FEATURE: Japanese live-streaming platform giving Ukrainian streamers new life

© Kyodo News

A Japanese live-streaming platform is going beyond providing a way for youths to earn money -- it is changing the lives of Ukrainians hit by the war.

Tetiana Dozhuk is one of two streamers that "Omusubi Channel" has already helped to evacuate to Japan since the Russian invasion of Ukraine began in late February, with the platform also devising ways to support other Ukrainians who have fled to neighboring countries like Poland.

The 28-year-old from Odesa was staying with family in Chernivtsi, a western Ukrainian city located around 30 kilometers from the border with Romania, when she contacted the platform's founder Hiroki Okamoto asking if he could help her get to Japan.

"They were ready the same day. They said, whenever you're ready. And I was like, I need to pack my bags. I didn't think that it would be so fast," Dozhuk said, who arrived in Japan via Romania and Turkey on April 19.

Dozhuk started streaming on Omusubi Channel in January after meeting Okamoto through a language-learning app while he was still planning the project.

"In Ukraine, it's a very big problem to find Japanese people to practice Japanese with. So for me, Omusubi was kind of like a first interaction with Japanese people," said Dozhuk, who began studying the Asian language as a hobby in 2019.

Okamoto, who majored in Russian during university and worked for four years in Russia and Belarus, said he wanted to create a platform to help people studying Japanese abroad connect with locals in Japan.

"The coronavirus pandemic made it impossible for (Japanese learners) to come to Japan, which meant they had fewer opportunities to improve their Japanese and communicate with others. But all this can be achieved online," the 30-year-old said.

Omusubi Channel was launched on Jan. 17, a date bearing its namesake in reference to how volunteers helped victims of the 1995 Great Hanshin Earthquake by distributing "omusubi" riceballs.

"Since then, omusubi have become a symbol of helping each other, so I decided to launch Omusubi Channel on that day as I wanted its users to also help each other," Okamoto said.

In the three months since its release, Omusubi Channel has amassed over 15,000 paid subscribers and around 300 streamers from 73 countries. The platform gained popularity so quickly that Okamoto had to suspend new paid subscriptions for around a month from March 5 to ensure he could maintain a high quality of service.

"The difference between our platform and others is that strict monitoring is carried out to ensure no hate speech," said Okamoto, adding that Russian streamers on Omusubi Channel have not experienced any discrimination.

In late March, Olha Voitsekhovska, a 21-year-old university student from Poltava, central Ukraine, became the first streamer Okamoto helped to evacuate to Japan via Hungary.

A fan of anime and manga, Voitsekhovska was studying Japanese at university when the war broke out. She had been streaming on Omusubi Channel since January to interact with native speakers and continued to report on the chaos in her area.

Although Voitsekhovska's hometown was not attacked, a curfew was imposed due to fears of bombing, and there was a shortage of daily necessities and food at one point due to many displaced people pouring in.

Okamoto said that while he is happy to help evacuate Ukrainian streamers who desire to come to Japan, it may not be the right decision for all.

"For me, I'm not sure if those not studying Japanese should come to Japan as they might find it difficult to stay here in the future," Okamoto said.

So Okamoto is working, he says, to support more Ukrainian evacuees by allowing those who can speak English, and not only Japanese learners, to become streamers on Omusubi Channel.

They are also eligible to earn $5 an hour just by streaming. Streamers on the platform usually only make money from donations or being gifted items that can be later exchanged for cash.

For Dozhuk and Voitsekhovska, the opportunity to be in Japan is exciting and both have enrolled in a Japanese language school in Tokyo, but concerns about their family back in Ukraine continue to weigh heavily on their minds.

"I'm always worried what if the city that is next to (Odesa) doesn't hold out and they come to Odesa. I'm very scared about that," Dozhuk said. "Every time something explodes there I call my mother or my brother (to ask), is everything okay?"

Voitsekhovska, whose mother and elderly grandmother remain in Poltava, said she plans to stay one to two years in Japan but has not decided beyond that, adding, "A child studying or living in another country, always returns to (see) their parents."