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Thursday, January 26, 2012

The American in Japan:

This is a conversation from facebook that I got caught up in and decided to bring over here:

It started because last week I had an idea for a comedy routine that I thought would work in Japanese.

I was finishing up a shift at a yakitori restaurant where I work part time, a place where it's customary for the owner and staff to eat and drink while we wait tables and cook. When things start to wind down, the owner will often invite me to sit at the counter and share some drinks or snacks with him.

On this particular night, he offered me some Japanese sake and some french fries. As I was eating and drinking, I looked over at him and said "Drinking sake and snacking on french fries. I don't think I've ever felt MORE like an American in Japan."

And he laughed for something like 5 minutes straight.

The thing about Japan is, they LOVE to laugh about things foreign. There are stand-up comedy duo routines like "欧米化; oubeika" where one Japanese man berates another Japanese man for becoming too westernized, or performers like Dylan and Catherine, two Japanese people pretending to be American, mostly by means of speaking Japanese with an affected accent.  There are characters in advertisements like "Mr. James," the dorky white foreigner who loves Japan, or characters on TV like Bobby Ologun who make their living by playing into Japanese stereotypes.

Without getting into issues of racism, I think it's safe to say that the roles for foreigners on TV and in media are somewhat limited. Even the few foreigners who've gone from comedian/entertainer to roles with higher levels of respect and acclaim, people like Dave Spector or Makkun, are still largely defined by the Gaikokujin label.

I saw a telephone interview with Dave Spector in which he explained that Former Prime Minister Hatoyama's wife was seen by Americans as the "Lady Gaga" of Japan, a line I'm sure his producers and directors insisted on because... it's blatantly untrue. They just wanted a foreigner to confirm something they made up about Americans.

And I watched Makkun miss a kanji question on a quiz show, which prompted the comment "I think we hear that he was Harvard-educated and forget that in the end, he's still a foreigner, and Japanese is hard for foreigners."

As someone who feels strongly and negatively about the boxes that foreigners get placed in, not only on TV but in personal interactions, I was kind of surprised to find myself thinking so seriously about creating an American comedic character.

The unpolished idea was to be "THE American in Japan," and make jokes accordingly. The jokes came really easily.

Some were based on truth, little things that I really do or feel. For example, a lot of times, a Japanese person I meet for the first time extends their hand for a handshake, when I've already started to bow, which results in a bowing handshake that is hilarious. And it only happens because I'm a foreigner, and I'm trying to act accordingly to Japanese culture, while they're trying to act according to mine. 「握手しながら、お辞儀。ザ・日本にいるアメリカ人。」

Other jokes were silly stuff like "I'll only ride in a rickshaw if the driver agrees to run in the right hand lane." or "For breakfast, I eat Miso SHIRIARU (a cross between Miso Soup and the Japanese for Cereal). The latter, I felt ashamed for even thinking of, not just because they're groaners, but because they're blatant pandering to Japanese stereotypes. "What's your favorite nabe? HAMBURGER NABE! OH, AMERICA."

And then there were others. Jokes I felt like I could make without feeling like I was selling out. Something that was simultaneously self-parody, and a parody of Japanese attitudes towards foreigners like: 「要らないのに、道でビラを渡されないと寂しい。。。;   Even though I don't want them, I still feel kind of rejected when  people in the street don't try to hand me fliers. 」Equally targeting how silly it is for me to react negatively for being treated differently in a way that ultimately benefits me, AND the Japanese people who don't think a foreign face can be a customer.

And just as the "Oubeika" routine eventually started to incorporate "Nanbeika; you've been South-Americanized!" jokes, I could branch out and make other points.

"I get upset when people ask me about the US," says the Canadian in Japan." Punchline being, to Japan a foreign face equals American.

"I get really upset when people ask if there are chopsticks in other countries." Says the CHINESE PERSON in Japan! Hahaha. Cause... Japanese people forget that other Asians count as gaijin too. And they forget that chopsticks aren't unique to Japan.

Over the past few months, I've been trying my jokes out here and there, in my personal life, and through outlets like facebook and twitter. They're not all tagged with "American in Japan." Some are just jokes about language gaffs.

And the responses from Japanese people... have not been good.

I made the following joke on Twitter: "Hey Japanese-language enthusiasts, learn from my mistake! Hieshou (suffering from low body temperature) means sensitivity to the cold. Jiheishou (autism) is a different thing altogether!"

The majority of the responses from Japanese people were explanations of the difference between the two words, of even corrections of the way I had defined "hieshou." They totally missed the fact that I was consciously making a joke.

And when I explained my "American in Japan" concept to some friends, and added in the part about the Canadian who's tired of hearing "Tell me all about the States," they blanked. They said "We don't get it? Why would that bother them?" You can't expect parody to work when the target has zero self-awareness re: the shortcomings being parodied.

Which made me realize... the material doesn't matter as much as how the audience takes it. And right now, there is no place in Japanese comedy for a foreigner who isn't a stereotypical foreigner.

