01 May YouTuber John Daub is your tour guide to Japan and Japanese culture
“Aw, man. This is the best job ever…. The best job ever,” says John Daub with a supremely satisfied smile. He had just taken a sip of fabulous creamy onion bacon soup at a restaurant named Kokoya de Kobayashi in the city of Kobayashi in Miyazaki prefecture, on the southern Japanese island of Kyushu.
He’s not kidding. He has a great job.
Daub and his wife, Kanae, have been “working,” spending several days in the area livestreaming videos for his “Only in Japan GO” YouTube channel. It might seem like an amazingly fun gig, and obviously, it is. But don’t be fooled — he works hard at his job.
Daub began this series of livestream episodes two days before in Miyazaki prefecture, to attend a Mango Auction. Yes, in Japan they auction off mangoes just like the tuna auctions in Tokyo’s famous fish market – the top fruit went for $5,000. For one fruit. (He posted his edited report on the $5,000 mango a week later.)
Then he broadcast a series of livestreams, starting with a Q&A chat for a private audience of patrons who help fund he and his wife’s adventures. Other live episodes in quick succession covered how local governments give away or sell (or rent for low prices) abandoned houses, then fresh vegetable tempura at a farm, directly from the fields to the kitchen, and to a local restaurant to try koi – the famous Japanese carp, along with the soup that got Daub to note his lucky profession.
He even visited a famous fish farm that raises sturgeon for caviar, and the couple stayed in a ryokan, a traditional Japanese inn, with a private onsen (hot spring) bath. He streamed live at every stop, and he’ll produce edited video reports from much of his research.
Daub is a YouTuber, someone who shoots lots and lots of videos and does it so frequently and professionally that he’s gained a following of 140,000 followers for his livestreaming “Only in Japan GO” Channel, and over 1 million viewers who follow his main “Only in Japan” channel.
There are dozens of people producing videos about Japan on YouTube (I’ve posted some myself). But most are tourists whose YouTube uploads are about travel, and they may not know very much about Japan, mangle words, and make incorrect statements, because to them, so much of Japan is still a stereotype.
The best videos are by a community of YouTubers who live in Japan – many are ex-pat Americans, Brits or people from New Zealand or Australia, and some, like Daub, have lived in Japan for years, speak Japanese and have married and have families.
Daub’s “Only in Japan” videos, which tend to be around 10 minutes long, are very informed, knowledgeable, and educational. While some peoples’ Japan videos zip through the most popular tourist spots, Daub seeks out some of the lesser-known neighborhoods and restaurants, and delves deep with a journalist’s curiosity into the culture that is at the heart of everything in Japan. Even better, he takes trips like the one that took him to Miyazaki prefecture, to shoot carefully edited, professional though conversational, news stories for which he often interviews people in Japanese – the farmer or fisherman, the third-generation shop owner, the chef.
He’s produced engaging stories about an amazing diversity of topics: why Japanese live so long, how to make tofu, how a daikon radish farm operates (it’s much more interesting than you’d think), why Wagyu beef is so damned tasty, capsule hotels, Hokkaido prison food, elementary school food, how the silk industry helped make Japanese technology a world leader, the significance of rice, and of course, lots and lots of food from sushi and ramen to a dizzying variety of street food in many cities and festivals across Japan.
He’s not just making videos of himself having a great time in Japan – he’s helping us learn about the country.
On his second YouTube Channel, “Only in Japan GO!,” Daub chooses a place or an event and livestreams for sometimes longer than an hour. It can seem rambling, but after a while these personal broadcasts become pretty engaging too. It’s like you’re experiencing Japan with a pal, and he reveals more of himself than when he’s being a reporter. He talks to his viewers when they chat on YouTube, and thanks them when they submit a “SuperChat” message along with an online donation to help him pay for his broadcast (for a beer, or lunch).
It’s a new type of media for an audience that’s hungry for a new type of interaction from an expert who happens to live in Japan.
We’ve come to know his wife, Kanae, a modern dancer and teacher who accompanies Daub on many of his adventures and is starting to contribute more and more to the conversations. We also get to know other pals who help him with some of his episodes.
Daub’s live “shows” might be a casual, stream-of-consciousness type of media, but the episodes on his “Only in Japan” original channel are more like TV reports. That’s because after Daub first moved to Japan 21 years ago to teach English and fell in love with the country, he began working in television and video. He currently is a fulltime YouTuber but he’s reported for NHK, the Japanese public TV network, and runs a video production company.
Daub was born in Virginia, grew up in New Jersey, went to college at Ohio State University and got a degree in economics and English literature. He wasn’t on a path to be a Japan YouTuber. He learned his Japanese and his video skills on the job.
He didn’t know any Japanese when he went to Japan and was discouraged from using Japanese at the English language school where he taught. “So I guess it was three years after I’d lived in Japan that I started to study through books,” he recalled. “And I learned the language, believe it or not, not through school but I would go to Mister Donuts almost every day before I started my job, and I would talk with old ladies, and they would correct my Japanese. Older ladies are very strict. After five years – after 2003 — I felt pretty comfortable to do what I do.”
