If you’ve been unable to physically visit Japan in the past decade, then your plan B has likely been to dive into YouTube.
Content creators based in Japan (often referred to as “J-vloggers”), most of whom are from countries other than Japan, have shepherded overseas Japanophiles to places in this country that many locals haven’t even visited.
Life moves pretty fast on the internet, though, and the heyday of the J-vlogger simply sharing their life online has waned as the market has become oversaturated with similar-looking content. (I mean, there’s only so many times you can watch a video of conveyor-belt sushi.)
This doesn’t mean interest in Japan-related content on YouTube has trailed off, though. If anything, it has become more popular during the pandemic with people using the videos to plan their dream vacations and post-college plans after the pandemic.
“(My) YouTube videos had an increase in views, I’d say,” YouTuber Chris Broad told The Japan Times’ Oscar Boyd in December for the “Recultured” podcast. Broad is the creator behind the popular Abroad In Japan channel. “(There was a spike) maybe as much as 20% in April and May when the whole of the U.K., U.S. and Europe in general were locked indoors.”
However, the type of content — and the people creating it — has changed over the past few years, though non-Japanese creators remain central to offering viewers abroad an inside look at Japan.
Anime at the top
The anime and manga industries are enjoying boom times thanks to roaring profits and an ever-stronger influence on the pop culture of Generation Z. Vloggers are helping drive this, with anime-focused YouTubers — or “anitubers” — growing in numbers and influence, creating a stronger digital community in the process.
“I’ve definitely seen an increase in viral anime-related content on not only YouTube but TikTok as well,” says Meilyne Tran, director of the Tokyo-based influencer agency GeeXPlus. “For YouTube specifically, there have been quite a number of channels I’ve never heard of before with 100,000 to 500,000 subscribers that popped up out of nowhere. That’s very exciting because it also means that anime is getting so popular that there’s a bigger space for fans to connect.”
Some of the biggest anime channels fall under the GeeXPlus umbrella, an endeavor launched in February of last year by publishing company Kadokawa in order to connect Japanese brands with global influencers. Their interest lies in pushing J-vloggers who focus almost entirely on anime- and manga-related content — areas in which Kadokawa has large stakes — rather than just videos that might appeal to tourists.
“We’ve found that perhaps J-vloggers don’t really have an audience that regularly read manga, so that side isn’t really our priority at the moment,” Tran says.
Still, a handful of GeeXPlus’ roster of creators actually live in Japan, which helps them stand out from other anime-focused channels. In fact, the agency invited three prominent anitubers — Sydney Poniewaz (Sydsnap), Garnt Maneetapho (Gigguk) and Connor Colquhoun (CDawgVA) — to relocate to Tokyo, joining Joey Bizinger (The Anime Man) and Foxen Anime as influencers working in the country. Thanks to their location, they can interview artists, tour anime studios and indulge in other elements of Japanese culture.
Maneetapho, Colquhoun and Bizinger also launched a YouTube podcast, “Trash Taste,” through the agency. On it, the trio pepper conversations about anime and industry-related topics with anecdotes from their lives in Japan, a combination that has seen “Trash Taste” become one of the biggest Japan-focused channels on YouTube, with uploads regularly passing the million mark.
“There’s just so much that fans do not get to see or know,” Tran says. “An ‘anituber’ is in a very interesting spot that could help open-up the industry and community if they are able to work together more.”
The communities within the community
Nate Reutter always considered launching a YouTube channel due to his background in music and media production, but held off because of the work involved.
“As many of our viewers know, we’re Christians and our main job here (in Japan) is working with starting churches, which is already a full-time job,” he says. “So imagine my surprise when, during prayer, I sensed God nudging me to start a YouTube channel.
“I thought, ‘What would it be about? YouTubers need endless amounts of content and ideas they can use. It’s got to be something that I could produce all the time without getting old.’ And I sensed God saying, ‘The life of your family in Japan.’ And, Life In Japan was born.”
The channel, launched in 2018, finds Reutter, his wife and their four children documenting their lives here.
“Life In Japan is all about foreigners — us — adapting to and establishing a life in Japan,” he says. “While there are many difficult aspects to living in Japan as a foreigner, we chose to look at the positive side of life here and the benefits there are to living and raising a family here.”
The topics Reutter touches on — trips to Kansai, Japanese food, speaking the language — are familiar ones in the world of J-vlogging, which he presents from the viewpoint of a non-Japanese family with a sprinkling of religion. It never crosses over into proselytizing, but this aspect of the channel has helped it to attract a strong and supportive community.
“We premiere our videos every Friday at 7 p.m., and our fans are there religiously! I recognize many of them and it’s fun to interact with them,” Reutter says. “We get a lot of great comments, but the comments I most appreciate are the ones that go something like this: ‘I was having a bad day, really feeling down, then I watched this and somehow I just feel better. I feel like there’s hope.’”
Life In Japan is part of a crew of creators whose content is well-produced and a bit more niche, capable of attracting a loyal community within the non-Japanese community. Other examples include the car-centric YouTuber Sammit, language-focused channel Oriental Pearl and the skateboarding footage of Luis Mora (now relocated to Los Angeles).
“We’ve been all right through this pandemic because of the love and hope that we already share, and we have a strong network of relationships that we can rely on. This kind of stability is very attractive to others and is one of the reasons I believe people watch our videos and then immediately ‘feel better,’” Reutter says. “What that means for YouTube is continuing to put out the positive type of content that we produce, but also developing new content that helps people with their own lives.”
J-vlogging has been a predominantly Western trend over the past 10 years and, with some exceptions like The Black Experience Japan, it has been done mainly by white YouTubers. However, the members of Japan’s fastest-growing foreign communities are increasingly getting noticed for their own content, which offers looks at life here from perspectives long overlooked, and is delivered in languages other than English.
Neo Japan offers daily vlogs from an Indonesian perspective, growing into a channel that regularly attracts six-digit view counts and boasts more than 1 million subscribers. Joshua Salom is one of the bigger Filipino creators detailing his experience living in Japan, while Quynh Tran JP & Family features the videos of a Vietnamese woman living in Saitama Prefecture.
Pawan Lohomord is the creator behind the channel Rom Rom Ji, a channel that covers everything from onsen (hot spring) etiquette to Japanese politics.
“I make videos in Hindi for people from India, Pakistan, Nepal, Bangladesh and Indians living in different countries,” Lohomord says. “People should have a clear image about Japan, not the sugarcoated fantasy world from anime. Clear images about good things — and bad things, too — and the beautiful nature as well.”
Of course that’s just scratching the surface of the diversity of channels that are currently churning out content about Japan, with a number of smaller creators still trying to figure out their style and that magic combination that will help push their clips to the top of the heap.
It may just be that time will be all it takes for these new J-vloggers to figure out how to succeed. Lohomord seems to have settled on a simple strategy that has been successful for as long as people have been telling stories to each other.
“When I share my personal experiences,” he says, “those are the videos that work well.”
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