When I first conceived of the idea, I kind of thought that if I worked it the right way, it might have the power to change that, to change something about the way we're perceived in Japan. In practice, I realized I may have been hoping for the impossible. So I'm giving up.

Hello. I'm Bobby Judo. I am THE American in Japan.


Michael said...

I think this is quite a deep topic to consider. Humour is a pretty subjective thing in itself, even just among individuals of the same group, let alone culture or across borders. That said, I've observed some similar things in my experience in Japan. Things we as Westerners might consider funny don't always go down well or are not understood by many Japanese people. Similarly, a lot of Japanese humour doesn't make me roar with laugher, and it can sometimes take me a few tries to really catch the essence of the joke.

As for the stereotypical foreigner dominating Japanese television, I feel you may be right. It will be very difficult to change this without a broader acceptance of and, dare I say, assimilation of different cultures into Japan. There are still just too few foreign-looking people permeating Japanese society for locals to really look beyond broad, visual stereotypes. Until we start seeing foreigners in more ordinary roles and using the Japanese language without fault (which is likely to come from people of mixed ethnicity who grew up in Japan), it will be very tough indeed to challenge commonly held beliefs that make up the large part of foreigner-related humour. I don't think it's impossible if you master the language to a native and flawless level, but you'd need a very good angle and a lot of good luck to break out as a foreign comedian that doesn't rely on his own non-Japanese-ness for gags.

Still, I certainly don't think you should give up experimenting!

kamo said...

I think you may have hit upon the Japan-specific variant of Poe's Law.


The only question is what to call it? Sapp's Law maybe? It's going back a bit I know, but I always had a certain amount of grudging respect for Bob Sapp. He clearly knew exactly what he was doing, knew his time in the sun would be fleeting, and was going to milk it for all it was worth.

Plus he had no kids to get involved. I can just about stomach Bobby Ologun's dubious contributions to race-relations over here, but something really sticks in my craw about how he parades his kids around.

Anyway, satire is hard.

Bobby Judo said...


Humor is definitely subjective. I didn't mean to come off like "I'm hilarious and they don't get it!" But after working closely with Japanese humor for a while, I've learned that as a foreigner, regardless of what I say, I'm handicapped by Japanese people's expectations of me. You face doubt on two fronts. One: they doubt that you're fully understanding the content of the conversation. Two: they doubt your ability to fully communicate what YOU want to say.

Yet another example, but the Cool Dude School show I was on... I came in late as an "exchange student," and was only in 3 episodes before the season ended.

So on the last show, we did two segments: One where we talked about being mote mote, and a "graduation" segment where we talked about our favorite memories from the course of the show. So when we started on the graduation, I said "What? You know this is only the third time I've been to class, and now I'm graduating?" That was received normally. But then, when it was my turn to talk about my favorite moment from the series, I said "Well, I guess the time we talked about being mote mote sticks out in my memory..."
And the teacher goes, "Oh, know, I think you're confused. We did that today."
And I was like "... I know. That's pretty much about as long as I've been on the show."
And THEN they got it. It wasn't about whether or not the joke was funny, it was about recognizing it as an intended joke. If I wasn't a foreigner, they wouldn't have doubted my understanding of the situation, which would have made them more likely to consider the possibility that I was saying it on purpose.

Also, I'm not really giving up on everything. But in writing the last paragraph, I realized that I'd had those feelings before in other circumstances, and have heard similar stories from other foreigners. It kind of seemed more emblematic of foreigners than any of my silly jokes.

Bobby Judo said...


I followed your comment to your blog. It's fantastic. I hope you don't mind if I link it here. There are tons of interesting bloggers in Japan, but not as many who write well. I'd be really proud if the quality of the posts here were as good as yours.

I've only actually seen Ologun on TV a couple of times, and I've never seen him do anything that I found offensive, despite his reputation. I have seen him with his kid .It doesn't sit quite right with me either, but they come across as more natural and real, which I think has a better chance of "contributing to race-relations." :)

kamo said...

I'd have no problems with you linking, in fact I'd be flattered. It's important to have interesting things to say (as you have here), because what constitutes 'good' writing is so subjective. I'm glad you seem to like mine.

That's a fair point about Bobby's kids. They always look so pissed off about being there though, and I'm never certain how much that's just for the cameras.

Benjamin Martin said...

I live in Okinawa, which has even a greater percentage of and exposure to Americans than Kyushu... and there are definitelys still just vary different views of humor. When I first got here I had to tack "American Joke" to pretty much anything sarcastic I said... and eventually learned to edit what I said. I agree that there is definitely still a lot of work to be done on cross cultural awareness, here and abroad. One issue in Japan is that Japanese TV is so limited. There are only so many shows, and all of them seem to have the same people on them. Perhaps its not only that Japanese have specific views on what they expect from foreigners, but they have specific views on what they expect from TV and entertainment in general.

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