The explanation for the success of Hikaru Kaihatsu, who recently reached 10 million followers on HikakinTV, one of his four YouTube channels, is buried in a 2018 interview with BuzzFeed Japan. When asked about the requirements to work as a YouTuber, Kaihatsu answers, “I believe it is to calmly analyze the current popular trends. What is that person proficient at? How do they adapt to the times?” He could have been speaking about himself.
Kaihatsu, 32, is a wiz at mining the web for trends and adapting them to his carefully molded persona; an Aera Dot commentator mused that he plays “an older brother in the neighborhood who played with me when I was an elementary school student.” While his videos are simple and formulaic, crafted for the short attention spans of children coming of age in an era overloaded with screens and content, his character holds a not-so-hidden power: You can’t help but like him.
Kaihatsu first achieved fame in the early 2010s with a beatbox rendition of the Super Mario Bros. theme. At the time, he looked like a teenager: long black hair capped by large headphones, a blue short-sleeved button-down shirt and an uncertain expression. Kaihatsu, who was 21 when he filmed the video, appears to be not yet comfortable in front of the camera. But 15 seconds into the video, as the music begins to flow from his lips, a smile so slight it’s easy to miss flickers across his face. His body loosens up. His expression changes. It’s a moving sight: A creator coming into his own mid-clip. This was not his first upload, but it was his most influential. And it was his first taste of virality.
In many ways, Kaihatsu’s ascension has matched the steady rise of influencers in Japan: In 2012, he left his position at a supermarket to pursue YouTube full-time. One year later he published his first book, “My Work is YouTube,” when the popularity of the platform began to climb here. In the years that followed, Kaihatsu collaborated with big-name musicians: first Aerosmith in Singapore in 2013, and Ariana Grande a year later. Footage of the latter is still the default clip on Hikakin, his beatboxing channel. With Grande, Kaihatsu looks young, stylized, cool. He wears a black-and-gray suit and sunglasses, and elongated metal earrings. But this persona never stuck. Kaihatsu knows his audience too well.
Today, his videos on HikakinTV, often unboxings of products, are unified by a single strand: Kaihatsu as the excitable and smiling host. Some of his most popular uploads on the channel are of him singing the YouTube theme song in a music video with his brother, bathing his cat, revealing that he has two daughters and building an aluminum foil ball. He is often wearing a T-shirt, in poorly lit, unglamorous spaces. But he appears genuine, and his persona does the heavy lifting. It’s no wonder that, in a 2021 survey published by Sony Life, Kaihatsu was voted the top YouTuber among junior high and high school students. The reasons given included, “Because when I see him I get more energy.” This is unsurprising. But those surveyed also listed another explanation — “Because he has the consideration to raise funds for the victims (of COVID-19).”
Over the past 18 months, Kaihatsu has utilized his platform to teach his predominantly younger fan base about COVID-19 and raise money for health care workers. He is aware of his power, not as a YouTuber, but as the YouTuber in Japan. In an April 2020 interview with Tokyo Gov. Yuriko Koike, who appeared uncharacteristically approachable and warm, Kaihatsu wore an ill-fitting and creased suit. He asked Koike, who spoke in simple and easily understandable language, about the coronavirus and the precautions we must take; “#stayhome” was the mantra of the call. While other creators, like Hajime Syacho (who’s also about to hit the 10 million-mark for subscribers), crafted elaborate and well-produced interviews with political leaders to raise COVID-19 awareness (think Hajime’s video with Taro Kono), Kaihatsu’s video was stripped of all pretense. It felt like a job interview. But it was also relatable and, I wager, as a result, more successful at reaching his younger base.
On the precipice of reaching 10 million subscribers, Kaihatsu posted a video on Sept. 9 titled “Urgent Report.” Here, in a black T-shirt, hat and glasses, and shot with an iPhone, he announced that he would livestream a celebration of 10 million subscribers at 1 p.m. on Sept. 11. Yet the follower count rose so rapidly that he had to move the livestream forward by a day. What was most notable about it wasn’t the scheduling, though, it was what was missing.
In place of a large celebration to mark his 10 millionth follower, a party Kaihatsu canceled due to the pandemic, he held a livestream — a small and private spectacle. He celebrated the achievement alone (except a brief cameo by his brother, Seikin) with a bucket of pink slime, a cake from Harbs, a small speaker, a rubber chicken, a red drum, and Diet Coke and Mentos, all set upon a plastic table in an unassuming white room; he also donated the ¥10 million he had planned to spend on the celebration to front-line health care workers.
The subtlety of the performance and generosity of the donation seemed all the more radical when set against news from June in Tokyo, where a group of YouTubers was publicly shamed for a large drinking party during the state of emergency. At the time, Hiroyuki Nishimura, the founder of 2channel, tweeted a link to the story, chastised the YouTubers but took care to commend Kaihatsu for his difference from this crowd. And last week Nishimura praised Kaihatsu once again, this time for reaching 10 million followers, celebrating Kaihatsu as a positive role model for Japan’s youths.
YouTube Japan is lucky to have Kaihatsu. Had the country’s first breakout creator been a Logan Paul or a Trisha Paytas, there’s no guarantee the platform would have been embraced the way it has. To paraphrase that old saying, in this case, nice guys finish first.
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