Micaela first started making YouTube videos to assure her concerned parents of their teenage daughter’s safety in Japan. “I was living in Kumamoto and I was 18 years old. The intention was to just show them where I live—it’s clean, the weather’s beautiful, here are my friends, they’re not crazy.” Six years, countless more videos and eleven million views later, the entrepreneurial young Canadian is making a comfortable living from her original online content. Dealing in short, sweet snippets of insight into everyday life, Micaela’s success can be attributed to hard work, open-mindedness and an insistent focus on the more humorous side of the Japanese experience. “I made a video about toilets—y’know the ones in the ground—and how they freak me out. The foreign reaction was ‘Ew, that’s gross,’ and the Japanese reaction was ‘Actually, I hate those too!’ I think we can bond over squat toilets, y’know!?” With modelling, advertising and voice-over work also under her belt, there’s no telling what interesting turn Micaela’s career might take next, but one thing’s for sure: she’ll keep us updated on YouTube. We chatted with Micaela about blogging, dealing with trolls and navigating the Japanese media as a foreigner. Read the full interview below.
MICAELA LIVE! Read all about Micaela below OR if you want to see her LIVE, don’t miss her performance at the Fukuoka Canada Day Party on Jun. 30 at Hotel Il Palazzo. Full details here.
What does “freelance new media specialist” mean?
My main thing is blogging. I have a little bit of a popular YouTube following.
What kind of numbers are we talking here?
I believe about 64,000 subscribers and over 11 million views. That’s where the majority of my income comes from now.
That’s quite impressive, but how do you make money from that?
First you become a YouTube partner. Then you’re able to put advertisements on all the videos that you own the rights to. They can’t have any copyrighted material or any background music that you don’t own. So, as long as it’s 100% original content, and it’s getting a consistent amount of views, when you monetise it, you can make a good amount of money.
So you can make a reasonably comfortable living from that?
Yes, but I think I’m kind of lucky in the sense that it took a really long time – five years – to build up a following. And then only about 3 years ago, I started making money from it. So the first 2 years, I was just doing it because I enjoyed it. And then, the partner programme came into play and they were like, “Hey, you wanna make some money?” And I thought, “Oh, yeah, I’m going to be rich!” But for the first 6 months, I didn’t make anything. From there, it gradually started to grow.
And, if you don’t mind me asking, how much money DO you make?
I’m not really supposed to talk about how much we make but it’s enough that I don’t have to teach English anymore. I used to teach English, but then I quit. Blogging is my main thing but then on the side, people will see that and give me job opportunities like modelling or sponsorship.
Last year I went to Canada for ten days. That was paid for by the Canadian Tourism Commission in Tokyo. They said, “We’ll send you to Canada for 10 days and we’re going to pay you a lot of money – more than I make in two or three months of work – and all you have to do is continuously tweet and upload pictures, write one blog and make five videos during the 10 days.”
Yeah, I saw that on your blog. You went to places in Canada you had never been to before, right?
I had never been to these places but they were tourist attractions, like, we went to the north for two days and both nights we had to go out at two in the morning, in minus thirty degree weather, with our camera equipment and we had to take pictures of the northern lights. Which was absolutely gorgeous, but they were like, “We don’t know if they’ll show up to tonight, so you guys have to go out until you get it.” And so, we were all jet-lagged and exhausted but in the end it was a really awesome experience.
And you went with Japanese video blogger Jet Daisuke?
Did you feel like a tourist?
Yeah! People would say, “Who are you? Why are you here? You don’t look Japanese!” They were waiting for two bloggers from Japan and I was like, “Hi!”
What attracted you to blogging in the first place?
I started blogging because I was living in Kumamoto and I was 18 years old and my parents missed me terribly – my mom especially. She was always worried. She was was like, “I don’t know what Kumamoto is like. I don’t know what Japan is like. Are you OK? Is it dangerous?” and so the first video I ever made, I just got on my bicycle with my camera and rode around and kind of just recorded people on the street – like what people were doing, what I was doing, some shots of me and my friends. It was really amateur but the intention was to just show my parents where I live – it’s clean, the weather’s beautiful, here are my friends – they’re not crazy.
That video got featured on a blogging website and it got 20,000 hits overnight and I was really shocked. People were saying “Please make more” because at the time, YouTube wasn’t popular; it was a year old and there weren’t that many creators, especially in Japan. It didn’t even pick up in Japan until smart phones were introduced.
