'Like family': Japan's virtual YouTubers make millions from fans

Japan Times -- May 07
Mayu Iizuka sheds her soft-spoken personality and starts cackling, screaming and waving wildly in a makeshift studio in Tokyo as her avatar appears on a livestream before hundreds of fans.

Virtual YouTubers like Iizuka, who voices and animates a character called Yume Kotobuki, have transformed a niche Japanese subculture into a thriving industry where top accounts can rake in more than a million dollars (¥130 million) a year.

The videos are designed to make fans feel as if they are interacting directly with their favorite animated idols — with some viewers paying hundreds of dollars to have a single comment highlighted during a livestream.

“When I’m playing video games on my channel and succeed at something, my fans congratulate me” and pay tips “as a way to show their support and appreciation,” Iizuka told AFP.

The 26-year-old uses a laptop, webcam and a 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 huge purple eyes, Iizuka’s avatar follows a popular model for “VTuber” characters, which often resemble the hyperfeminine heroines of Japanese anime.

Since emerging about five years ago, the VTuber world has grown quickly, with about 16,000 active streamers globally, according to data firm User Local, with growing fanbases on other platforms like 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 top Japanese VTuber.

VTubers generate money in ways similar to traditional livestreamers, including through YouTube’s “Super Chat” system, where the more a fan shells out, the more attention is drawn to their comments.