Today we enter the world of a YouTube celebrity. If you’re an avid user of the popular video sharing site, chances are you’ve encountered the videos of Magibon — those big eyes and tiny face looking up at the camera, sometimes with a message, often with none. Surprising even her, the videos garnered millions of views, most of them from Japan, which lead this American 22-year-old to start learning — and using — Japanese, without leaving her bedroom in the state of Pennsylvania. PingMag catches up with Magibon during a recent visit to Tokyo, to find out what it takes to make it big on YouTube.
Written by Jean Snow
When did you start creating these videos and putting them up on YouTube?
I think maybe a year and a half or two years ago.
Why did you start?
I was playing around with YouTube — it was still sort of new to me — and I was watching a lot of Japanese music videos. I then realized I could put something up, so I plugged in my webcam, waved a bit, and then put it on YouTube just to see myself. I didn’t think anyone else would watch it, besides me or my friends.
And then the complete opposite happened! How long did it take before you realized that people were checking out that video?
Within a week or so it had several thousand views on it. I realized that there had been a link to it put on a really popular Japanese message board called 2channel. I was so psyched because I love Japan — I’ve tried my whole life to get a Japanese penpal — and suddenly thousands of Japanese people saw my face.
So you realized you had a big audience from Japan. How long did it take before you started using Japanese in the videos?
After I did a few videos, I wanted to try and thank people on 2channel. I was using really broken Japanese, using machine translations, to try and say “that’s me” and “thank you.” From that point, I was writing in video information, or comments, trying to use Japanese.
And then there’s the “arigatou” (thank you) graphic at the end of your videos. When do you start adding that, and how do you create that animation?
I don’t remember exactly when I started. It used to be a different one every time I think, just whatever I felt like at the time I was making the video. Now I always make it “arigatou.” Before, on my old Windows computer, I was using Movie Maker to create it. Now I have a new laptop, a Mac, and I’m using iMovie.
You have a blog written in Japanese, when did that start?
Over a year ago, I think.
Is that hard? Are you first writing in English and then translating, or doing it directly in Japanese?
I do both. It’s kind of hard because when I write on my blog I have to keep in mind that it needs to be really simple, so that my Japanese can be understood. So I try to think of ways that I can write the sentence in Japanese, and then I have to either look up the words that I want to use, or if I’m short on time I put some very simple English into an online translator, and then go back in and try to fix it up.
Is there a particular reason you don’t have one in English?
It’s not that I’m against having one in English, but it doesn’t fit with what I’m doing right now. I really want to live in Japan, work in Japan.
OK, so now you’re really pushing to get to Japan. What is it that you want to do here?
I want to be a singer.
Are you using your videos to try and do that? Because a lot of your videos are silent…
I just recently decided that that’s the direction that I want to go in. I wasn’t sure what I could or should do before, because I kept thinking, do I have any talents, can I do anything? But recently I’ve decided that singing would be good.
For now, are you able to live off what you do on YouTube?
I’m in the YouTube partner program, so they put advertisements next to my videos — whichever ones I choose to add — and then they share the revenue. It’s not very much money, but I still live with my mom, so I’m able to fully concentrate on this now.
How often do you make new videos?
It depends. There are times when I really get into it and I do two or three a week, and then there are other times where I just don’t have any inspiration or creativity, and I’ll just do two or thee in a month. Recently, I didn’t do a single video for a whole month. I’ve always done it based on how I’m feeling.
And when it comes time to make a new video, is there a lot of thought that goes into what you record, or does it come from experimenting?
I get out the webcam and turn it on, and then if I feel like talking or saying something then I do, and if I don’t then I just do the non-speaking ones.
Do you record a lot and then only keep the bits you find interesting?
Sometimes. There are some videos I’ve done where it’s a clip that cuts to something else, and then to something else, and that’s probably a time where I was sitting there for over an hour, and it just turned into a one-minute video.
You’ll do that, being in front of the camera for an hour?
Yeah, like get something to eat, then take it to my computer, and turn on the webcam. I’ll just sit there and think while I’m eating, and then if I think of something to say I say something, or get bored and just make faces, or take a bite of food or something, or show what I’m eating.
Does it take a long time to edit the video and prepare it for YouTube?
It depends. Sometimes it takes a long time, sometimes it’s really straightforward. I used to put music in my videos, and those are the ones that took a really long time, because I would have to try to make things match with the music, and make the length and everything go with the song. But that was a long time ago, and since they’ve started cracking down on copyrighted material, it got me thinking that maybe I shouldn’t be using songs in my videos.
Sure, you wouldn’t want to get in trouble. So we all know that you really like Japan, but what is it about this country that you like so much?
I don’t know, something just kind of clicked. I think a lot of people just identify more with a different culture than their own. And that’s how it is with me and Japan. I like dramas, and J-pop, and I like the Japanese language…
What about anime and manga?