So, I started planning things and I had so much fun. Everything was new and exciting and then to share it and for people to enjoy it was really rewarding. So I just kept doing it and I kept improving how I was making them and I think the quality has gone up a lot.
Who is your audience?
The audience has really shifted. It used to be North Americans mostly – and I was making videos for a North American audience. But last month, I was checking my stats and in the past 30 days, I had 400,000 hits from inside Japan. And the second most viewed country was America with 60,000. So, I’m now being viewed more in Japan than anywhere else in the world.
Have you started catering your videos accordingly?
Originally, I made Japanese videos because people in foreign countries were interested in Japan and learning Japanese. I always thought that if I was speaking Japanese, they’d be impressed. But now that more Japanese people are watching, I get requests like, “Can you make more videos in English – I like listening to you speaking English.” So, I try to keep it balanced.
Is it difficult to think of video topics that will engage both your Japanese and non-Japanese viewers?
Originally, my videos were for people overseas who were interested in Japan and still, for the most part, I try to aim my content towards them. But now it’s centred around things I find weird or things that happen in my daily life that I like to share because I guess I have the unique perspective of being a foreigner and there are some things I’m not used to. I made a video about toilets – y’know the ones in the ground – and how they freak me out. The foreign reaction was like, “Ew, that’s gross,” and the Japanese reaction was like, “Actually, I hate those too!” People like hearing people say something that they feel the same way about. I think we can bond over squat toilets, y’know!?
Absolutely. Sometimes your videos are a little more personal too, right?
Sometimes I’ll make more personal videos, like when I graduated from university, because if I didn’t have this group of people watching maybe I wouldn’t have pushed myself as hard to pull through and finish school and do all these things.
It’s a combination of personal stuff like that and the things that are meant to be entertaining. There’ll be stories and important information about what I do and what life is like here but I always try to make it informative and interesting and kind of humourous. I never want to make anything negative because I don’t want to spread negative information or negative energy, so I always try to keep it upbeat and keep it a little funny but still have a main point or a main message I’m trying to convey.
Do you ever have trouble with trolling?
I try my best not to look like someone who could take a beating with words. I try to be humble and not annoying [laughs]. It’s the annoying people that others always want to tear down – people who put themselves above everyone else. Y’know, I’ll get things where people say bad things, like I’ll get Japanese messages that say, “Kaere” – go home – and stuff. But most of the feedback I get back is really positive.
Because your material can sometimes be quite personal, is it ever difficult to draw the privacy boundary with viewers?
There are things I don’t like to talk about. Some people will ask what visa I’m on or they’ll be like, “How much money do you make?” Questions like that about money or personal things I’ll never say yes or no because it doesn’t really matter. But other than that, I don’t really mind if people know I went to Hiroshima last year. Things that I put up on YouTube, I’m usually OK with.
You’ve collaborated with other bloggers and in a number of your videos. Is there a significant scene in Japan?
Oh yes, in Tokyo especially. Most of them are Japanese. Everyone who’s doing it as a job – we’re all kind of close-knit. When I go to Tokyo, we get together and we’ll meet and make plans to make videos together because it’s a way to share audiences and expose ourselves to new people. It can be really inspiring to get together with other people and sometimes very therapeutic to get together with people who get the same amount of certain comments, like, “Go home, white pig,” and stuff like that.
Is it really that bad?
Sometimes. Not as much anymore. It’s like 99% positive but then there’s always the one jerk who says things. It’s usually the same person. I’ll say, “This user said this to me,” and other people will be like, “Oh, they said that to me too!”
How do you deal with that?
It depends. If they’re really racist or they’re saying really disturbing things, I can block them. But we have a tolerance to a certain degree – people are entitled to their opinions too. Plus, when those people come and they’re looking for a fight, usually they’re coming again and again and again and that, in the end, kind of helps us because we earn one or two yen a visit. So you have to consider that [smiles].
How do you go about building up a following of 64,000?
It’s hard. Network. Basically be friendly. Don’t burn bridges. I watch a lot of younger people who are blogging and making enemies. They’ll start sending nasty messages to people who are doing better than them and, y’know, those people are the ones who are going to help you out.
It takes consistency and effort. Most of the time, I’m very critical about the videos I post. When I finish something, I’ll watch it back and if I feel like I’m bored just watching it, I’ll be like, “OK, I’ll just make something else tomorrow.” If I can look at a completed project and be like, “Yeah, that’s still kind of entertaining after seeing it so many times,” then I figure it’ll probably be interesting to people seeing it for the first time.
