In the days of Japan’s bubble economy, the second-level basement of the Fiction Building in Tokyo’s Harajuku neighborhood housed a decadent Italian restaurant complete with a grand stairway down to the main dining area, providing every customer the chance to make an entrance. However, the opulent eating space soon saw its fortunes change with the rest of the country.
“The owner used to basically use this space as a giant closet,” Alan Swarts says about the spot his company, Breaker, now rents. The basement boasts a similar vibe today, as a random array of items dot the main room: a ping-pong table, a basketball hoop, a drum kit. It also features Hollywood-quality lighting and filming equipment. It’s a fitting mish-mash that reflects the platform Breaker helps to create content for — YouTube.
Once a depository for videos of cats and trampoline accidents, YouTube has grown into a huge business, with a 2015 poll conducted by CyberAgent finding that people in Japan of all ages turned to the site first for online video content. The same study found that those between 15 and 19 watch video content nearly as much on their phones as on TV.
In a country where the entertainment industry can feel cliquey and stifling, YouTube presents a new lane for creatives — regardless of nationality — to experiment, and companies such as Breaker want to help them achieve success beyond a couple thousand clicks.
Original content on YouTube is huge globally. Creators make high-quality videos, and multichannel networks have sprung up on the platform. It has been so successful that traditional media players have gotten involved — in spring of 2014, Disney acquired American YouTube network Maker Studios for $500 million.
Swarts hails from the old guard. He started his career working for MTV in the 1990s. He saw nearly every angle of the company over his 17 years there, first as a VJ (“I wasn’t a VJ technically, I was writing segments and editing too,” he’s quick to add) but later helping launch MTV channels around the world and, eventually, becoming vice president of Creative & Content at MTV Japan.
During his time in Tokyo, he met Ken Sekine, better known by his YouTube moniker Megwin, who joined him in cofounding Breaker.
“He’s generally referred to as the OG of Japanese YouTubers,” Swarts says, and MTV paid him a small salary to create content for them. At this point — in the mid-2000s — Swarts says the Japanese YouTube fraternity was small and tight. Sekine even hosted monthly get-togethers with other creators.
“That’s unfathomable now, because it has all kind of splintered,” he says. “Now it has become a bit more professional. There are a lot more suits involved.”
Breaker emerged in 2013, the same year as Uuum Corp., which Swarts describes as the “gorilla in the space.”
“It probably wasn’t a coincidence, as we launched at around the same time YouTube in Japan started giving out multichannel network licenses,” he says.
Breaker does brand deals but differs from others by eyeing opportunities beyond the Web. “We are looking for creators who aren’t going to live and die with YouTube.”
He points to Breaker’s domestic “franchise player” Squash Films, a collective of once-struggling Shimokitazawa thespians who have found fame on YouTube, primarily thanks to a series of choose-your-own-adventure videos. They’ve since started putting on real-life theatrical shows, many of which sell out.
This helps to explain the presence of a drum kit at Breaker Lab — Swarts doesn’t think of it as a “studio,” but rather a space to develop ideas — as bands signed to the agency also practice for gigs here. Also present in the space is a corner currently reserved for Simon and Martina Stawski, creators of a series called “Eat Your Sushi.” They moved to Tokyo earlier this year from Seoul, where for the last seven years they ran the popular “Eat Your Kimchi” series about life and culture in Korea.
Breaker signed them late last year, and bringing the pair into their fold — along with the just over 1 million people subscribing to their channel, making them the largest English-language YouTube channel in Japan — highlights another big change.
“The hot thing seems to be inbound marketing, now that more people are visiting Japan than ever before,” Swarts says.
Non-Japanese residents and visitors have been vlogging about the country as long as YouTube has existed, but their numbers have exploded in recent years, and the quality has shot up significantly. Users such as Rachel and Jun and Sharla In Japan have earned hundreds of thousands of viewers thanks to videos featuring trips to interesting locales or just talking about cultural differences.
Chris Broad came over to Yamagata prefecture on the JET Programme in 2012, and wanted to keep people back home in England updated on his life. Instead of maintaining a Japan-centric blog, he started making videos as Abroad in Japan. His second, about culture shock, went viral (it currently has over 2 million views).
“Overnight thousands of people subscribed to the channel. I’d say the channel really began from there, and shortly after I went mad with power,” Broad says via email in the same funny, dry tone found in his videos.
Since then, he has achieved similar viral success with videos ranging from visits to owl cafes to recording Japanese people’s reaction to Marmite. He highlights reaction videos as being specifically effective, such as one where he tried McDonald’s recent “chocolate fries” item.
Broad tries to avoid the “wacky Japan” angle nowadays — “I certainly played up to the image of Japan being strange and bizarre to get more views” — in favor of focusing on what makes Japan “an exciting, unique and fun place.”
That’s a common theme in non-Japanese YouTubers videos about the country, as is a tendency to avoid negative representations of the country (Swarts says Breaker avoids political issues). This unwavering upbeat approach makes YouTubers ideal choices to promote products, whether that be Sharla In Japan using Willer Express to explore Mount Fuji or Rachel and Jun teaming up with Toyota Home Aichi.
Unlike those users, both signed to agency Yoshidamasaki Inc., Broad isn’t signed with an agency, as he doesn’t see himself as having the talent to get lucrative sponsorships or get TV work, rather going at it independently (though he is part of Yummy Japan, a food-centric multichannel network on YouTube).
Linking all YouTubers — whether they’re on Breaker or working by themselves — is the welcome sense of freedom the medium provides them. Broad isn’t quite making a complete living from his videos, but he’s 75 percent there, and hopes to start his own media company in Japan in a few years.
Swarts wants to continue fostering talent at Breaker, but he’s quick to remind that he’s only looking for serious takers.
“We have a lot of expertise … we don’t want to waste our time on people who are only half in.”