Our Lives | TELLING LIVES

Dogen: Humor that's not lost in translation

by Patrick ST. Michel

Contributing Writer

Living in Japan can, from time to time, present a fair amount of frustration for non-Japanese, especially if they can’t speak the language well. Long-term resident Kevin O’Donnell, who creates YouTube videos about Japan under the name “Dogen,” isn’t afraid to vent but avoids any vitriol.

“I do criticize Japanese culture a fair amount in my videos, but I make sure to always do so through comedy. Such that if I’m saying something could potentially be improved, that the person on the other end can laugh while hearing it,” he says.

Chances are that if you’ve spent any time in social media circles devoted to life in Japan, you’ve almost certainly had a short video by Dogen grace your feed. The 31-year-old creator’s clips cover everything from food culture to city office visits to “Naruto.” His comedic creations usually rack up thousands of views, likes and retweets, with a handful going viral.

“It seems that most people who watch and enjoy my content have, perhaps, seen some of the jokes and statements that I make as something they can sympathize with regarding life in Japan or studying Japanese,” O’Donnell says.

What stands out immediately about O’Donnell’s content is that he speaks mostly in Japanese with an impeccable accent, despite the fact he is originally from Washington state. I point this out because linguistic ability often serves as a marker in the non-Japanese community to build a hierarchy, sometimes even as a way to attack others. O’Donnell’s delivery and work, though, has impressed salty Reddit posters and Japanese YouTubers in equal strides.

“I think when anybody watches his videos for the first time, the immediate reaction has to be, ‘How did this guy get so native in Japanese?'” says Tokyo Creative CEO Chris Okano, whose company currently counts Dogen on its roster of talents. “It’s difficult enough for me to make jokes in my native tongue, but Dogen has successfully created entertaining, unique takes on Japanese culture in his second language.”

O’Donnell’s linguistic abilities are at a level where he can also offer straightforward Japanese phonetics lessons, the majority of which he does via the crowdfunding site Patreon, after getting inquiries from viewers on his approach.

“I studied phonetics, which is something most people don’t study,” O’Donnell says. “I still think I have a lot of room for improvement.”

O’Donnell’s gateway to the world of online video came via martial arts. Starting in high school, he got deep into “tricking,” which entails all sorts of flips, spins and kicks of the type you’d see in “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.” “I started using YouTube basically the day it launched because everybody in the tricking community needed a place to host their videos,” he says.

Martial arts also sparked an interest in Asian culture, inspiring him to study topics such as Zen Buddhism. In fact “Dogen,” which O’Donnell first used for an online tricking forum, is the name of a famous monk. Over time, he focused more and more on Japan — one video on Twitter celebrates the many aspects of the country that he loves — and he put a heavy emphasis on Japanese classes while attending the University of Washington, saying his end goal was to end up there. At the same time, he also pursued creative writing.

“I think a lot of YouTubers, a lot of artists in general, are at least initially narcissistic. This is how I was when I began writing seriously in university,” he says, adding that since few people around him were creative writing then, he thought his output must have been inherently good. That attitude changed when a creative writing teacher in college basically told him comedy was the only time his work really shone. “That’s when you don’t take yourself too seriously,” he recalls.

He continued to write after graduation and while in Oita Prefecture on the JET Programme as an assistant language teacher, though he switched to writing in Japanese. After hopping between Japan and South Korea for work, he eventually settled in Beppu and picked up a job at a university (though he’ll quit at the end of March to focus purely on his online endeavors). As he continued creating funny stories, he had an epiphany.

“A bunch of weird things all came together at once, where I had video editing skills from tricking and I had the language ability because I had been writing in Japanese,” O’Donnell says. “I kind of had the realization that the younger generation these days are interested in consuming the same (kinds of) content in video form. So I thought if I just performed my scripts rather than just read them, they would probably do better.”

His hunch paid off. Following a few English-language creations, starting with an English-language send-up of tech reviews, the more familiar Japanese-language videos came soon after. But growth came slowly, as his general pace of video creation stopped him from posting frequently and taking advantage of the YouTube algorithm.

So he also started uploading clips to Twitter, and they began performing better than what he was posting to YouTube. O’Donnell thinks this is because Twitter, which is a quippier social network, is perfect for the kind of one-liners he specializes in. It helped connect him to more viewers both in Japan and overseas. O’Donnell says videos about Japanese elections and the drawbacks of grocery stores particularly connected with users here, while his response to American YouTuber Logan Paul’s escapades in Japan stands as his most-shared ever.

“(Japanese viewers) said something along the lines of, because Japanese people aren’t very combative, thank you for saying something along these lines, because I was thinking something similar but didn’t want to say it myself,” he recalls, though he admits feeling conflicted to the success of that post, as it was a response to current events and not a script.

Twitter is a balancing act, though. It’s capable of spreading content but can also elicit plenty of outrage if you say the wrong thing. O’Donnell has been able to navigate those choppy waters so far and part of the reason for that, and why his content stands out, is because he does a good job of not wading into extremes. For every gushing upload about Japan, there’s also a more critical perspective on parts of Japanese culture.

“This sounds rather preachy if I say it like this, but I try not to preach,” O’Donnell says. He likes Japan and takes an optimistic tone when talking about it. That can sometimes rub other non-Japanese residents the wrong way (see “the disillusioned ALT” character from “The 7 Types of Foreigner“), but he acknowledges that there are plenty of challenges to life in Japan that he may not encounter because he is a white male.

“But I do think that, if we do try to change Japan, or critique or criticize elements of Japanese culture, we should do it in a way that doesn’t feel to the average Japanese person like an attack,” he says. “I think we need to stay positive and continue to remind ourselves that we are appreciative of the positive aspects of Japanese culture. Even though there are problems within Japanese society that foreigners face that the average Japanese person does not face.”

Dogen uploads videos on his YouTube channel (www.youtube.com/user/Dogen) and on his Twitter (twitter.com/Dogen) His phonetics series can be found on Patreon (www.patreon.com/dogen)