The best way to talk to (and about) the entertainer and artist Ken Tanaka is to discuss his YouTube videos, of which there are many, and which vary wildly in terms of popularity, production and themes. But first, some biography:
Ken Tanaka is the second most famous white guy from Shimane Prefecture. Lafcadio Hearn occupies pole position. Hearn, like Tanaka, has a Japanese name (Yakumo Koizumi) and both men were abandoned before arriving in Shimane — Hearn multiple times, Tanaka only once, when he was just a “tiny white baby.” Both men are writers: Hearn’s prose lit the fuse that sparked great interest in Japan in the late 19th century; Tanaka’s first book is called “Everybody Dies: A Children’s Book for Grown Ups,” and he’s currently at work on a memoir. But unlike Hearn, with his double-barreled Greek-Irish identity, Ken Tanaka neither defines himself as Japanese-American or American-Japanese.
“I see myself as Ken Tanaka, mainly,” he says.
When Tanaka was 33, the story goes, his adoptive Japanese parents in Shimane revealed to Tanaka his American origins, which set him off on a quest, documented on YouTube, to find his biological parents, Jonathan and Linda Smith. But that’s not the first video I would like to talk about.
“How to Speak Fluent Japanese Without Saying a Word” was the first time I came across Tanaka — a balding, gangling white man who speaks Japanese-accented English with the enthusiasm of an over-achieving elementary school student. It was more than five years ago, at the start of my never-ending attempt to never properly learn Japanese, and Tanaka’s video was both a (minor) revelation and a sort of cheat sheet: In the video he outlines how you can answer any question (in Japanese) by simply tilting your head and making a kind of hissing sound. Linguists call this nonverbal communication and would bore you to death with papers on its efficacy. Tanaka gives you a few solid examples, and off you go.
Which brings me to my next Ken Tanaka video — incidentally his first one — uploaded in March 2007. “Kennichwa, YouTube,” it begins, as Tanaka sits himself down in front of a camera and explains his mission to find his parents. He was also forthright about doubts surrounding his accent and identity, telling his audience: “You are probably thinking, ‘What? Shut up. You are crazy. You are white person.’ And, it’s true. I am white person, but I was raised in Japan.”
Back when Tanaka launched his “helpmefindparents” YouTube channel in 2007, the video-sharing site was a very different place to what it is today, with its professional shows and legions of YouTube personalities, some of whom have massive followings and earn big pay checks. When Tanaka came online, the first iPhone had yet to be released and YouTube, at 2 years old, was still in its infancy.
It was a tentative and experimental period: How much would you share? What should you reveal and, crucially, who and what could you believe, now that the production side of television had effectively been democratized?
Tellingly, one of the big draws on YouTube from that era was “lonelygirl15,” an American teenager who uploaded videos about her teenage life. It had the air of reality, but it wasn’t long before it was outed as “fake” — meaning scripted TV for the Internet.
Something similar was in store for Tanaka, which is maybe why by episode 13, barely five months into his purported search for his parents, Tanaka’s quest took an unexpected turn: He found his “long-lost identical twin brother,” the actor David Ury. And man, are they identical — although Tanaka comes across as the sweeter of the two, at least in their videos. As to the suggestion that Tanaka and Ury are one and the same person (or that Tanaka is a persona of Ury’s), Tanaka explains that it’s a common mistake for people to confuse identical twins.
“People often said, ‘I saw you in “Breaking Bad” (as a meth head who gets crushed under an ATM) and I have to look up what they are talking about, and then I see it’s a television program, and then I have to say, ‘Oh you are talking about David Ury.’ ” Easy mistake, but two different people, claims Tanaka.
I spoke with Tanaka recently from his home in Los Angeles. We talked about his ongoing quest to find Jonathan and Linda, the fortuitous meeting with his twin brother, growing up white in rural Japan and his affinity with and promotional efforts for Daizen mineral water, “the wettest water in the world.” America has softened Tanaka’s accent, but his enthusiasm and charming strangeness is still intact.
