By Patrick St. Michel, contributing writer
The baseball offseason has arrived and Chicago Cubs pitcher Yu Darvish has taken up a few extracurricular activities. The Osaka-born player has expanded his social media presence, with recent posts on Twitter — poking fun at teammates and playfully roasting other starters — being picked up by domestic media.
Darvish’s online activity has also attracted a lot of attention at home, albeit via uploads onto his YouTube account. Darvish has come up with clever video ideas before, but his latest viral material has been more straightforward in terms of content. Sitting in a sparsely furnished room, Darvish simply looks directly into the camera and just talks. Popular topics include his thoughts on the scariest hitters he has ever faced in Japan and, in a particularly vulnerable moment, his recollection of a scandal from high school where he was caught smoking at a pachinko parlor. He also shows off his pet parrot.
Darvish’s uploads are highlighting a new way that celebrities in Japan are using YouTube to connect with viewers across the country. In recent times, stars once seemingly allergic to the internet have embraced online platforms as a way to further their careers. The world’s biggest video site, in particular, has become a hotbed for the famous to promote their brands.
For a long time, YouTube in Japan offered something resembling an alternative to mainstream entertainment. Anybody could become a star, and the country’s biggest creators tended to come from nowhere, like current heavyweights Hikakin and Hajime Syacho. It felt like a breath of fresh air compared to the highly controlled world of Japanese mainstream entertainment, where talent agency influence often dictates who appears in which shows.
In recent times, however, a host of more prominent personalities have been migrating to the platform. Some make more sense than others — Instagram-influencer-turned-TV-staple Ryuchell launched a channel earlier this year, and his makeup videos and room tour videos make perfect sense for him, even if they come packaged in weird off-brand “Full House” aesthetics. Ryuchell represents how an existing member of the social media elite can branch out to different platforms and offer new looks into their lives.
Comedian Atsuhiko Nakata isn’t quite as obvious a choice for social media stardom, but he is best known for a YouTube-centric hit song. So when he launched a YouTube channel touching on topics ranging from 5G technology to European history, it wasn’t too shocking that it amassed a large following. His videos now regularly appear on the YouTube Japan trending page, and he has given his career new legs that a one-hit wonder probably wouldn’t have been able to sustain.
Athletes represent a more mainstream presence, so seeing them on YouTube somehow feels far more significant. If Darvish has charmed with intimate, downright basic clips, professional soccer player Keisuke Honda’s recently launched channel goes the other way. His uploads feature professional footage and go way beyond just shooting the breeze, boasting titles such as “Keisuke Honda’s Day Starts With English” and “Why I Invest in Startups.” If Darvish’s recent content is about making him seem human via straight talk, Honda’s content is about making his brand appear human, complete with challenges and expertly crafted hype videos. Plenty noticed the difference between the two athletes — including Darvish, who even poked some fun at it.
Whatever route a famous person takes, the influx of celebrities to YouTube in Japan indicates a growing shift away from the original spirit of the site. While home-grown creators still dominate at this moment, the increasing number of established names on YouTube points toward a shift where the platform might not be a unique ecosystem, but rather just another extension of old power structures.
Take, for example, Arashi — J-pop heavyweights who for the past two decades have, like many top-tier music acts in the country, shunned the web in favor of physical media. Ahead of the group’s break at the end of next year, it launched a YouTube channel and shared a handful of older videos and live clips … alongside debuting a new song and video.
Plenty of domestic music acts have used YouTube to reach fans worldwide, but Arashi’s recent digital shift is noteworthy because of how closely it is working with the site itself, having previously appeared in print ads for YouTube and so on. Few acts represent the old-school power of Japan’s entertainment industry like Arashi and the group’s moves into this space isn’t exactly a sign of the group changing — it suggests that YouTube is shifting ever so slightly toward the familiar.
Perhaps, then, it’s best to enjoy this moment in online history where celebrities entering the YouTube space still feel novel and not too much of an intrusion on what made these places interesting in the first place. Savor the moment in which Yu Darvish tells you about his pet parrot.