So, it’s good to be critical of your work, to upload consistently, to develop a relationship with the people who watch you. Try to not put yourself above people who watch your videos – because it’s not TV. YouTube, Facebook, Twitter – you need to use all of them to build a connection with the people watching you and that’s why they keep coming back. They’ll be like, “I wonder how she’s doing?” and they’ll come and check.
That sounds like a significant time investment.
Yes, that’s why I do it full-time now. When I was in school, it was really, really hard and I was probably only making one or two videos every month.
Career-wise, where are you going with this?
To be honest, this year I’ve been feeling that maybe it’s time to get a little more ambitious, to start branching into new, exciting things. I’ve been getting a few offers for TV. I don’t really know if I’m cut out for TV because I’ve always been working by myself. I think the problem that I have with TV is that in the interviews, we always kind of clash because they’ll be like, “I want you to be like this” and I’ll say “That’s not who I am, you’re just making a new character for me. You’re banking on my internet popularity but you’re trying to create someone who isn’t me.”
So, I’ve had a tough time reaching an agreement with people. I’m very thankful that they gave me opportunities – I just have to decide how I want to go forward.
Do you think it’s possible for a foreigner to be taken seriously as an entertainer in Japan?
No, not yet but maybe it will change. Ultimately, the thing that I’ve realised is that if you say, “I’m not going to be that foreigner – that kooky, wacky foreigner,” there are thousands of people in Japan who will. And at the end of the day, they’re getting the pay check and you’re not because you were too stubborn to change. Obviously there’s that inner struggle where it’s like “Is it OK to sell out?” But, at the end of the day you have to remember that, OK, TV is entertainment, so it doesn’t have to be me on that screen, but it’s just it would be nice if people would understand that everything that they see on TV is designed to entertain and not really a reflection of who everyone is.
Do you feel that foreigners are portrayed as…
Absolutely. They’re always the same character. In one audition I had for a major TV show, they told me, “Japan’s always looking for the next something that’s already been done.” So, they said, “You should sing enka, you should be an enka-singing gaijin, like Jero – you can be that, you can be the next Jero.” I’m like, “Why can’t I be the first Micaela? Nobody knows what that is!”
What happened with that interview?
I said “I’ll call you” and then never did. I just felt like it wasn’t for me anyway because that show was designed for discovering people and if I’d been discovered as the person they’d created for me, then I never would have been able to be myself – I would never have been able to change that character. It’s better to find people who have a better idea of who you are and who know how to present you.
Beyond blogging and television, you dabble in a bit of modelling too, right?
Yeah. I’m not cut out to be a super model – I get told to lose weight and I’m like, “Whatever.” I do running and stuff like that but I’m not going to kill myself. I did some local stuff for a magazine in Fukuoka called E-mill that’s coming out at the end of the month. We dressed up in kimonos. It was really fun.
What will you be doing at the Fukuoka Canada Day Party?
I believe we will be singing some Canadian songs and then, I guess, just having a good time.
You made a video recently about how much you like Fukuoka.
Yeah, that was because I was getting job offers and people were like, “Are you going to move to Tokyo?” Or people didn’t realise I lived in Fukuoka and assumed I lived in Tokyo. Like, they’d ask me to come by the office for a meeting. I thought I had to make a video that got those people’s attention and say, “Hey, I live in Fukuoka.”
What are your favourite things about Fukuoka?
I love the summer here – people hate it because it’s so humid but I absolutely love the beaches. The people here are so chill compared to Tokyo. I go to Tokyo about once a month for work and every time I come back it’s like I can breathe a sigh of relief because everyone’s just kind of at their own pace and doing their own thing.
When I went to Tokyo before, I was always like, “I’m going to go shopping and I’m going to buy all these clothes,” but now Tenjin has H&M and Forever 21 and we have Hakata City, which has a million stores. There’s just so much to do here that I don’t feel the urge to go anywhere else.
I just think it has the perfect balance of nature and countryside, plus the city which has everything you need. I love Fukuoka.
Good – so does Fukuoka Now! Finally, do you have any advice for aspiring bloggers?
The one thing I always say to people who want to blog or make videos on YouTube is don’t do it because you want recognition, don’t do it because you want money, don’t do it because you think you’re going to get famous on TV – do it because you enjoy it. Take the time to be critical of your work.
Most people will do it and then they don’t see results and they just give up, but if you enjoy it, keep at it and, as long as you’re sure that the things you’re making are interesting to other people, then an audience will come along. And if you’re good at maintaining a relationship with that audience, it will grow.
Originally published in Fukuoka Now Magazine (fn163, July 2012)