It takes one to know one: How YouTuber Chris Okano built an agency to help his fellow J-vloggers

by Patrick ST. Michel

Contributing Writer

This past week, Japanese YouTube heavyweight Hikakin appeared on NHK’s long-running business show “The Professionals” (“Professional: Shigoto no Ryugi”) where he discussed the “new job” of being a YouTube content creator.

YouTubing is a growing field that has attracted many in the English-language community, who are often referred to as “J-vloggers.” The majority of them are non-Japanese who film everyday life in Japan in a raw blog-on-video style that defined the website a decade ago, but more than a few have managed to turn YouTubing into a career thanks to branding tie-ups.

Navigating this new terrain of media can prove challenging to beginners, though, particularly when you’re trying to figure out how much you’re worth. There are agencies that will help, but how do you know if they’re not just taking the bulk of what should be going into your bank account?

“I experienced it,” says YouTuber Chris Okano, 28, from the roof of his office in Tokyo’s Shibuya Ward. “If they sold my content for ¥1 million, I’d only get ¥100,000 from it.” What Okano would rather see is a closer relationship between influencer and agency that allows for more opportunities — and, hopefully, more cash for all involved.

To that end, he founded Tokyo Creative, a digital agency aimed at connecting companies, brands and other entities with YouTube’s influential content creators. It’s not the first of its kind to bring J-vloggers into its fold: Yoshidamasaki counts Rachel and Jun, and Micaela Anne Braithwaite among its creators, while Breaker features Simon and Martina, and Sharla in Japan. What separates Tokyo Creative from the other agencies is Okano’s background as a YouTuber himself.

Launched in December, the agency counts prominent Japan-based YouTuber channels Abroad in Japan, Life Where I’m From and Kim Dao as part of a growing roster of vloggers and Instagram models.

Okano started uploading videos to YouTube in 2013 under the name Okano TV at a point where only a few bigger names existed in Japan.

He met other J-vloggers, though he admits there weren’t too many at the time, and parlayed his influencer experience into a job at travel website Odigo, where he was named CEO this past December.

“The reason Tokyo Creative started was because of the Odigo 47 project,” Okano says. The six-month-long project saw Okano and several other prominent English-language creators criss-crossing through Japan’s 47 prefectures in a tie-up that highlighted YouTube’s possibilities.

“That was basically the time where I got to really understand what the influencers’ needs were, what support they need and how to go about an influencer campaign,” he says, referring to the production of sponsored content. The experience taught him how to negotiate with local governments and hotels, entities who are now leading the charge when it comes to English-language tourism drives ahead of the 2020 Olympics.

It was also on that trek that someone pointed out to Okano the value in his perspective.

“I pitched the idea to Rachel and Jun, and Rachel said ‘Dude, you are like the most unique aspect of any other agency, you are a YouTuber yourself, why don’t you throw that in?”

Figuring she had a point, Okano drew up a business plan and, in a bit of good timing, was approached by Takamasa Kawasaki, chairman of Odigo’s parent company Redhorse Corp.

“I said, ‘Yo dude … I have all the information already laid out and I have all the influencers on board,'” Okano recalls. Two days later, Kawasaki secured investors and Tokyo Creative was registered by November 2017.

“We like to say we are a sibling company to Odigo,” Okano says.

Part of the haste in starting Tokyo Creative was making sure the YouTubers ready to join up with Okano wouldn’t be snatched up by other companies. The timing didn’t work out for Rachel and Jun to get on board, but Okano got verbal commitments from others, including Emma Felice.

Born in Brisbane, Australia, Felice says her father used to show her Studio Ghibli films as a kid, which sparked an interest in Japan that carried over to language study in high school. She also grew up with YouTube, gravitating toward videos that had a cinematic feel. That prompted her to study acting at university.

Felice, 23, currently runs Tokidoki Traveler, a channel that boasts more than 168,000 subscribers and videos that have registered six-digit view counts. Her biggest hits to date involve small spaces, whether they be her apartment or a capsule hotel (“If I put ‘tiny’ in the title, it works well,” she says).

“I think I’m at a point where I could support myself fully through YouTube,” she says. “The one thing I can’t deal with very well is email. If I get an email from a company, even when I was with another agency, it was all up to me, to figure out what to say or how much (money) I should charge.”

Felice and Okano both used to belong to the video network Yummy Japan, but neither are keen to expand on why they parted ways.

“Most YouTube agencies, you have to pay them 20 percent of your income from YouTube,” Felice says, adding that she also had to field offers by herself. On the contrary, Tokyo Creative handles those offers for her, simply approaching her with deals and asking “yes or no?”

The agency also helps influencers by providing them with filming and editing assistance. Its office, located in a newly built building on a quiet Shibuya backstreet, is cozy but features several computers devoted to editing videos and a concrete-backed wall that, with a quick paper background, becomes a space to film.

It’s all a part of the agency’s push to turn Tokyo Creative into a brand all its own — they also operate two of their own YouTube channels — Tokyo Creative Play, hosted by Felice, and Tokyo Creative Talk, hosted by Shizuka Anderson.

“We want our channel to be the sponsored revenue channel where Emma can act, and we pay her an acting fee — so she can have 100 percent creative freedom on her own channel,” Okano says.

“I want to get more creative,” Felice says. “I don’t want my videos to just be Japan videos. I want there to be another element — acting, skits … something different. I want to work toward something more creative.”

What’s clear is that the English-language YouTube community has changed, split between smaller channels and those eyeing something more ambitious.

“Now that a bunch of YouTubers have become bigger and they can be independent, it’s not like they want to not be part of a community. It’s that they are too busy. They’ve essentially created a business,” Okano says. “Still, I think that’s one of the most stressful jobs you can have, when your money is all over the place. … I want to help people make more money, I want to make them more comfortable being a full-time YouTuber.”