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It’s not rare for Japanese subcultures to expand overseas and then explode in the West. Manga, anime, and video games are just a few Japan exports reaching the Western world and beyond. When it comes to entertainment, new cultural phenomena follow one after another in a no-holds-barred battle to win over an ever-widening audience. And while some new Japanese trends may make the more conservative crowd raise an eyebrow, there’s no denying that more than once, Japan has been ahead of its time, launching pioneering ventures and succeeding in transforming interesting ideas into international phenomena.

The virtual artists we’re going to meet in this article are not 100% made-in-Japan: in fact, the idea of creating online content using 3D avatars had already inspired the first adventurous entrepreneurs as early as 2010. It was in Japan, however, that the phenomenon grew exponentially starting in 2016. Thanks to the foresight of some companies, some of the virtual influencers of today, called VTubers, are increasing staggering numbers and boast collaborations with major organizations, including the Japan National Tourist Office (JNTO), which has gone as far as appointing one of them as a tourism ambassador to Japan.

Here’s what you need to know about the VTuber phenomenon:

What are VTubers?

As the name suggests, Virtual YouTubers (or VTubers, ブイチューバー) are computer-generated YouTubers or streamers who post their content online by making use of digital avatars, usually in anime style. Just like their real-life colleagues, they vlog, play video games, and chat with their fans on Twitch, YouTube, and NicoNico. All of this is made possible by motion capture technology tracking the movements and expressions of the person behind the avatar, which are then applied to a 2D or 3D model and animated.

Virtual idol agency Nijisanji celebrated its fourth anniversary in 2022. Photo: PR Times

History of Virtual YouTubers in Japan

We can’t talk about VTubers without mentioning Hatsune Miku and Vocaloid: as a matter of fact, it’s also thanks to the success of the turquoise-haired virtual idol born in 2004 that Japan saw the potential of creating a cultural phenomenon around “differently real,” programmable characters who can’t make mistakes or inadvertently damage their agency’s reputation ー who, by the way, owns all the avatar image rights. Convenient, isn’t it?

Among the first companies to figure out the potential of virtual idols as content creators was Activ8 Inc. a start-up specializing in 3D modeling. Kizuna AI, the first actual VTuber (she herself coined the term), made her YouTube debut in November 2016. However, she’s not someone using a virtual avatar to hide their real identity; this kawaii girl is created and animated entirely in 3D, and, unlike more recent virtual streamers, her videos are pre-recorded following a script.

Kizuna Ai meets her audience for the first time.

Although the voice actress lending Kizuna Ai her voice (Nozomi Kasuga) came forward a few years ago, this VTuber is a fictional personality, not traceable to any real-world character: in fact, in her introduction video above, she claims to be an artificial intelligence created in a lab, eager to connect with humans and learn about their daily lives. Until recently, she’s held the record as the VTuber with the most subscribers on YouTube (3.08 million to date); newcomer Gawr Gura overtook her in July 2021.

In 2017, Cover Corporation, a company that was primarily involved in virtual reality, noticed the potential of virtual idols heralded by Vocaloid and confirmed by Kizuna AI and launched the smartphone app Hololive, which uses augmented reality technology to allow users to view live streams of virtual characters. Hololive was a game-changer: virtual talents no longer had to record their videos beforehand ー a feat that often required a large team behind the scenes. Now, anyone could use a virtual avatar to bring their character to the Internet. Just like a real talent agency, Cover held auditions for new (and mostly female) idols who, unlike Activ8 Inc.’s Kizuna AI, would have more creative freedom on their content. It is during this period that live streaming sessions on YouTube and Twitch spread to become the most representative VTuber content.

In 2019, ANYCOLOR Inc.’s agency Nijisanji decided to expand to China, Indonesia, South Korea, and the United States, gaining together with Hololive the undisputed duopoly of the virtual content creator industry, which now broadcasted their live streams in multiple languages.

In September 2020, Hololive English, the English-speaking branch of Hololive, was born. On October 22, shark-girl Gawr Gura became the first Hololive idol to reach 1 million subscribers on YouTube, and just one year later she had already overtaken veteran VTuber Kizuna AI. To date, she is the most-watched VTuber in the world.

The number of YouTube channels belonging to virtual personalities is ever-growing. Source: Moguravr.com

The number of VTubers has increased exponentially in recent years, partly due to the pandemic that has forced many to seek new forms of entertainment within the walls of their homes. By the end of 2020, there were already more than 13,000 YouTube channels belonging to virtual talents.

Who are the most famous VTubers?

To get an idea of the most beloved Virtual YouTubers in and outside Japan, we’ll have to take a look at the comprehensive User Local, Inc. archive, which offers up-to-date information on the world’s most popular virtual content creators.

1. Gawr Gura (がうるぐら サメちゃん)

YouTube subscribers: 4,030,000
Debut: September 13, 2020
Biography: “A descendant of the Lost City of Atlantis, who swam to Earth while saying, “It’s so boring down there LOLOLOL!” Gura bought her clothes (and her shark hat) in the human world and she really loves them. In her spare time, she enjoys talking to marine life.” Source: Hololive

Gawr Gura’s introduction video.

2. Kizuna AI (キズナアイ)

YouTube subscribers3,080,000
Debut: November 29, 2016
Biography: “She became the first Virtual YouTuber to start up her own channel with her slogan being “I want to connect with everyone.” She has also made appearances on television shows and has starred in commercials not limiting herself to YouTube and has become a popular virtual talent not just in Japan but worldwide. She has overcome many challenges and is currently working on becoming a professional recording artist. She is determined to become a bridge to the human world using the 2 leading technologies, VR and AI.” Source: KizunaAi.com

Nowadays, a musical debut is considered a natural step in any VTuber’s career.