I like that stuff, but I try to stay away from it a little bit because I’m a very habit-forming person, and if I get into anything like that then it will take over my life. There’s a lot of people watching me right now who are already saying that I must be an anime otaku or something, and that I have no idea what Japan is, and that I only want to go there because I think it’s an anime-land.
Well, at least you’ve had a few chances to come here because of your videos, and to experience the country firsthand. Your latest visit was for a YouTube event. What did you do for that?
For the event, I didn’t know for days ahead of time what I was going to be doing there, and then when I got there we decided that they would just ask me some questions in Japanese, and that I would try to answer in Japanese. Also, the Fatblueman band — who wrote the “Magibon Song” — was there and I got back on stage during the performance.
And what do you think about all these song and video homages to you, since there are almost as many as the number of videos you’ve done yourself?
The nice stuff is really touching — without that stuff I don’t know if I would still have the strength to be in Japan, and to try and go after what I’m going after. I’m really thankful for all that stuff. And my mom likes to watch those videos. She watches them a lot.
There are also a lot of critical videos, that make fun of what you’re doing. How do you react to them?
I ignore that stuff. I haven’t seen most of them, because if it looks like it’s going to be negative, then I just ignore it. From the time I started doing this, that stuff has been around. At first it was really hard. When somebody says something to insult you, your natural reaction is to stick up for yourself, and that’s what I really wanted to do. But something was stopping me, telling me not to acknowledge them. There are a lot of people looking, a lot of them getting inspiration from what I do, and so I have to be careful about what side of myself I show to people, because that will affect their thoughts and their feelings. I only want to show patience and happiness to people.
You obviously think a lot about your audience. Once your videos became popular, did you change the way you made them, to better accommodate that new audience?
In some ways yes, and in some ways no. Because people really like the non-speaking videos, I continue to do those. Some people are really touched by them.
People are touched by them? In what way?
Because it’s a like a blank slate, it can be whatever you want it to be. There are a lot of other videos on YouTube — some of the most watched ones — that have a lot of arguing and negativity, and then you have my videos, with just silence, maybe just a smile, or a wave. To some people, that’s really meaningful for them, to just make everything stop for a minute, and have someone just smile at them.
But it’s hard to please everyone. When I first started making the videos, when they first started becoming popular, I was listening to people’s suggestions and trying to do what they wanted. Some would say that I needed to make the videos longer. Then I’d get other messages from people saying they were too long, that I needed to make them shorter. Same for using English or Japanese. So it’s pointless. If I do what I’m feeling, that always works out the best anyway.
Can you tell me more about your previous trips to Japan?
The first time was a joint invitation by Weekly Playboy magazine and Gyao. That trip was fun and magical, but very stressful: the TV, the cameras, the radio, all at once. I had never done anything like that before, and I was being thrown into it. Maybe everyone was under the assumption that because I have a lot of popularity or fame that I’m a professional or an entertainer. But really, I have a slow life in Pennsylvania, I don’t ever do anything but the internet and YouTube. On the second trip, there was a little bit more time.
And why did you come that second time?
How did that happen?
Someone working on the movie knew my YouTube videos, and had the idea that my voice might be good for that part. They wrote to the editor of Weekly Playboy, who was always working with me, and so I knew it was a real offer. I recorded the voice on my own computer at my house, right into my microphone built into my laptop, in my kitchen. I waited until everyone was asleep so it would be quiet, and took the clock out of the kitchen because it was ticking. I recorded the line and emailed it to them.
And why did he think that you could do the voice of a young French boy? Did you use French in any of your videos?
I made a video once where I was reciting a French poem, and I think that I immediately deleted it or I made it a private video. But of course, when I put up a video there are people who somehow save it to their computer, and so it turns up again. It’s floating around somewhere. It’s not very good. It’s one of those things where I just had my computer out and I felt like doing something.
Nothing ever truly disappears from the web! So what’s next for you?
I recently decided that I want to sing, and so that’s what I’m going to pursue now. My real love though is television, I love Japanese television.
You know, in Japan, a lot of famous people sing, and appear on dramas, and do all this stuff, so maybe that’s what you could do?
That’s what I was thinking. Right now, if I have a talent in singing that I can grow, then that’s a way for me to enter into entertainment. And if I can achieve any kind of success with singing, then maybe someday, when my Japanese is better, then I can try acting.
What about YouTube, are you planning on continuing to make videos?
I would really like to continue with YouTube, but like I said, I do everything based on how I’m feeling, and so I can’t really see the future. But as of now, I don’t have any plans to stop using YouTube, and I’d like to continue.
Do you already have plans for another trip to Japan?
I’m trying my best to not have to leave, to stay as long as I can! (laughs)
Thank you, Magibon, and good luck with your quest to move to Japan!