What Is a VTuber? A Guide to Japan’s Latest Shapeshifting Cultural Phenomenon

As soon as Kizuna AI merchandise began to appear during my time in Japan on the shelves of Animate, I realized that virtual YouTubers were no longer an underground phenomenon. Fast forward three years, and the growth of the industry has continued unabated: virtual personalities now count among some of the highest earners from YouTube’s Super Chat feature, new agencies are opening all the time, and chances are that at least one creator speaks your language. VTubers are truly here to stay.

That being said, what is a VTuber? For the uninitiated, the prospect of listening to an anime girl avatar speak for hours on end (often in Japanese, despite the expansion of foreign language creators) might seem like a daunting one, and one that seems to offer little reward. That is linked to the shift in content produced between the first and second generation of creators, as we shall see, but this guide aims to answer some basic questions:

What are virtual YouTubers? Where did they come from? What’s the appeal? And how can I get into them? With any luck, by the end of this guide you will be well-equipped to dive into one of Japan’s fastest-growing cultural phenomena; one that is blurring the lines between fantasy and reality in ways that, twenty years ago, would’ve seemed straight out of science fiction.

The Origin of VTubers

Despite coming to prominence in the last couple of years, virtual YouTubers are not a recent invention. There is a popular meme floating around that says that The Annoying Orange was actually the first ‘real’ VTuber, and while that’s mostly propagated to make people really mad, this speaks to the fact that the origins of VTubers can be found long ago.

The first virtual personality was arguably visual novel game developer Nitroplus’ mascot, Super Sonico. While the character had existed for many years (since 2006) a video produced for the company’s Wonder Festival 2010 Winter booth and uploaded to the Nitroplus YouTube channel on 12 February 2010 marked the beginning of a slew of content that would see the character transform from static image into living, breathing virtual personality.

These videos were largely produced for events or to promote the Sonicomi game series, so it’d be inaccurate to call her a virtual YouTuber per se. Even so, Sonico’s existence as a virtual character was special and foreshadowed a lot of what has come about in the industry today: while previous multimedia franchises such as The iDOLM@STER already centered around virtual characters that fans could interact with in more engaging ways than traditional media, they were often ‘represented’ in real life at events such as live concerts by their voice actors. Sonico, meanwhile, only ever existed as a character in virtual space.

What’s more, Sonico’s eventual move from mascot to game character to idol singer, even putting out MVs, is similar to the path that such agencies as Hololive have taken today. She even made a pivot towards virtual YouTubing proper in 2018. Understanding Sonico’s subtle but formative impact on the VTuber industry is key to understanding what they have become today.

Less contentious is the fact that the first true virtual YouTuber was Kizuna AI. She was the first person to coin the term and paved the way for all subsequent creators that followed. Although her star has since fallen (especially after the controversy surrounding the ‘Multiple A.I.s’ project) she was incredibly influential in her time and was the first creator to prove that being a VTuber could be serious business.

Ami Yamato throws a bit of a spanner in the works. Her channel was created years before Ai’s, in 2011, although she lives in the UK and doesn’t actually consider herself a VTuber. In an interview with Christopher Travers on VirtualHumans.org, she said, ‘Everyone’s virtual on YouTube… I guess I’m one of the few Japanese YouTubers who vlogs from the UK. What’s a VTuber? I’m curious, too.’ In reality, she’s a ‘3D vlogger’ whose content only becomes important in retrospect when trying to uncover the chronology of who came first.

And what about Hatsune Miku? Again, this is a tricky one, as she first appeared on the scene in 2007, predating even Ami Yamato. CEO of Hololive’s parent company Cover Corp, Motoaki Tanigo (AKA Yagoo), also cites Miku as a major influence in a 2020 interview with Anime News Network. Even so, quite a lot of her personality was created or at least informed by the fan community, being originally intended to be a music production tool.

She has since gone on to hold live concerts and appear in other forms of media, but doesn’t have as much of a distinct virtual personality as someone like Super Sonico. At the very least, we can say that she definitely provided one of the key figures in the industry with some sort of inspiration.

Now that some of the history is out of the way, we’ll attempt to offer a simple explanation as to what a VTuber actually is: a virtual character that interacts with an audience through an avatar, usually anime-themed. They also originated on YouTube, as the name suggests, although they also exist on other platforms: billibilli, Twitch, and NicoNicoDouga, etc.

Determining what kind of content you can expect from them, however, requires another bit of a history.

The Four Heavenly Kings and the First Generation

Kizuna Ai and Kaguya Luna
Two queens sit atop their (virtual) thrones.

In the beginning, such creators as Kizuna AI produced highly edited videos, using MMD (MikuMikuDance) or other forms of motion capture software. She wasn’t alone in this endeavor: other prominent representatives of the ‘first generation’ of virtual YouTubers include Kaguya Luna, Mirai Akari, and Virtual Noja Loli Kitsunemusume YouTuber Ojisan (Nojaoji). These four creators were known as ‘The Four Heavenly Kings’, often including Dennou Shoujo Siro for good measure.