Identity, our obsession with it and the associations it engenders feature strongly in Tanaka’s videos. Sometimes his videos make explicit reference to race and identity, and other times it comes from his quotidian interactions, like the time he showed up on the doorstep of a black man’s house in Los Angeles (called Jonathan Smith) to find out if he was his father. Tanaka likes to take our perverse obsession with identity and turn it on its head.
Cue “What kind of Asian are you?” which went viral last year, clocking up close to 8 million views on YouTube. Of its success, Tanaka complains, “I have made so many heartfelt videos about myself that only get 10,000 or, if I am lucky, get 100,000 views.”
The catalyst for “What Kind of Asian Are You?” was a conversation with a Korean-American friend, who recounted to Tanaka an encounter he had had at a party, in which a new acquaintance proceeded to name every Korean thing they knew: “Oh, kimchi, Hyundai.” The list stopped.
“They didn’t know too many things,” Tanaka says.
“It’s funny, human nature,” he muses. People, Tanaka says, “are trying to connect with you, but it’s maybe not the most efficient way to make a connection.
“That’s what ‘What Kind of Asian?’ is about: What if a Korean-American was to do the same thing to a Caucasian person? And then people see and they think it’s absurd. Such a strange kind of behavior.”
We’re all guilty of this to some extent: wanting to establish a connection or rapport, but grasping at straws, or labels — or a Hyundai. Usually what happens when I tell Japanese people I am from Ireland is they hear “Iceland,” and the conversation then drifts to freezing temperatures and hot springs. I almost feel bad correcting them; Ireland doesn’t elicit quite as much in Japan.
Another popular video from the Tanaka collection is “But We’re Speaking Japanese!” which features a group of ethnically diverse people, all of which, bar one, are speaking Japanese in a Japanese restaurant to a Japanese waitress. The waitress, however, gravitates toward the only Asian-looking woman — an American, as it turns out, and the only one who speaks no Japanese.
The rub here is that the Japanese waitress suffers a dissonant shock: She can’t believe what her ears hear and her eyes see. As with “What Kind of Asian?” this video provoked endless comments online, many of which are unfit to publish in this newspaper.
“People have emailed me and written me, asking, ‘Why do Japanese people see me like I am a walking English teacher?’ And I understand how that could be frustrating,” Tanaka told me. “I also hear that from Japanese people in America — when they walk around, people say, ‘Kenichi wa, kenichi wa.’
“I guess . . . usually people who are saying that just want to make a connection with you, but they don’t know how . . . but if you get irritated by that, you have a long unwinnable battle ahead of you for your life. I am talking specifically about in Japan. . . . It is better if you can accept that this is part of life in Japan for you.”
Accepting and making connections — it seems to have worked for Tanaka and his identical twin brother, Ury, despite their grossly different personalities. Since being united the duo have collaborated quite often. Tanaka’s success caught YouTube’s attention and nowadays he is more likely to be filming in professional studios — a long way from his shaky point-and-shoot beginnings. The professional approach doesn’t guarantee success, however: His latest series, “Look I’m in a Castle,” is more miss than hit; “White Samurai” may have more potential.
As a double act, Tanaka and Ury, however, are funny. Is there a future in manzai stand-up for them?
“I think I’d really need to coach Ken on how comedy works,” Ury wrote in an email. “He still doesn’t get why my joke about kowai (scary) and kawaii (cute) being similar is hilarious. I think he’d probably need some kind of schooling.”
Videos being this odd couple’s stock in trade, it’s only fitting to end with one — one of my favorites from the Tanaka canon, filmed quite early on in the search for his parents. Shot during a visit to the Smithsonian in Washington, Tanaka develops an outsized fascination for a corner of the museum with a rubbish bin behind a “Please do not enter” sign. A security guard politely asks Tanaka to move along. Tanaka tells her that this is his favorite exhibit. Aghast, she says, “This cannot be your favorite.” Tanaka ends up making the security guard crack up while a small crowd gathers round.
That’s the thing about art: It’s often hard to tell the real from the fake. (And does it really matter?)