Feature: ‘In Japan, if you do something different, people won’t like it’

I was born and raised in Japan, but I perform stand-up comedy in the UK. The reason why I do comedy in Britain is that I love British comedy so much. I find the sense of humour a lot darker and drier, which is a lot more suited to me. In Japan you get dark stuff and comedy, but they don’t tend to come as a pair. Doing comedy in another language is very hard. So is writing this article in my second language, but I love doing it and when jokes work and everyone is laughing it’s so rewarding.

Yuriko Kotani feature on being a Japanese comedian in the UK

When I moved to the UK, I was shown The League of Gentlemen DVDs and they blew my mind. They gave me a strange sensation – at first it repulsed me but I continued to watch and I became a fan. I then started to watch more British comedies like Black Books, The Mighty Boosh and many more.

I believe what makes British comedy so strong is that there are so many platforms. There are a lot of comedy nights around the country and if you want to try, you can book yourself in to a local open mic night and give it a go. That’s something that I don’t think we really have in Japan. I don’t do comedy on the Japanese circuit, so I don’t know much, but an average Japanese person wouldn’t hear about any open mic nights or I’ve never heard anyone say “I’ll go to see comedy tonight”. If I really want to go and see the professional comics on stage, I would probably have to go to a big city like Osaka or Tokyo.

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I went to see some comedy shows in Tokyo last year. They were on during the day which was different. I remember that the room was bright, some audience members were wearing surgical masks and not many people were drinking alcohol – I thought it must be tough for comics to play in that environment. In Japan, people don’t drink alcohol during the day. When I came to the UK and saw people drinking pints in pubs at lunchtime during the week I was in shock.

The major comic style in Japan is ‘manzai’ which means double act. These double acts consist of the ‘boke’ (funny man/woman) and ‘tsukkomi’ (straight man/woman). In the Kansai region including Osaka, the ‘boke’ says silly or stupid things and ‘tsukkomi’ reacts with a snappy comment. After ‘boke’ says this stupid thing, the famous ‘tsukkomi’ reaction is to say “Nandeyanen.” That means “Why are you saying that!” or “Why!” It’s all about the timing.

Japanese people say that people from the Kansai area are funny. I heard that you’ll get tsukkomi-ed if you don’t have punchlines at the end of your sentences. So you’d better be funny.

We also have ‘rakugo’ which is more traditional comic storytelling by one person. They use ‘sensu’ (a Japanese hand fan) and ‘tenugui’ (a Japanese hand towel) as props, and the storyteller performs several characters. The difference is the ‘rakugoka’ (storyteller) is sitting on stage, not standing up. Also, ‘rakugoka’ tells funny stories, which could be their original stories or could be the same story that has been passed on through many years by different ‘rakugoka’ whereas in stand-up everything has to be original.

When I was still in Japan, I heard people say British comedy has a dark and witty humour. I couldn’t understand what it meant, but now I do.

Political satire is quite rare to see on Japanese TV shows. I’ve never seen any Japanese comics joke about Emperors, but I see many jokes about the British Royal Family for example. Maybe this is because many comics do punching up jokes in Britain. Because of that reason, it took me a while to talk about Japanese society, especially politics or about any authority figures. It’s probably because I wasn’t used to seeing it when I was in Japan but now I do talk about things I felt strongly about when I was in Japan.

As a Japanese person, doing stand-up comedy outside of Japan is rare. I talk about this during my show “Somosomo” or “In the first place” but there is a Japanese proverb ‘The nail that sticks out gets hammered down’. It means that if you do something different, people won’t like it, so I found it very difficult mentally to do things that no one had ever done before. However I ignored all of that and kept going and now I do something I love as my career and I still cannot believe it. Hopefully Japanese people will see me and realise what is possible and start to do things that they love without worrying what other people think.

One thing I am still trying to get used to is puns. We have puns as well called ‘dajare’ but they are not popular at all. Maybe it’s because the Japanese language has lots of puns and many puns have been done already. So if you do puns, they have to be extremely good, otherwise people will cringe and it’s hard to get the atmosphere back!

Another difference between here and Japan is that when I go to comedy venues and I see comedians more experienced than me, sometimes I get panicked because in the Japanese language we have ‘keigo’ (honorific speech) – and I would use ‘keigo’ to people who are more experienced than me but in English, there is no such thing. It makes me feel very strange but also feel great because everyone is friendly and no one is higher or lower (or bossy) because of the language. It’s totally up to one’s personality and attitude.

Being a comedian on the UK comedy circuit is an absolute pleasure. It has been amazing to meet fellow comics – if we have a difficult show, then usually we bond quicker. Common language is comedy, which is beautiful.

Laughter comes from the same thing. We see the animal video or baby videos, silent videos – no need for any words and people still laugh – so I think that deep down, no matter where you are from, or what language you speak, we can laugh at the same thing. But then as we get older and see or hear things and sometimes prejudice and preconceptions take over and people think “we are different from others” – comedy is a way to crack it and make us realise it is silly and laugh together.

When I won the BBC New Comedy Award in 2015 (at the final, we performed live on BBC Radio 2 from the Comedy Store in London, and the winner was decided by the listeners by phone vote), I was over the moon that I could win something that I never thought I could. But most importantly, it broke my prejudice and preconception towards myself and everyone – “People don’t accept me because I’m not from here.” “People don’t accept me because I have an accent.” I was completely wrong. I was the one who had a prejudiced mindset.

Yuriko Kotani: Somosomo is at The Pleasance Attic in Edinburgh until 25 August at 7pm, www.edfringe.com