Nowadays, most of these creators languish in relative obscurity or have ceased activities altogether. The world of show business is a cutthroat one, whether you are virtual or not, but that doesn’t devalue their historic contribution to the industry: without the first generation, VTubers as we know them today wouldn’t exist. With this in mind, we should talk about some of their content.

Kizuna AI’s infectious enthusiasm and passion made her an obvious candidate, in hindsight, to take virtual YouTubing by storm and parade it into the mainstream. Even now, her videos are both funny and entertaining, although the controversy surrounding her voice actor has soured them permanently for some. Moreover, Ai’s attempted expansion into different geographical regions and languages (however successful) signaled early on that this phenomenon would never be limited to Japan, but would become international. Her musical output also showed that VTubers had more to offer than just funny videos.

In contrast to Kizuna AI, Kaguya Luna stands as the queen of the vulgar and the ruler of the dispossessed. In fact, she’s almost anathema to the very idea of a virtual YouTuber that would take hold in the mainstream: with her love for Strong Zero and propensity to gode and insult her viewers, it’s honestly a surprise that she landed such big sponsorships as with Nissin. The fact that she hasn’t uploaded a video since August is honestly heartbreaking. Her music is also pretty good.

Group shot
Also known as Virtual Real.

Mirai Akari and Denno Shoujo Siro are similar in that they both debuted in 2017 and starred in the bizarre yet entertaining VTuber anime, Virtual-san wa Miteiru. Alongside the likes of Nekomiya Hinata, Tsukino Mito, and HIMEHINA (Tanaka Hime and Suzuki Hina), they attempted to bring the charm of virtual YouTubing to a more ‘traditional’ format. Hideaki Anno even came along for the ride (in a very limited form), but the project wasn’t all that successful.

Finally, Nojaoji was an interesting subversion of the standards of VTubing, at a time when they had barely just begun to form, making his content quite refreshing in hindsight. As the name suggests, his virtual avatar was that of a loli fox girl, but he didn’t use a voice changer to hide his true gender. Indeed, it could be said that he fulfilled the dream of almost every hardcore otaku: becoming a cute anime girl, because real life sucks anyway.

There are countless other VTubers that debuted around this time, but detailing all of them here would be a fool’s errand. Maybe check out the Game Club Project if you’re interested in learning more, along with DeepWebUnderground. It truly was a very exciting time to be in the scene, witnessing the flurry of activity and the rise and fall of new channels.

Today, the world of VTubers is very different.


Hololive and Nijisanji: The Second Generation

Around the end of 2018, something began to change. It didn’t happen all at once, but it did happen, slowly but surely: the kind of content that VTubers put out changed dramatically.

No longer were they putting out highly edited videos of various lengths: they were streaming, often for hours at a time. Undoubtedly, this was linked to the development of YouTube’s livestream system, which was under-featured before. It also had more profound reasons.

The sea change in content can be traced back to the expansion of two VTuber agencies: Hololive and Nijisanji. Nijisanji was actually founded first, in 2018, but Hololive’s parent company Cover Corp had already launched its first virtual personality, Tokino Sora, before this. Regardless, the way that these two agencies changed and developed signaled the beginning of the second generation, bringing with it a series of transformations for the industry.

We can see in the history of early Cover Corp how changes in the overall culture trickled down to individual agencies and creators, leading to the industry we have today. At first, Tokino Sora, Roboco, Hoshimachi Suisei, AZKi, and Sakura Miko (now known as the ‘0th’ Generation) produced content that was similar to the likes of Kizuna AI and Kaguya Luna, meaning short videos and original music.

An important aside to this is that Suisei was originally independent, and Miko was initially mainly used as a character for the Hololive main channel (the videos have since been deleted). Nevertheless, all of them eventually pivoted towards live streaming, usually playing games; only AZKi really keeps the spirit of shorter content alive, probably because she belongs to the in-house music label Inonaka Music (Suisei was originally affiliated with this, but later transferred to the main Hololive group).

Nijisanji’s talents focused from the very beginning on live streaming, either on YouTube or the Mirrativ app. In contrast to Hololive’s first set of talents, Nijisanji’s first wave used relatively simplistic Live2D technology, meaning that the creators could easily stream from home without outside help. This is probably what facilitated the livestream format, as opposed to the costly and resource-intensive 3D model-based videos that Hololive was producing at the time.

Undoubtedly recognizing the way the winds of the industry were blowing, Hololive launched the Hololive Gamers unit within the newly formed company in 2018, starting with first generation talent Shirakami Fubuki’s reintegration into said unit in December of that year. Even then, many of the previous first and second generation talents had already begun live streaming regularly. After the Gamers’ debut, though, Hololive’s content became almost entirely focused around streams. Short form content only really came back in a big way towards the end of last year, thanks to the ‘Shorts’ craze.

