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Twenty-four-year-old performer Hikari always wanted to be a singer, but never knew how to go about sharing her voice with the world. She had opportunities to become an idol-pop artist through her job working at a maid cafe in Akihabara, but she decided to avoid this conventional route into entertainment due to her lack of dancing skills.

Instead, Hikari, who asks to only be identified by her first name for privacy reasons, chose a digital path that’s becoming more common. YouTubers and other artists covering Japanese songs — whether they be fan projects such as Korean duo Darlim & Hamabal, organized efforts from labels such as Tokimeki Records, or hybrids like Indonesian singer Rainych Ran — are spreading Japanese music farther than ever before, both thanks to the type of music that grabs the spotlight and how the songs are distributed.

The engine is anime. This corner of Japanese pop culture has been seeing record growth in recent years. As a result, anime’s popularity is helping raise the fortunes of other cultural corners, like the music industry.

“The adults and teens who love anime are now discovering more about Japanese music and culture as a whole,” according to a post on the Spotify blog explaining an increase in streams of anime songs, with the themes from shows like “Attack on Titan” and “Jujutsu Kaisen” performing well on streaming viral charts. Access — once a challenge for Japanese music across the board — has become much easier.

Hikari is a beneficiary of this trend. At the start of 2021, she launched Singing Cosplayer Hikari, a multiplatform project anchored by her YouTube channel and involving a team helping her film and edit her work. She covers anime themes and staples of the singing-synthesizer-powered Vocaloid community, often against a backdrop of temples, castles and cherry blossoms, which J-vloggers love.

“I want to share more than just temples in my videos,” Hikari says. “I want to show all kinds of plants and flowers, for example. Mostly, I want to share things that you can only do in Japan. The sort of things that make someone want to travel here.”

Blossom forth: Hikari’s cover of the Vocaloid staple 'Yume to Hazakura' earned more than a million views on YouTube. | ©︎ SINGING COSPLAYER HIKARI
Blossom forth: Hikari’s cover of the Vocaloid staple ‘Yume to Hazakura’ earned more than a million views on YouTube. | ©︎ SINGING COSPLAYER HIKARI

Judging the success of this soft-power play in terms of inbound tourism will have to wait until the COVID-19 pandemic settles down and borders open back up. But as online entertainment, Singing Cosplayer Hikari has found a niche whetting people’s appetites. Hikari’s musical uploads often attract six-digit view counts on YouTube, with some offerings like her cover of the Vocaloid staple “Yume to Hazakura,” complete with video in front of Odawara Castle in Kanagawa Prefecture, earning more than a million. The elegant outfits and picturesque settings also come off like a modern take on the classic enka video.

Hikari is set to appear three times during the upcoming Hyper Japan Online 2021 event, which is ordinarily an in-person showcase of Japanese pop culture held in London but will be going fully digital this time around. She will be livestreaming performances and showcasing cosplay at the web gathering, which runs from July 9 to Aug. 8.

“I’m just preparing right now,” Hikari says when we talk on a Friday afternoon weeks before the event, with what kind of cosplay she will sport being an immediate thought.

Hikari’s experiences offer a homegrown case for the importance of making sure songs are accessible on the platforms people gravitate to, something the savvier companies have figured out. She grew up in a Johnny’s-loving family, but says she had her world flipped upside down after encountering Vocaloid.

“I first heard it while in junior high school,” she says. “I was trying to research a song from our school chorus contest, but accidentally clicked on a Vocaloid song. I was impressed by it.”

She kept learning about this specific type of music through YouTube, especially taken by the “utaite” (meaning, “sing”) community, in which singers cover songs originally performed by Vocaloid avatars.

Vocaloid tracks make up a large percentage of the covers appearing on Singing Cosplayer Hikari, while avatars from that world — primarily Hatsune Miku — have served as inspiration for her cosplay, as featured in images and videos. This actually proves to be a rarity for Hikari — though “cosplay” appears in the title of her channel, the bulk of her content shows her wearing traditional Japanese kimono rather than anything referencing famous characters. That wasn’t the original plan, though.

“The very first video I ever put up online was actually deleted,” Hikari says, referring to a cover of the “Neon Genesis Evangelion” theme song “A Cruel Angel’s Thesis.” In the now-lost clip, she performs the tune dressed as the character Rei Ayanami (a still-online Facebook preview shows her in the get-up, while the song itself remains on streaming sites). This was the model for what the whole channel was intended to be.

“‘Evangelion’s’ side contacted us, telling us not to make anything where people could picture the anime itself,” Hikari says, and this prompted her team to take it down (her side injects a little extra swagger into the story, noting part of the complaint probably came from how good her cosplay was). This approach to business is reminiscent of the mentality of so much of the Japanese entertainment industry, but Hikari carried on, finding another angle on the country to court viewers.

“We can’t really do cosplay anymore, but we’ve learned that having a very ‘Japanesey’ background or wearing a kimono can help get more views,” she says.

More important than the visual signifiers, though, is being digital first. Her covers appear on subscription streaming services, Youtube, Facebook and other sites, allowing anyone the chance to hear her singing. The attention to visuals helps her stand out from other J-pop cover artists, while Hikari also does livestreams and slice-of-life videos to develop her fan community. She’s an influencer with international ambitions.

To that end, Hikari is currently working on a variety of projects beyond her Hyper Japan Online appearances, including collaborations with other cover artists based outside of Japan.

“I eventually want to learn how to do everything by myself, use the equipment and put the videos together on my own,” she says.

For now, though, she’s working toward being something of a cultural ambassador. Not just for inbound tourists, but for the digital model of making it in the music industry.

Hikari will make appearances at Hyper Japan Online 2021 on July 9, 17 and 18. For more details, visit https://hyperjapan.co.uk/online. To learn more about Hikari, visit youtube.com/c/SingingCosplayerHikari.

In line with COVID-19 guidelines, the government is strongly requesting that residents and visitors exercise caution if they choose to visit bars, restaurants, music venues and other public spaces.

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