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In an aging office block on the edge of downtown Sendai, there is a dusty ramen shop, grimy and well-worn, and apparently open for business.

Behind the counter, steam escapes from the lid of a pot, suggesting fresh noodles coming to a boil, but there is no one manning the kitchen, no menu to choose from, no kenbaiki (ticket machine) to purchase a bowl. There is just one person at the counter, YouTuber Chris Broad, sipping on a craft beer and relaxing into his newly built studio space.

“We’ve built a living, breathing district from an imagined alternate reality, and I love that,” Broad, 31, says. “Four years ago I wouldn’t have been able to justify building a set like this, but now I can. I’m very stupid; to be at 2 million subscribers and not have a proper set or a proper place to film was bonkers.”

Next year will mark Broad’s 10th year on YouTube, where his channel Abroad in Japan has swelled to 2.5 million subscribers, attracting almost as many new followers in the two years of the pandemic as it did in his previous seven years on the platform. At a time when Japan is currently closed to all arrivals except Japanese citizens and foreign residents due to COVID-19, Broad has become a window into life in this country.

He has been prolific throughout the past two years, bagging an interview with Oscar-nominated actor Ken Watanabe for a yet-to-be-released documentary on recovery efforts in disaster-struck Tohoku. He also doubled the frequency of his Abroad in Japan podcast to two episodes a week and filmed travel series across the country, collaborating with other YouTubers who have followings in the millions such as The Anime Man, Sharla and CDawgVA as part of his ongoing Journey Across Japan series.

The new studio marks the latest evolution in his channel. Broad worked with set design company Jiyuro — whose credits include Netflix’s “Alice in Borderland” — to transform an otherwise unremarkable office space into a professionally designed set comprised of two “alleys” — one a neon-infused ramen shop inspired by Ridley Scott’s 1982 film “Blade Runner,” the other a 1960s Japanese shōtengai (shopping arcade), complete with a sweets shop and crackling cathode-ray televisions.

Set design company Jiyuro helped Chris Broad create a studio with a professionally designed set inspired by Ridley Scott’s 1982 film 'Blade Runner' and a 1960s Japanese shopping arcade. | OSCAR BOYD
Set design company Jiyuro helped Chris Broad create a studio with a professionally designed set inspired by Ridley Scott’s 1982 film ‘Blade Runner’ and a 1960s Japanese shopping arcade. | OSCAR BOYD

“It’s a two, three-year investment,” Broad says. “There are so many other ways I could have spent that money, badly — this is the best way. Not only does it increase the reputation of Abroad in Japan, it’s also an incredible place to make content.”

Across the two alleys every space is crammed with tiny details that make the world Broad envisioned feel real. No, the ramen shop is not functional, but it does come with ladles, bowls and grease-clogged extractor fans. There is an old phone booth, complete with weathered classified ads for various 1980s vices. And there is neon everywhere: a cherished maneki-neko (beckoning cat ornament), a sign advertising sake and the constant red glow of a sign that reads “megadenki.”

It is garish yet tasteful, an homage to an older Japan that is the perfect place for Broad to expand the Abroad in Japan universe.

Early days

Broad’s success has been a long time coming. He launched his channel after moving to Japan on the Japan Exchange and Teaching (JET) Programme in 2012, posting videos from his living room about his new life outside of the U.K. His first video is ostensibly a tour of his apartment, located in the small seaside town of Sakata, Yamagata Prefecture, but he spends the first 30 seconds of the video riffing on the hawk that wakes him up each morning, and how it has lowered his electricity bills by replacing his alarm clock. “It’s innovations like that in Japan,” he says deadpan into the camera, “that you just look at and go, ‘Why don’t we do that in England?’”

Though perfectly affable in person, Broad built his reputation as Japan’s grumpy Brit, delivering acerbic commentary on his life in rural Sakata, a place he refers to as “a bubble within the bubble that is Japan.” Anyone who has watched the BBC will recognize the influence of TV presenter Charlie Brooker in Broad’s delivery and presentation — a similar satirical sarcasm and flair for creating incredibly watchable low-budget, high-concept videos. But prior to Broad, no one had really applied that style to Japan in the YouTube space. Abroad in Japan wasn’t an instant hit, but it gained momentum and grew to 100,000 subscribers in its first 2½ years, all while Broad continued on the JET Programme.

“I made my first 25 videos or so while I was still working as a teacher,” Broad says. “I like scripting, I like shooting and editing. I love the filmmaking process so much, so it didn’t ever feel like extra work.”

As the channel’s following grew, however, he began to feel an increasing sense of resentment toward his teaching position, wondering why he wasn’t devoting himself to creating videos. “You can’t just walk out on your teaching job, though, you’ve got to see it through,” he says.

His transition to becoming a full-time YouTuber came in 2016, after four years on the platform and with around 200,000 subscribers, but the channel was still not bringing in enough revenue for Broad to make a living and produce content. He took out a bank loan in the U.K. to get him through the first year, and launched a Patreon account where supporters could contribute, which helped the channel to become self-sufficient by the end of the year.

Walking through his studio, Broad points out the details he is still discovering as he creates new videos: fake sewage pipes that lead nowhere, a manhole cover branded with the Abroad in Japan logo, and a hidden back alley that connects the ramen shop to the shōtengai. Here, he says the decision to finance his dream was worth it.