He shot his first videos in 2003. “That’s when I first hitchhiked from Wakanai in Hokkaido to Kagoshima (at the opposite end of Japan). I bought a professional Sony video camera and filmed it,” Daub said. He said they were aired on Boston public access TV back in 2004. “This was all before YouTube started.”
He was confident enough to launch his production company, and got a contract to work with a company that had him producing comedy videos in English for five years.
That work got him in the door on Japanese TV, and he started working at NHK World, the English language side of NHK, as a reporter for “Tokyo Eye.” “I think I did 50 reports for ‘Tokyo Eye’ but I haven’t been doing it because I’m focused on “Only in Japan.”
He says YouTube brings in the most income right now (he also gets funding through a site called Patreon, where people sign up as “patrons” for a monthly fee to support his work), which is good because, as he added, “Only in Japan” is “the job that I have the most passion for. I get to tell the story that I want to tell, to the audience that’s interested in that story. That’s what this YouTube channel is to me, it’s a chance to tell really amazing stories to people who wouldn’t ordinarily get this through NHK or other YouTubers, and finding a way to connect with people on an emotional level, or by taking something that’s very surprising or shocking to them.”
The audience has grown greatly in the last six years, which helps him support himself from YouTube. Daub takes his work seriously.
“I write up a blueprint for a script, then go out there and research it, sometimes I have to go on location to research it or sometimes I’ll go and research it while I’m filming,” he said.
“Like when I went to Ogasawara I had to get on a ferry for 24 hours and go there to research it because there wasn’t enough (information about) that island — Chichijima. So I had to go there and it took me 10 days to get that story. But every single episode that I make I sort of hand craft them so I consider them my babies – something I made special for my viewers. I want everyone to have a good experience with it, so I love everything I make.”
Daub has dozens of videos – hundreds of hours – already on YouTube, but he’s not worried about finding new stories. “I’ll never run out of topics, because in every prefecture there are topics. There are 47 prefectures in Japan and every prefecture has a story and a history, and in every prefecture, there are hundreds of towns. And each town has a story and a history to it. And within those towns there are people – millions of them – and they all have a story and a history.
“So, as much as I like to talk about food and talk about adventures and tourism, the channel’s also about the stories of everyday people, and more and more you’re going to see me incorporating the lives of Japanese here, and introducing their lives to the audience. Because that’s not something that a tourist would be able to find out on their own.
“And if I can enhance the experience of the viewer, I think it would resonate better with them than if it’s just me eating something or if it’s me going and having an experience. I want to connect with my audience through other people and share their experiences together. And that’s probably the way this channel evolves.”
Here are some other YouTubers that I follow who cover topics in Japan (click the titles):
Paolo from Tokyo
Paolo de Guzman and his wife Maiko Inagaki run a blog about living and traveling in Japan, and the couple produces photography, videos and writing services. He speaks fluent Japanese, and she speaks American English because she lived in California. Their videos usually stay around Tokyo but focus on districts and offer lots of tips like “The Best Ramen in Shinjuku.”
Angela An was raised in New Zealand but now lives in Tokyo, and speaks fluent Japanese. She has a series of videos about exploring areas outside of Tokyo, and like John Daub, she likes to share parts of Tokyo that are not as well-known as the tourist spots. Her edited episodes are professional, and she just recently began posting livestreams. She hasn’t quite worked out some of the livestreaming technical issues that Daub seems to have conquered. She also has launched a group called Internationally Us, to promote offline events for her community of travelers and expats in Japan, and has just opened a Japanese language and culture school in rural Akita prefecture for people to learn in an immersive program.
Shinichi and Satoshi are a gay couple who post videos about food, cooking and travel in Japan. Some of their livestreams can be maddeningly unfocused (camera pointing away from the food they’re talking about, focus being off) but their energy is terrific and I’ve learn some good stuff about cooking.
A colleague of John Daub, Dean Newcombe, a model, actor and producer who lives in Japan, has created a TV series following a team of foreigners going across the country in search of extreme sports and outdoor challenges. You can watch the first part of Episode 1 at the link above (the next episodes follow), and here’s the link to the YouTube Channel for RunAway Japan.
NHK World, the English language arm of Japan’s public broadcaster, hosts several shows that are helpful to watch for anyone interested in travel to Japan. One is “Tokyo Eye 2020,” which is all about showing off areas of Tokyo that would appeal to visitors coming for the 2020 Olympics (John Daub appears in some of the older seasons, pre-Only in Japan); “Japanology,” a program that spotlights culture; and “Journeys through Japan” which takes viewers to remote areas of Japan that foreign tourists may not have the opportunity to visit. These shows are broadcast on the NHK network (on cable), but the episodes are also available on YouTube.