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Virtual YouTubers earn millions in Japan

YouTubers voice and animate characters designed to make fans feel like they’re connecting with their animated idols. Some fans even pay hundreds of dollars to have their comment highlighted on a livestream

  • By Tomohiro Osaki / AFP, TOKYO

Mayu Iizuka ditches her soft-spoken persona and begins cackling, screaming and flailing wildly in a makeshift studio in Tokyo as her avatar appears on a live stream in front of hundreds of fans.

Virtual YouTubers like Iizuka, who voices and hosts a character called Yume Kotobuki, have turned a niche Japanese subculture into a thriving industry where top accounts can rake in over $1 million a year.

The videos are designed to make fans feel like they’re interacting directly with their favorite anime idols – with viewers sometimes paying hundreds of US dollars for a single comment to be highlighted on a live stream.

Photo: AFP

“When I play video games on my channel and achieve something, my fans give me praise and tips” to show their support and appreciation,” Iizuka said.

The 26-year-old uses a laptop, webcam and motion sensor worn around her neck to appear on screen as Yume, whose facial expressions are controlled by a producer.

With her squeaky voice, short skirt, and big purple eyes, Iizuka’s avatar follows a popular model for “VTuber” characters, who often resemble the hyper-feminine heroines of Japanese anime.

Photo: AFP

Since its emergence around five years ago, the world of VTuber has grown rapidly, with around 16,000 active streamers worldwide, data firm User Local said.

Fanbases are also growing on other platforms such as TikTok and gaming site Twitch.

Regional governments in Japan have used them for promotion, and The Batman stars Robert Pattinson and Zoe Kravitz even gave a recent interview to a prominent Japanese VTuber.

Photo: AFP

VTubers generate money the same way traditional live streamers do, including through YouTube’s “Super Chat” system, where the more a fan pays out, the more attention their comments get.

The nine highest-earning YouTube accounts in the world for “Super Cat” last year were all VTubers.

All nine are affiliated with a Tokyo-based talent agency and each earned between $700,000 and $1.7 million from cash donations, data analytics website Playboard said.

Most fans only spend a few hundred yen per comment, but dedicated ones sometimes spend ¥50,000 (US$383) to post impassioned missives to their virtual idols.

Kazuma Murakami, a 30-year-old auto parts inspector, is known to have spent ¥10,000 to have his comments highlighted in red and seen by his favorite VTuber.

“I really want her to notice that I’m here again, visiting her channel,” Murakami said.

Another VTuber fan, who asked to be identified only by his first name, Kazumi, adorned his small one-room apartment near Tokyo with posters, framed photos and keychains featuring his favorite character, Mio Ookami. .

The 30-year-old computer engineer spends time after work and on weekends immersing himself in Mio’s videos and creating digital illustrations of the dark-haired “wolf girl.”

“I spend five, even 10 hours just thinking about her,” he said. “She’s like family to me.”

This devotion and fans’ willingness to pay big bucks is tied to how other fan subcultures operate in Japan, said Noriyuki Nagamatsu, digital business specialist at advertising firm DA Consortium.

“Super Chat is basically an extension of a long-standing culture where idol and anime fans try to support their oshi, or favorite, by splurging on their merchandise,” he said. “It’s also a way to get their beloved’s attention and feel superior to other fans.”

VTubers generally keep the person behind the character – often referred to as their “soul” – out of the picture, and like many fans, Kazumi has stated that her love is directed towards Mio the avatar, not the one playing her.

However, the line between virtual and real can become blurred.

A Japanese court recently ruled in favor of a VTuber actor who said online slander against her character amounted to an attack on her.

Virtual YouTubers can “transcend gender, age, or physique…but what’s important is that there’s a real person talking and reading the comments in real life,” Kazuhito said. Ozawa, plaintiff’s attorney.

For Iizuka, a professional voice actress, making the rare decision to reveal her identity after four years of making videos as Yume was nerve-wracking.

“Part of me was worried that fans of Yume, who has those big, shiny eyes and a perfect belly, would be disappointed to find out what the ‘real’ person is like inside,” she said, adding that “so far, the fan response has been very kind.

The more outspoken and lively personality of Yume’s virtual self is even gradually rubbing off on Iizuka, she said.

“I used to shy away from speaking in public, but Yume is such an experienced live streamer that my identity as her has helped me speak with more confidence,” she said.

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