Digital

Japan's pop culture movers turn out for Niconico party

by Patrick St. Michel

Special To The Japan Times

You’d think nothing would be a surprise during a kabuki show starring a famous actor and a holographic pop star, but you’d be mistaken.

Near the climax of “Senbonzakura,” a play starring Shido Nakamura II and Vocaloid avatar Hatsune Miku, the former broke the fourth wall by asking viewers streaming the event to start leaving comments, to “give him power.” A flood of text immediately washed over twin video boards set up inside an event hall at Makuhari Messe, sent from thousands watching at home.

It was a tidy metaphor for the event where “Senbonzakura” debuted, the fifth annual Niconico Chokaigi, held on April 29 and 30 just outside of Tokyo. Despite the seemingly random selection of activities to watch — an idol-pop concert, traditional sword forging or dressing up in military fatigues all within one hall — it all came together as a celebration of the ethos of video-streaming website Niconico. Which, for the 2016 edition, meant more than 152,000 visitors to Makuhari Messe and over 5 million more tuning in online.

“The concept of the Chokaigi is simple,” says Takeshi Natsuno, director and member of the board at Niconico parent company Dwango. “Everyone can find their place.”

This positioning has long helped the site stand out from the digital pack. Niconico (formerly Nico Nico Douga) launched in late 2006, allowing people to upload videos. Whereas YouTube early on acted as more of a repository, Niconico developed a culture of its own, with its own memes and personalities. Even the comment system — words left by viewers zoom by over the actual video itself — comes off as more close knit. It could feel like an alternative to the mainstream, powered by users.

So was the case at Chokaigi 2016, where Niconico gave space to celebrate users. Individuals who achieved online fame for playing video games and adding funny commentary did their thing live, while bands that gained attention on the site performed on various stages. The biggest musical area featured J-pop acts such as idol outfit Dempagumi.inc and Hisashi Tonomura from the band Glay. But they were joined by Root Five, a boy band that used its popularity on Niconico to nab a contract with Avex.

Also present was Niconico’s biggest homegrown star, Hatsune Miku. Beyond her traditional theater turn, a dance area devoted to Vocaloid music popped off throughout the weekend, while a different corner found users selling CDs and other knick-knacks featuring the visage of the aqua-haired singer.

Natsuno says Niconico’s user base has always skewed toward 20-somethings and teens (walking around Makuhari Messe confirmed this easily). Yet he adds that the Chokaigi has helped the video service to reach older audiences, too, by hosting sumo tournaments, shogi (Japanese chess) games and, new this year, kabuki.

Still, the site plays to its nerd-culture roots with areas devoted to anime and new technologies (the Chokaigi featured a drone UFO catcher and a virtual reality corner). As all over the place as the event could feel, it’s ultimately a snapshot of Japanese pop culture rendered through the site’s oddball community.

Of course, where youth congregates, brands will be in hot pursuit. Chokaigi also featured dozens of booths by huge companies, trying to reach younger demographics by speaking Niconico’s lingo. Oil company Mobil created an anime character for its sapce, while the event’s main sponsor, NTT, put on “robot rakugo” — kind of like droid standup comedy. Japanese cities set up small booths, as did train lines from across the country along with branches of the Self-Defense Forces (although their participation was drastically reduced as a result of the earthquakes in Kumamoto).

The thirstiest for attention, though, were the various political parties. This isn’t a new development — they’ve been coming for a while now, and Prime Minister Shinzo Abe even stopped by a couple years back — but the parties seemed extra keen (or desperate) to woo young voters ahead of an election where the voting age will be lowered to 18.

“Excuse me, what’s the most pressing issue facing Japan,” two people from Komeito asked me, urging me to place a sticker on one of five categories (my brain says “birth rate,” my heart says “not enough relaxation time”), before telling me I can also try out its new smartphone app. The Liberal Democratic Party let people sit on a small stuffed horse and shoot toy arrows at targets, while People’s Life First gave punters a minute to talk with politicians about anything (when I walk by, those inside are making an older gentleman talk to a stuffed animal).

Besides a Niconico booth nearby aimed at explaining the voting change, only the Japanese Communist Party emphasized policy, with posters and people willing to answer questions. It was easily less crowded than the Democratic Party’s area, where anyone who left a message of support received a free bowl of ramen.

As the packed Chokaigi proved, Niconico remains one of Japan’s premier online hubs. But the landscape is changing.

“We aren’t fighting with YouTube, we aren’t fighting with any other platform,” Natsuno says, adding that plenty of their users also use Google’s video service and sites such as Facebook. But he’s also aware Niconico needs to change in a few ways that those platforms already have.

“The company Dwango originally came from is in the mobile world, but the video service is still biggest on PCs,” he says. “We need to be more focused on the mobile side.” And as established as Niconico is domestically, Natsuno admits he wants to get more attention overseas.

“For anyone who is interested in Japan, they can find something interesting here,” he says about the Chokaigi, though it could just as easily apply to the site itself. Yet very few non-Japanese faces appeared at this year’s event. Despite being a distillation of Japanese pop culture, Niconico remains an internal affair capable of hosting a massive two-day gathering, but it is YouTube that seems to have become the world’s way to peek into Japan from outside.

“I want to show the power of the Japanese people to the world,” Natsuno says. “Some people might just think, ‘Oh Japanese food is good,’ and think how to copy it. Shrines are great … how do we copy it. But if you see the people, they all add value here, too. I want to show their power.”