“It still really trips me out that I have a space I can film in now, it’s been three months and it doesn’t really compute,” Broad says. “I’m so used to filming in my apartment and shuffling a bookcase and a table around to make a set. And now I walk in here and it’s set up and it’s done, it’s incredible.”

Every part of Broad’s studio is crammed with details, from cathode-ray televisions to old games consoles. | OSCAR BOYD
Every part of Broad’s studio is crammed with details, from cathode-ray televisions to old games consoles. | OSCAR BOYD

A long road

Spending a day with Broad you begin to understand his drive. Three days before our interview, he was in Hokkaido filming a new travel series. The night before he released a podcast, and on either side of our meeting, he was filming and scripting new videos for his “12 Days of Chrismas” series. After midnight drinks at one of Broad’s favorite cocktail bars in Sendai, I called it a night, while he returned to the studio to finish another video. It was published at 3:30 a.m.

Over his desk he hangs an A3 sheet of paper with his three-year goals. Once upon a time, it read “get on the JET Programme.” After that, “go full time on YouTube,” and later still, “reach 1 million subscribers.” So far he has been able to reach each of his increasingly ambitious targets. Broad puts a lot of himself into his work — both in front of the camera and behind the scenes — and for years operated solo, partly because he wanted to keep the channel lean, but also due to the pride he took in sculpting the videos himself. It was a successful formula that was ultimately unsustainable. In 2019, he hit a wall.

“When I did Journey Across Japan — the first one, cycling 2,000 kilometers over 46 days — I told my audience I’d do a video every day,” says Broad, who ended up cycling all day and editing till the early hours of the morning. “After a week, I realized how stuffed I was. I was really stupid, I should have hired an editor. I was like, ‘Only I can edit these videos, only I can do it.’ And two weeks in, I was a right mess, the life had left my eyes.”

Broad gave up on the daily videos and ended up with a backlog of footage and fans that were unhappy that he hadn’t kept his promise. He left Japan to visit the U.K. and found solace on the shores of Lake Windermere in the Lake District, a national park about five hours north of London by car. An existential dread filled him as he thought about his return to YouTube, and it was the first time since finding success on the platform that he truly considered giving it all up.

“2019 felt like an empty shell of a year. And the things I was proud of, like my documentary on Fukushima, did a lot worse than I’d anticipated. I felt deflated,” says Broad, adding that his mental and physical health began to deteriorate around this time.

“I look back on that year and I’m scared because straight after that I had the best two years I’ve ever had. If I’d ended it there, it would have been a really sad note to end it on. I had a really bad day where I thought, ‘I’ll delete it all, delete this damn channel.’”

Neon signs and homages to a Japan of the past fill Chris Broad’s new studio where he films and edits videos for his YouTube channels. | OSCAR BOYD
Neon signs and homages to a Japan of the past fill Chris Broad’s new studio where he films and edits videos for his YouTube channels. | OSCAR BOYD

The future is physical?

At the end of 2019, Broad released a video in which he spent a week in the company of Hyde, the singer of Japanese rock band L’Arc-en-Ciel, kicking off a run of videos that each achieved a million views and, in some cases, several times that. The pandemic forced him indoors for much of 2020, but when restrictions loosened he relaunched his Journey Across Japan series, first with a road trip from Sapporo to Cape Soya, on the northern tip of Hokkaido, and then with a journey through the “lost islands” of Kyushu, flying in a Cessna above Kagoshima’s Sakurajima volcano and exploring the abandoned island of Ikeshima in Nagasaki Prefecture.

These videos feel like an expansion on his previous series, encapsulating the greater evolution of Broad’s channel and an end to the precariousness that accompanied his early years as a YouTuber. He now employs two full-time editors since his experience of burnout in 2019 (though he is yet to kick his late-night editing habit), and there were two extra presenters and a dedicated cameraperson to film the journey.

Still, Broad is keenly aware of the constant battle to stay relevant, as competing platforms like TikTok take eyeballs away from YouTube, and YouTube itself increasingly promotes short-form content over the longer-form style Broad is familiar with. The future for Broad may involve diversifying into something more tangible — he spitballs the idea of setting up a restaurant — and splitting his time so that he is not based entirely in Japan.

It is no coincidence that Broad has been promoting his secondary channel, “Chris Abroad,” alongside his main channel, as he seeks to develop a platform that will allow him to move out of his Japan niche. With just 400,000 followers, it is a test bed for future ideas and projects that might not immediately suit his main brand.

“The next goal is to do something that will define my career, to make Abroad in Japan a household name. I want to be David Bowie!” he says with a laugh. “I want to do something of that caliber.”

It’s still a little hazy what exactly Broad’s Ziggy Stardust moment will be, even in his own mind — his three-year goal is currently, “some bollocks like, ‘create a masterpiece,’” he says. But with his new studio to film in, and now surrounded with a team of trusted editors and collaborators, Broad seems to be on the cusp of something special indeed.

​​Chris Broad will appear on episode 110 of The Japan Times’ Deep Dive podcast on Dec. 22. Listen at jtimes.jp/podcast.

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