Japanese artists and performers find that YouTube brings them pay and applause

by Shusuke Murai

Staff Writer

Ken Sekine used to be a nameless stand-up comic. Then he turned to cyberspace and changed his stage name to Megwin and in the process became a premier entertainer in Japan, with more than 448,000 fans and counting.

Sekine now makes a living by posting homemade videos on YouTube. Since uploading his first video in 2004, he has continued nonstop for the past 10 years, never missing a day.

Megwin’s videos feature comedic “challenges” that others are unlikely to try, including building homemade bungee equipment for jumping off his apartment building and eating cooked rice topped with a giant raw ostrich egg.

As of Thursday, his videos had received 289 million views from 448,225 followers, ranking 31st among all Japanese YouTube accounts, including corporate channels.

“Everywhere I go I come across people who know about me, and they treat me well and help me out when necessary,” Sekine said.

His popularity goes beyond national borders; sometimes he meets people overseas who say they are his fans.

Now that the smartphone has become a device for all ages, especially young people, “YouTubers” have a national presence.

Some have even stepped outside the online world, hired by production agencies to appear on TV just like conventional stars.

Japanese YouTubers are expanding their presence in the business world.

Those who create high-quality videos considered valuable for advertisers are chosen by Google to become YouTube partners, who can earn ad revenue based on view counts from videos posted on their own channels.

Some of the most popular YouTubers have earned several hundred million yen and established their own companies to promote Japan’s “vlogger” (video blogger) culture in conjunction with other firms.

In June 2011, Sekine established the video production company Megwin TV, sponsored by Tanita Corp., a scale maker he became acquainted with through his efforts.

“I think the future of YouTubers will resemble the teamwork approach seen in the United States — a style that can produce professional quality videos,” he said, referring to the more developed U.S. market.

Kazuki Kamada, who is credited with coining the term YouTuber in Japan, said individual YouTubers need to be supported so they can establish themselves as a business.

“When it comes to business negotiations, individual YouTubers have struggled to manage their contracts with companies while focusing on producing videos,” said Kamada, who is president and CEO of Uuum Corp., Japan’s leading YouTuber management agency.

Uuum, established in June 2013, had 30 YouTubers under contract as of Thursday, ranging from Japan’s top names in the medium to an elementary schooler.

Kamada cofounded the agency, which links the business world with video makes so YouTubers can dedicate themselves to producing videos.

In addition to providing professional video staff and editors affiliated with production companies, Kamada said his agency offers YouTubers the accumulated knowledge of how to create popular works, manage legal matters including video music copyright issues, and consultations for raising the social recognition of its clients.

Even though they work with companies, YouTubers maintain their creative freedom, which is considered their strength.

Sekine said he never felt compelled to make videos that cater to sponsors.

“When I make a video, the main thing I care about is fully enjoying myself,” Sekine said, adding that the videos he has fun making are usually the ones viewers find most entertaining.

Uuum has received inquiries from firms in various industries, particularly cosmetics, commodities and video games, who seeking a venue to promote their products. YouTubers working for Uuum create ad videos for such clients to upload, but the clients don’t have control of the story line. The YouTubers may not even favor the products they pitch.

“If YouTubers find products to be useless, they honestly say that in their videos. . . . We ask client companies to be aware of this,” Kamada said.

Despite their rising popularity, some YouTubers acknowledge the risk of being totally dependent on YouTube. Kamada said the situation in Japan is still a couple of years behind the U.S., where YouTube has become an established medium like television.

“Japanese people think YouTube is merely a platform for individuals to earn advertising revenues. . . . They tend to consider the YouTuber phenomenon as just a passing fad,” he said.

“What we are trying to push is the momentum, so that the majority of Japanese people, including seniors and females, are familiar with YouTube and watch it regularly,” Kamada said. “It doesn’t have to be YouTube as long as there is a platform. . . . We are living in an era in which each individual can become a media entity.”