John Daub thinks Japan’s position in 2020 resembles where the country was following the Great East Japan Earthquake of 2011.
“It was the same situation after March 11, with no tourism and a lot of uncertainty,” he tells The Japan Times, referring to the COVID-19 pandemic’s impact on the nation. “A lot of my friends left in March — maybe now they wished they stayed.”
Following the disaster, Daub committed himself to introducing Japanese culture to those abroad and tried to correct international misconceptions of a place he’s loved since he arrived here in 1998. In 2013, he launched Only in Japan, a YouTube channel that went on to become one of the most popular destinations for in-depth looks at the country.
Daub’s uploads, which offer introductions to areas across the nation while integrating journalistic storytelling honed from years of working at NHK, became hits at a time when the country was experiencing a tourism boom. Videos easily attracted views in the six digits (if not more), and the channel boasts over 1 million subscribers at time of writing.
“I got to meet the people who I impacted with my videos,” he says. “Some said I was the reason they wanted to come to Japan.” In what could be seen as a social media circle of life, Daub has even been featured in other people’s videos.
However, the YouTuber is restarting once again as Japan finds itself in a new kind of disaster. From the beginning, Only in Japan was made in collaboration with Wao Corporation, an education and entertainment company. As the years went on, however, Daub says his vision of the channel started to diverge from that of Wao’s. Rather than compromise, he went solo and launched the new Only in Japan in June. The first full-length upload found him introducing Hokkaido’s Noboribetsu Hot Spring Festival earlier this year (“I think it was the last festival in Japan where people were together like this”), and features a new animated intro by D’art Shtajio, who also recently made a music video for The Weeknd.
“It’s scary. You don’t know what’s going to happen,” he says of the reboot. In 2020, Daub himself faces a new online landscape — one where many other creators make the same style of videos as he does, and where the unflappable positivity he brings to documenting Japan feels out of step with some of the discourse about it on social media. Plus, there’s the challenge of creating travel-centric content at a time when movement is restricted, both in actually filming and in avoiding kickback from viewers concerned about the spread of the coronavirus.
“But I think going forward, I feel a real responsibility to Japan now as I did when I started the channel, in attracting people to come back here,” he says.
Daub’s love for Japan began when he first moved here to teach English while also traveling around other parts of the world. He worked in the city of Okazaki, Aichi Prefecture, for 14 months. “I did a pretty good job, I think. The company asked me to join the headquarters, and they set me up as a turnaround manager — when someone quit or there was a disaster, they would send in this smiley positive guy to try to fix it up,” he says. Excelling at this position caused Daub to live in 16 different Japanese cities over the next few years, an experience he says helped give him an array of stories and knowledge to draw on.
Daub eventually launched an online video series in the mid 2000s aimed at teaching English with a dose of humor. While this series received attention from local media, it also launched before YouTube.
Soon came the partnership with Wao, which proved beneficial: they helped financially support him, and he was able to develop the channel how he wanted, with videos focused on well-tread topics like capsule hotels and different festivals.
Daub didn’t come up in the early “J-vlogging” community of regular folk who got their start simply talking about life in Japan. “My background is in TV, reporting for NHK and making TV shows,” he says, adding that he believes his focus on the stories behind the culture and people of Japan helped him stand out.
It was clear that, by the start of this year, Daub and Wao had begun to see his content through different lenses. He hesitates to go into detail, but offers some hints.
“I want longer shows, not shorter shows,” he explains. “I wanted better quality, not less quality. I want to invest in new things. I want to focus on small businesses, on people, not try to make money but bring people in.”
Above all, Daub says he knows what his audience wants, having interacted with them for years. Wao also seems to be moving forward, though the company did not respond to questions before this article’s deadline. The company is currently looking for a new host to take over the million-plus channel Daub created.
Wherever Wao takes the Only in Japan channel, Daub says he wishes those involved nothing but luck and speaks graciously about his former company.
Daub’s move into longer content seems to be where J-vlogging is headed. He mentions Paolo from Tokyo, Life Where I’m From and Abroad in Japan, big names on YouTube that are also pivoting to documentary formats. One of Daub’s bigger concerns with his new channel is standing out against these creators, but he’s optimistic.
“I think if people become interested in Japan, the tide rises and we all kind of win from that,” he says.
While Daub is known for his optimistic outlook on life in Japan, he doesn’t give the country a free pass. He says he has even met with NPOs to learn about areas in which the country lags, such as in providing assistance to those with physical disabilities.
Still, his approach to his content can seem like it contrasts with the amplified negativity that is prominent on digital platforms such as Twitter and Reddit. Daub says he has picked up on the vibe — he has done livestreams throughout the pandemic on a separate channel in which the more personality-centric style of vlogging has come to the forefront of his work — but adds that people shouldn’t give in to “hopelessness.”
“You can’t just show things that are bad and complain about them, you have to offer solutions,” he says. “That’s how you pass the baton forward.”
So he’s pushing ahead. During the spring, Daub and his wife, Kanae (who has assisted and appeared in more of his videos in recent times), did more livestreams from their Tokyo apartment. They recently traveled to Kanazawa to eat Japanese food from 400 years ago — “We didn’t know whether or not to go because of the second wave, but the city said to come,” Daub points out with a laugh — and he’s planning his own fireworks display in Akita Prefecture this October, done in partnership with the Japan Hanabi Association.
“I know so many visitors can’t come to Japan right now, and it isn’t a good time to be traveling at all,” he says. “I wanted to use this opportunity in October to make an event with the community we built over all this time to share Japan’s fireworks culture with them. So, we will put on a fireworks festival backed by Kickstarter, and give people some perks and benefits for supporting it.”
It’s a gesture of hope in a difficult year, and an effort to keep people interested in the country.
“I feel a real responsibility to Japan now as I did when I started the channel, in attracting people to come back here,” he says.
For more information about John Daub and Only in Japan, visit www.youtube.com/c/JohnDaub.