YouTube, the booming American Web site where surfers share short videos, is taking off in Japan, too. The number of Japanese visitors per month has more than quadrupled to 6.4 million since February, an unprecedented success for an English-language Web site. Recently, clips of television shows on a celebrity scandal received 3 million hits in just a matter of days. "It just shows how much people want to see certain videos," and how utterly others have failed to find the content Japan really wants, says Yoshikazu Tanaka, president of GREE, a social networking Web service.
YouTube is shaking the staid world of Japanese broadcasters. When Japanese Internet ventures like Rakuten and Livedoor have tried to buy TV stations for their content, they've been swatted down by big media companies. But the popularity of YouTube, which limits videos to a few minutes, has caught broadcasters by surprise, and so far remains beyond their reach. "It's just baffling," says Internet consultant Satoshi Watanabe. "There's this whole collection of Japanese television shows on the Web, convenient to watch but not supposed to be there."
That may change. "We often get asked how much we have been affected. It's massive, and we just couldn't calculate how many cases there are," says Youichi Ueno, a spokesman for Fuji Television Network. He says two of his colleagues now search for illegal copies and e-mail removal requests (up to a couple hundred a day) to YouTube. Some broadcasters "are now beginning to say something has got to give," says Watanabe.
Popular magazines and Web sites carry worried headlines, stressing the big media view that those who download TV shows are lawbreakers. Experts say the cost of dealing with heavy traffic and the risk of copyright battles may hurt YouTube, since it is not yet selling ads in Japan. But Japanese copycats like Watch Me! TV, launched July 13 by an arm of Fuji TV, plan to sell ads. "To us, YouTube is a pioneer, but not a rival," says its president and CEO Tadashi Tokizawa, adding that Fuji is careful to respect copyrights.
Already, though, YouTube has become a major conduit of the popular buzz. A cartoon aired by a local TV station, The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya , has become a national phenomenon, thanks to more than 2,000 related clips, including parodies, now available on YouTube. "We used to say 'Did you see this and that program on TV last night?' Since YouTube came, we can talk about it with more people," says Shunichi Kojima, a marketer for a mobile handset company. "I check the site just to keep up with the conversation." It will be interesting to see how long this conversation can survive, in a country that has been hard on Internet innovators.