3. Mori Calliope (森カリオペ)

YouTube subscribers: 2,080,000
Debut: September 12, 2020
Biography: “The Grim Reaper’s first apprentice. Due to modern medical care causing a decline in the reaping business, Calliope decided to become a VTuber to harvest souls instead. It seems that the ascended souls of the people who are vaporized by the wholesome interactions between VTubers go to her as well. That being said, despite the image her hardcore vocals and manner of speech gives off, she’s actually a gentle-hearted girl who cares greatly for her friends.” Source: Hololive

Gameplay videos are another popular VTuber content.

4. Usada Pekora (兎田ぺこら)

YouTube subscribers: 1,960,000
Debut: July 17, 2019
Biography: “Hiya-peko! Hiya-peko! Hiya-pekooo! I’m Usada Pekora, peko!
A lonely rabbit-eared girl who loves carrots. She loves them so much that she always brings a few anywhere she goes.”
 Source: Hololive

Usada Pekora “comes out” to her mother by revealing she’s a VTuber.

Honorable mentions

Other popular VTubers in Japan include Kaguya Luna, who won over audiences with her energy and talkativeness, Tsukino Mito, who first led the Nijisanji agency on the road to success, and Tokino Sora, Hololive’s very first VTuber who resembles the stereotypical idol.

Lights and shadows of the VTuber subculture

Since its birth on the web, the VTuber phenomenon has been unstoppable. Perhaps not everyone is familiar with YouTube Super Chat: this feature released in 2017 allows live streaming viewers to pay anywhere between $0.99 and $500 to add a colored background to their chat messages and pin them at the top of a live stream’s chat window for a certain amount of time. The feature, which fans use to make their messages more visible to the streamer in the hope they’ll notice them in the incessant scrolling of the chat, has made the fortune of many YouTubers ー and VTubers are no exception.

In the ranking of the most profitable creators on Super Chat, 17 of the Top 20 (highlighted in the image) are VTubers. Source: Playboard, October 2021

What can we say? It’s hard to resist a pretty girl’s charm, even if “differently real.”

But what happens when the person behind a super kawaii VTuber is someone you’d never have expected? Some viewers had the chance to find out. Nora Cat, a cat-eared, scarlet-eyed virtual idol clad in gothic lolita clothes fell victim to an unfortunate technical error that led her 55,000 subscribers to discover the real identity of the person behind the avatar… A middle-aged Japanese man! The episode irked some but intrigued others, and the VTuber is still followed by nearly 85 thousand devoted fans.

In this video directed to her non-Japanese fans, Nora Cat comments on the difference between creators and creations.

While the VTuber scene has its foundations in entertainment, in funny, spicy episodes, and memes that help consolidate the culture around these charismatic influencers, just like every other niche it has no shortage of scandal and controversy.

In September 2020, Akai Haato and Kiryu Coco (both belonging to Hololive) were suspended from streaming for three weeks for “disclosing confidential information about their channels’ demographics” during a live broadcast on YouTube and BiliBili (the Chinese equivalent of YouTube). The reason for the decision was immediately clear: while using Analytics to find out where their viewers came from, the two YouTubers referred to Taiwan as a nation and not as a Chinese province (like Hong Kong, the island of Taiwan has long claimed its independence from mainland China, which instead still considers it one of its special administrative regions). The episode left a bitter taste in many fans’ mouths, disappointed to find out that the world of Virtual YouTubers is not exempt from political discourse.

Left: Kiryu Coco. Right: Akai Haato. Source: PR Times

VTubers as an international phenomenon

As we have seen, whereas the VTuber phenomenon has established its identity in Japan, its success is mostly due to the subculture’s overseas expansion. In 2021, many of the most prominent VTuber still belong to Japanese agencies, but some of Hololive English’s talents, born and developed for an international audience, have recently made their way into the Top 10 VTuber channels by the number of subscribers. Even many Japanese VTuber now add subtitles in various languages to their videos, to allow fans from around the world to be a part of the community.

In recent years, more and more companies have chosen to rely on virtual YouTubers to engage with their fans. Perhaps the most notable example is Netflix, which in April 2021 introduced N-ko Mei Kurono, a new Netflix anime ambassador and host of the weekly program The N-ko Show on the Netflix Anime YouTube channel, in which she interacts with international fans.

While to an outside observer, VTubers might seem like a niche phenomenon. However, numbers don’t lie. In 2020, they were even recognized as one of YouTube’s most relevant trends by a YouTube Creators report: in October, in fact, the entire category of VTuber on the platform recorded a total of more than 1.5 billion views, a figure that continues to rise.

Surely this article alone isn’t enough to cover the VTuber phenomenon in all its nuances, but if the topic has piqued your interest and you want to learn more, don’t be afraid to start with one of the videos above and embark on a journey into the quirks and delights of this world… and see how deep the rabbit hole goes. And if late at night, you find yourself watching a live stream of a Japanese VTuber studying English on Duolingo, a rabbit girl drawing fan art, or an adorable dog-eared girl playing Super Mario Bros… don’t say we didn’t warn you!

Anna Toccoli

Anna Toccoli

Italian freelance translator. From 2014 until 2019, I lived in Tokyo first as a student and then as a worker in the Japanese 2D entertainment industry. I've seen my fair share of weird things and enjoy talking about them with whoever will listen. My hobbies are playing video games, hoarding Lego, and learning everything there is to know about the latest crazes in Japanese pop culture.

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