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Joni Waka: ‘Learn to be happy with only one rice ball’

by Elliott Samuels

Staff Writer

Name: Joni Waka
Age: 61
Nationality: Japanese
Occupation: Art director
Likes: Okonomiyaki
Dislikes: Monja


1. What first brought you to Japan? Family trading business.

2. What’s keeping you here? The constant tension, as a Japanese Caucasian, of belonging but not belonging resulting in having the powers and privileges of Casper the Ghost.

3. Who in Japan do you most admire? Yukio Mishima, for making a statement with his life against the Westernization of Japan.

4. Where do you go to escape Tokyo? To a small mixed bathing hot springs in the mountains above Lake Sagamiko and a late lunch at Ukai Toriyama in Takao.

5. What’s your favorite Japanese word or phrase? Ino naka no kawazu, taikai o shirazu (a frog in a well cannot conceive of the ocean). It describes in a nutshell Japan’s main stumbling block.

6. What’s your favorite phrase in any language? Not one little iota. I love the irony as an iota is already extremely small.

7. What’s the most exciting/outrageous thing you have ever done? Taking a half-naked Masai warrior with spear in hand to dinner at the New York Grill on top of the Park Hyatt Tokyo.

8. What’s the strangest request you’ve ever been asked in your line of work? Eat sushi off the body of a naked woman as an extra in the film “Map of the Sounds of Tokyo,” directed by Isabel Coixet.

9. If you could drink whiskey with anyone from history, who would it be? Writer James Baldwin, for his profound conversation.

10. What song best describes your work ethic? “On the Sunny Side of the Street” by Louis Armstrong, for its optimism in finding a wealth of joy in small things no matter how tough the situation.

11. How would you get an elephant into a refrigerator? Deflate it.

12. If you were an artist, what type of artwork would you be? A sound sculpture by one of Japan’s leading sound installation artists, Christophe Charles, in order to link myself with the celestial tunes.

13. What do you think about while standing on the train? The good looking people around me, as I regard my fellow Japanese to be some of the most visually stimulating people in the world.

14. What superhero would you most like to be? The Joker in order to create enormous practical jokes on Tokyo.

15. Name three uses of a stapler without staples. Door stop; staple remover; paper weight.

16. If someone wrote a biography about you, what do you think the title should be? “Stranger Than Fiction.”

17. How would you find a needle in a haystack? With a magnet.

18. Who would win a fight between a lion and tiger? A tiger— more intelligent.

19. What do you want to be when you grow up? I have never grown up and never hope to, as dreams and fantasies tend to wilt and die in the harsh reality of adults.

20. Do you have any words of advice for young people? Learn to be happy with only one rice ball.

Joni Waka is the creative force behind Artist Residency Tokyo, which supports avant-garde culture in Asia.