With this in mind, the big difference between the two generations is that of streams versus videos. As a result, it’s a little confusing that Hololive still describes their talents as virtual YouTubers when Nijisanji’s definition of virtual livers makes a lot more sense… but there we go. The term has stuck.

Why Virtual YouTubers Are so Entertaining

Having come this far, the big question for the uninitiated is: what’s the point?

Anyone who has been paying attention to the landscape of Japanese pop culture for the past couple of years can see that virtual YouTubers are a big new phenomenon, but understanding why so many people from all around the world have fallen in love with them can be a tricky thing, indeed.

To be absolutely clear: I love VTubers, and I have done so since the very beginning. Although I think that the shift from short form content to live streams has brought with it a shift in accessibility away from those who can’t pay attention to hours-long streams or stay up late to watch them, this does come with its own distinct set of advantages: namely, a more engaging fan experience.

In a 2008 article, Daniel Black refers to the consumption of idols as ‘the fiction game,’ whereby fans test the boundary of what is real and what is not through the consumption of images (concerts, gravure, TV appearances, etc.). This is relevant to virtual YouTubers not just because many of them are described as ‘idols,’ but also because fans engage with them in a similar fashion: the person moving about on screen obviously isn’t real, but we want to believe that they are. Interacting with them through the medium of livestream becomes a way in which we can test the boundary of that ‘fiction’ and revel in its contradictions.

Patrick W. Galbraith argues in chapter nine of Idols: The Image of Desire in Japanese Consumer Capitalism that virtual idols present an ‘inescapable intertextuality’ as there is no hidden face or ‘fiction.’ The type of virtual personalities that exist on YouTube certainly apply to this: although they do have ‘real’ identities and faces, these are hidden behind a character and not willingly exposed to the public. Once again, this makes them different from the kind of virtual characters that have cropped up in the past, such as The iDOLM@STER.

With this in mind, virtual YouTubers can be seen as the culmination of idol culture, and perhaps otaku culture in general. Whereas before there was a considerable amount of distance and dissonance between the fans and the performer (the kind of face they presented in public versus in private), here we have a type of personality that is highly interactive, streaming directly to fans, and existing entirely in virtual space. Hiroki Azuma in his 2001 book calls otaku the ‘database animals,’ obsessed with consumption in the age of post-modernity. While I don’t entirely agree with the implications of postmodernism, there is no doubt that the rise of VTubers is a testament to our desire for the consumption of images in a more and more complete fashion.

Aside from this, VTubers are just straight up entertaining. Just like any YouTube creator out there, you can expect a variety of videos from them: candid talks about real-life troubles, live karaoke and original music, and more narrative-driven content. The bulk of streams are centered around gaming, which isn’t exactly unusual for YouTube as a platform; nevertheless, whether you will engage with this very much depends on the type of person you are. I can watch my favorite personalities play just about anything, provided the commentary is entertaining.

How to Get Into Virtual YouTubers

The big caveat here is that I can understand Japanese: Japanese language skills are undoubtedly a huge plus when it comes to trying to get into VTubers, although workarounds do exist. Here are just a few of them.

You may have noticed that I have linked several videos in this article that are ‘clips’ taken from longer streams. These aren’t exactly a new phenomenon, but are unique in this case as they have English subtitles and are generated almost entirely by the fan community: Nijisanji, in particular, have recruited several fan clippers to provide their official highlights, but the ball very much still remains in the fan community’s court.

What clips you will enjoy very much depends on the kinds of creators you like, so it’s hard to provide a definitive list. Here are just a few that I consider excellent indications of what the subculture has to offer: Usada Pekora gets stream sniped on Toreba, Fubuki, Suisei, Korone and Flare take UNO way too seriously, and Uruha Rushia tries desperately to correct an unfortunate English mistake.

Fan-translated clips were one of the few ways for fans without Japanese language skills to engage meaningfully with VTubers, but that’s no longer the case: both Nijisanji and Hololive have launched English-language branches, as well as ones in Indonesia, South Korea, India, and China (Hololive’s was disbanded). There are also countless independent VTubers streaming in a variety of languages on platforms such as Twitch. As a result, someone probably speaks yours.

With this in mind, virtual YouTubers are no longer a uniquely Japanese phenomenon. They do remain incredibly indebted to Japanese pop culture and personalities: without the Japanese industry, no industry would exist at all.

There’s still plenty more to discuss, but we’ll have to leave it here for now. If you want to talk more Vtubers, you can find me and the OTAQUEST community over on our Discord.

Kizuna AI Inc., Vic inc., NIJISANJI, Hololive/Cover Corporation, ZIZAI Inc.
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