Japan’s entertainment business is a come and go affair. Hundreds of local and foreign talents have entered the spotlight with a joke or two, only to vanish a year or two later when their gags ran out of chuckle.
One exception is American comedian and entertainer Patrick Harlan, who has survived in the nation’s cultural scene for nearly two decades.
Though good looks and stage savvy helped him first find success, Harlan’s case shows you need more than that to survive in Japan’s fast-moving showbiz industry.
And he believes Japan offers boundless opportunities for people like himself who are unafraid to take on big challenges.
The 44-year-old describes himself as “multitalento,” a Japanese term coined from “talent,” meaning someone who can play versatile roles ranging from stand-up comedy to contributing to talk shows and emceeing events. He is also a part-time university lecturer.
Much of Harlan’s fame stems from his fearless efforts to immerse himself into Japanese society and, at the same time, his ability to take advantage of being the outsider.
“My friend once told me, ‘If you want to get a job in Japan, write it on your business card and start passing it out,’ ” Harlan said during a recent interview in Tokyo.
Taking that advice to heart, Harlan started his career by promoting himself as “DJ, narrator, actor, model and voice actor — all the things I had never done in my life,” he said, adding that it helped him get the experience he needed.
Colorado-born Harlan left the U.S. for Japan in 1993, lured by the idea of adventure soon after graduating from Harvard University with a degree in comparative religion.
He worked as an English teacher for 2½ years in Fukui Prefecture before moving to Tokyo in 1996 to pursue his dream of becoming a professional actor.
In 1997, Harlan formed the stand-up duo “Pakkun Makkun” with fellow comic Makoto Yoshida, whom he met through a mutual acquaintance.
Their acts, which the duo would always kick off by introducing Harlan as Pakkun and Yoshida as Makkun, became massively popular on mainstream Japanese TV.
On stage, Harlan performs the role of boke, or the funny man, while Yoshida plays the part of tsukkomi, the straight man. The boke is often absurdist in his manner, while tsukkomi makes quick, often critical, responses.
Harlan recalls that, even with his command of the language, which is excellent, it took him a while to grasp the Japanese sense of humor.
“What I thought was right and funny is not always going to be funny here,” he said, adding that he has cultivated a style specific to the Japanese audience.
“The first couple of years were really kind of intense for me, with a steep learning curve.”
In one comedy act performed on TV, Pakkun starts off by saying how Japanese TV programs have become a hit in America, introducing a fictional script for a Hollywood adaptation of the Japanese folk tale “Momotaro” (Peach Boy) — the story of a boy born from a peach who goes on to fight the evils with the help of characters he meets along the way, including a monkey and a pheasant.
“Did you know that there’s a Japanese boom in Hollywood right now?” Pakkun asks in fluent Japanese.
“Oh is there?” Makkun responds.
“Yes. First, ‘Godzilla,’ ‘Sailor Moon’ and ‘Pokemon’ became a hit in the U.S. Then ‘Biohazard’ and ‘Final Fantasy’ took off. Now the next story to be made into a movie in America is … you probably don’t know it, but it’s called ‘Momotaro!’ ”
“We all know ‘Momotaro!’ ” Makkun cuts in, throwing in a typical tsukkomi jab, drawing laughs from the audience. “I and the people in the audience know much better than you!”
Pakkun, looking suddenly sullen, asks, “Sabetsu? (Are you discriminating against me?)”
Makkun pats him on the shoulder as if to admonish him. “That’s not discrimination!” And the audience bursts into laughter again.
Harlan says in ordinary life the Japanese people are “very cheerful” and “laughing all the time,” adding that he finds it fun to interact with them.
In addition to acting as host and co-host of a number of TV programs, Harlan wears the hat of a serious commentator on social and political issues, including gay marriage and collective self-defense.
Having majored in comparative religion, he has also commented on religious conflicts in the Middle East and the rising influence of the Islamic State group.
He sees “information we learn in college as secondary, maybe tertiary,” but at the same time views his academic and cultural background as “selling points.”
“I have the ability to talk openly about gay marriage and be straight up about it, with intimate knowledge of it, (and also) talk about the West or America,” he said.
Over the last two decades he says he has observed changes in Japanese people’s attitudes and mindsets, adding he had “expected them to be less engaging with foreigners.”
“Japanese have realized there is a necessity to communicate, and the need for creativity,” said Harlan, who also works as a lecturer at the Tokyo Institute of Technology.
Harlan added that he wants to encourage the nation’s youth to actively engage with people around the world.
“What I’m teaching now (at university) is one of my goals in life — to help improve Japanese people’s communication skills,” he said. “A lot of Japanese people don’t know how to give a presentation or participate in debate or discussion. They don’t know what to do when someone contradicts them. And I think it is important.”
While admitting he once harbored a desire to make it big in Hollywood, Harlan says he has enjoyed his life in Japan, adding that he doesn’t plan to leave. He lives in Tokyo with a Japanese wife and two sons.
“I’m not sure if I would be happier in America,” he said.
“In both countries, there is a lot beneath the surface. … Americans have an urge to always be right, to win an argument. Here, it’s important to preserve the harmony.”