Here on Beneath the Tangles, we look at a huge variety of what could be considered “otaku media.” What makes things interesting is that, as time goes on, new forms of such media get developed, creating new experiences for otaku to enjoy. One of the most recent developments is the rise of the “Virtual YouTuber,” or “VTuber” for short. This medium was most notably popularized through Kizuna AI, a digital anime girl avatar that, with the help of face capture and motion capture technology, could livestream through streaming services like YouTube and interact with fans in real time. Ever since she became famous, numerous other VTubers have cropped up. (Note that while the term VTuber came from the use of YouTube, it now includes any streaming service used by a virtual avatar.) The medium has meshed particularly well with the popularity of video game streaming, and many VTubers nowadays entertain their viewers with regular video game streams, along with singing streams and chatting streams.
As VTubers have grown in popularity in Japan, the international otaku fandom has also started to pick up on this trend. Fan-translators started to upload translated clips onto YouTube to give those who don’t understand Japanese a glimpse of this relatively new world. I still remember seeing my first such clip: a video of Inugami Korone (a dog girl) coming back from near-defeat to claim victory in Tetris 99. (Though in this particular clip, translation isn’t exactly necessary to understand what’s going on…) As interest in these VTubers grew among English-speaking (and other international) otaku, they started to actually watch these VTubers’ original streams from their original channels. After all, even if one doesn’t understand what exactly is being said, watching a cute anime girl (or guy, because male VTubers are indeed a thing) playing a game like Minecraft, Fall Guys, or Apex Legends is something that transcends language barriers. (It also certainly doesn’t hurt that, with the recent pandemic, many people suddenly have a lot more time on their hands.)
What is particularly interesting is how VTubers have responded to the growing presence of English speakers in their streams. After all, imagine if you were streaming a video game and suddenly a bunch of Japanese viewers found your stream and started posting in Japanese (or some other foreign language) in your chat. If you know some basic Japanese, you might give a very simple greeting to them before just going back to streaming like you normally would in the hopes your foreign audience simply enjoys the stream for what it is. Indeed, many VTubers do just that with their English-speaking viewers, recognizing them (moreso if they give donations) but otherwise just doing what they are used to doing. And by no means is there anything wrong with that; different VTubers have different talents and personalities and it is up to them to decide what is best for their channels.
At the same time, it is definitely admirable when certain VTubers make an effort to connect with foreign viewers. The aforementioned Korone is one example of someone who seems to love interacting with English speakers; she will frequently Google Translate things she wants to say to them, try to teach them various Japanese phrases, and has learned that she can “summon” English speakers lurking in chat by saying “Hey guys.” She even sang Madonna’s “Material Girl” during a karaoke stream, which is… quite something.
As a side note, there are some VTubers who are particularly fluent in English, such as Kiryu Coco (be warned that her content is… not very family friendly). In particular, there are a number of Indonesian VTubers who are quite fluent in English, Japanese, and Indonesian, and are worth checking out if you want someone that “speaks your language” at least some of the time. And of course, there are proper English-speaking VTubers out there, though they overall aren’t too popular yet.
As VTubers have grown in popularity in English-speaking fandoms, the “agencies” that manage them have taken notice and do things to further promote them. Hololive, the agency that manages Korone, Coco, and many other popular VTubers, has English captions for their short animated episodes and other videos on their official channel, as well as an English website, and has even expressed interest in an official English branch. Another major VTuber agency, Nijisanji, has an official English YouTube channel to promote their numerous talents.
To cap off this introduction to VTubers for Beneath the Tangles readers, I would like to remind people to keep some basic etiquette in mind. Most VTuber streams have rules in English in their descriptions anyway, but here are some important things to keep in mind:
- Remember that most Japanese VTubers do not understand English, so complicated English messages in chat probably won’t be noticed. Simple messages like “good job!” are more likely to be understood and are usually all the encouragement a VTuber needs.
- It’s a common point of etiquette to never mention other streamers and VTubers unless the streamer mentions them first.
- Do not spam messages or memes. Others might not follow this rule, but you don’t have to join in.
- I personally see nothing wrong with donating to VTubers. It helps them make a living, just like how many Twitch streamers rely on donations. That said, please be financially responsible and only donate within your means. Also, be careful when using YouTube’s “SuperChat” donation system as the streamer may read your message out loud in stream; this can be great but be cautious what you say. (This isn’t a fully Biblical statement here, but if you ask me, VTuber streams are not the place for explicit evangelism.)
With all that said, the wide world of VTubers await you! It’s definitely a very deep rabbit hole to explore, but it is ultimately just another part of otaku media now, so feel free to enjoy it for what it is.
Have you already gotten caught up in the VTuber fun? Share your favorite VTubers in the comments!