japanese people see it they feel good to see somebody so excited to visit their country.”
On the flip side, she says her biggest hit with those outside of Japan is “The Hiragana Song,” a fun bit of on-the-spot singing (“terribly embarrassing” is her description now, though she adds it has “charm”).
“It’s nice hearing from Japanese people who like my Japanese and are motivated to work harder on their English, but I find it even more amazing when people come to me saying I influenced them to start learning Japanese,” she says.
As you’d expect, Japanese viewers bring different expectations to videos than non-Japanese ones, and cultural mismatches going beyond a grammar slip-up can pop up.
“Sometimes I make a video knowing it’s going to be controversial. For instance, talking about tattoos, or getting a bit peeved at a shop because their service was wretched,” Mimei says when asked about the potential backlash from Japanese viewers. “Neither of those topics would be particularly controversial if I talked about them in English, but I think it’s incredibly important not to project our own cultural values or beliefs onto another culture.”
Kentridge finds most Japanese viewers to be supportive of her videos, and she says she has felt more like her authentic self in recent years. However, issues do crop up.
“I’m currently studying Korean as well as Japanese, and quite often if I mention Korean, a few Japanese nationalists come creeping out of the woodwork to tell me not to bother learning Korean, or to stay ‘faithful’ to Japan, which can be a bit disconcerting.”
That, coupled with comments on her appearance — something YouTubers everywhere face from comment trolls, but which Kentridge says she feels is more acceptable in Japan, as some see it as a sign of closeness — are her main challenges.
Like Mimei, Yabatan did not want his real name published due to privacy concerns, such as trolling and stalking. So far, though, he says he has only had one light brush with controversy from the Japanese side.
“I made one mistake once. I did a sakura (cherry blossom) video, and I accidentally got it in my mouth … or I was accidentally touching the tree,” he says. “People didn’t get mad about it, but they were more like ‘Be careful!’ ‘I really love you, but this is not OK.’ They were trying to warn me.”
Far more common is criticism from other non-Japanese people, who can feel like he gives a misleading representation of what foreign residents are like.
“It’s never nice to read negative comments, but I believe in what I do,” Yabatan says. “I guess this person just doesn’t understand what I’m doing. So it doesn’t really matter what this person thinks about what I’m doing. It doesn’t matter. I’m going to keep doing what I’m doing. I believe in it, and I have many fans who like what I do.”
Each person interviewed for this article sees YouTube in a different light.
Yabatan wants to use it as a catapult to mainstream Japanese media, with dreams of consistent work on Japanese TV and collaborations with famous people (currently, Thelma Aoyama and Naomi Watanabe top his dream list). He says he’s going all in on this goal.
Mimei is independent, and believes YouTube is too finicky a source of income to rely on solely, so she also does freelance video production work. Oxford has a rule stating students can’t get jobs during the term, so Kentridge sees the income she gets from her videos as “a bit of extra pocket money,” and feels free to do what she likes with video.
Something shared among all three, however, is a desire to present non-Japanese people in a positive light.
“I have to say, before every video I do, I think about it very carefully after the Logan Paul thing. I go through everything in my head,” Yabatan says. “I don’t think you can compare him to what I do, but many people do. Not Japanese people. Well, maybe some Japanese people.
“I’m an example of a ‘good foreigner.’ That’s also something that makes me very happy, though, because if I’m a ‘nice’ foreigner and Japanese people watch it, they develop a nicer image of foreigners.”
This motivation was even more fundamental for Mimei.
“The second reason [I started my channel] was that I lived in Japan and I didn’t really like how foreigners were portrayed on TV. This remains the reason I rarely accept TV opportunities,” she says. “I wanted to offer something a bit different, something a little more organic, something that wasn’t going to be edited to fit a certain narrative. Just a regular person, living and working in Japan, who happened to be a foreigner. This small cultural exchange is one of the reasons I’m happy I vlog in Japanese.”
For those wanting to give it a go themselves, Yabatan urges aspiring creators to “really push yourself into Japanese culture. Interact with people, spend a good amount of time, really put your soul into it.”
Mimei agrees. “Whenever I see a non-Japanese person vlogging in Japanese I get obsessed!” she says. “It takes a lot of courage, to be honest. It’s harder to express yourself in your second language, especially when people are watching. You’re going to make mistakes — I know I do — but we’re all still learning.
“I think it’s so important that we can share our culture, our world view, and grow closer.”
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