The life of a geisha in Japan is often perceived as being shrouded in mystery, the exact opposite of what you’d imagine life is like for a YouTuber. It’s a contradiction that “Kimono Mom” knows well.

For years, Moe, the 30-year-old creator of the Kimono Mom YouTube channel, trained as a maiko (apprentice geisha) in her hometown of Kyoto, eventually debuting as a geisha.

“I was in Gion and the beauty of what I was doing came from not exposing everything,” she says. “Hiding was the beauty of it, and I never put my personal life out there.”

That changed at the start of last year, when Moe began uploading videos of herself at home cooking traditional Japanese food and taking trips to the market. Both are tried-and-true approaches to making content for YouTube, but it was a big step for the somewhat guarded geisha. And old habits don’t die hard, as Moe has asked to be referred to only by her first name in this article for privacy reasons.

However, she shared just enough of her life to secure a following of more than 670,000 in under a year, with many of her uploads passing a million views. The Kimono Mom channel has become a popular destination for viewers abroad to see what everyday life is like in Japan, but part of what draws in the views goes beyond mere interest in the country. Moe is almost always joined by her daughter, a toddler nicknamed “Sutan,” and her husband, who frequently pops up and provides illustrations of the food she cooks. There’s a cozy familiarity to what Moe shares, tapping into the emotions and aspects of life that few outward-looking Japan-based creators touch on.

“I think the common appeal for viewers is a mother’s love. It resonates with the audience and they can connect to it,” Moe says, pointing to her best-performing videos, which follow the busy life of a mom for 24 hours. “Some people comment on how interesting it is seeing a Japanese mom’s approach to raising kids, but many others share how watching the videos made them realize how much their mothers loved them while they were being raised.”

Actually, it was her own experiences dealing with motherhood that led Moe to YouTube in the first place. Prior to last year, she says she never watched YouTube — or regular television, for that matter. Her youth was dominated by the demands of geisha life, while life after retiring from the profession and moving to Tokyo became hectic since giving birth to Sutan in 2019.

“Raising a child has been the hardest thing I’ve ever experienced in my life,” she says. “I didn’t want to be a housewife, I wanted to keep working. But raising a child was just too hard. I struggled for a while.”

A life-changing moment came when YouTuber Paolo From Tokyo reached out to Moe for a video spotlighting her life as a mother. The video was released on Feb. 15 of last year and has over 12 million views at the time of writing. It’s Paolo’s most popular video, but the numbers weren’t the only thing that impressed Moe, who drew a lot of comfort from the empathy and positivity in the messages that filled the comments section. Just like when a popular TV show introduces a character that gets their own spin-off, Kimono Mom was born.

“A week after Paolo filmed me, I filmed my first video,” Moe recalls. “The experience showed me that I could do YouTube as a job, like he was doing. The theme for me was, ‘What can I do right now?’ I cook everyday … and I wear kimono.”

While the prospect of being a housewife was once unappealing, Moe came to realize that the homemaker’s life was more universal than she thought. Using her smartphone — she only recently bought the kind of equipment YouTubers usually film with — and a crash course in editing, she started sharing her life with people worldwide.

A crucial part of Moe’s popularity is that she doesn’t hide the tougher parts of motherhood.

“I didn’t plan on putting my daughter in the videos when I launched the channel, but she’s always there and I can’t leave her alone,” she says. “That’s my life.”

In Kimono Mom’s first upload, Sutan interrupts her mother’s preparation of renkon hasamiage (fried lotus root) with cries for attention, and she disrupts the process again later in order to be held. These moments helped Moe’s clips stand out, though, adding a welcome sense of authenticity often lacking on other cooking and parenting YouTube channels.

“For my channel, I don’t have a script or any detailed schedule of what I’ll do. I don’t know what the day will be like since babies make everything unpredictable,” she says with a laugh. “Usually, I just go with the flow.”

As Sutan became more of a regular character on the Kimono Mom channel, Moe’s target audience shifted.

“I gear it toward international viewers for my daughter’s privacy,” she says. “If I receive a certain type of attention, I don’t want her to not be able to live a regular life in Japan. I always make sure my videos don’t impact her negatively.”

Welcome to the family: The videos on the Kimono Mom YouTube channel often focus on what it’s like to be a mother in Japan. | COURTESY OF KIMONO MOM
Welcome to the family: The videos on the Kimono Mom YouTube channel often focus on what it’s like to be a mother in Japan. | COURTESY OF KIMONO MOM

This is a paradox that many YouTubers encounter: They have to put themselves out there to gain an audience, but are hesitant to share too much with netizens, who can sometimes overstep the boundary between creator and viewer, or even be kind of mean.

Moe says she has found that overseas viewers tend to be less interested in her personal life and more interested in her roles as a mother and citizen in Japanese society. Moe says she likes the idea of serving as a gateway to knowing more about Japan. To that end, she has started studying English by watching English-education channels in her spare time, which, she confesses, she doesn’t have much of.

“I didn’t expect raising a child to take up so much time,” she says. “One video takes me 30 to 40 hours to edit, so time management has been the biggest thing I’ve had to learn.”

In a move any parent can relate to, she fits in this work whenever Sutan sleeps, even if it’s just a quick nap. It can be hectic, and Moe says it makes her hesitant to work with brands or other commercial clients because being on someone else’s schedule seems like too much pressure at the moment. (Also, being independent and unattached to YouTube talent agencies allows for a freedom and freshness to her work that many creators lack in the current digital ecosystem).

As exhausting as it can be, however, she says she wouldn’t change a thing.

“When I’m editing videos, thinking of my audience or even reading their comments, that’s my time to take a break from raising a child and doing household chores,” says Moe, adding that Sutan is currently in the throes of her “terrible twos.” “Honestly, the YouTube channel has saved my life.”

For more information about Moe and the Kimono Mom YouTube channel, visit www.youtube.com/c/kimonomom.

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