Turn on the TV in Japan and you’re likely to see a black face from time to time. Rarely will it be in a drama, but on game shows, variety and comedy shows, even some commercials. I wouldn’t say we’re commonplace, but we’re out there. And, honestly, I used to dread every instance. Still do, actually, but for different reasons.
Previously, the dread was caused by the anticipation of some cringe-worthy displays — antics that, while presumably entertaining to Japanese audiences, to me were little more than otherization for comical purposes. Moreover, the knowledge that these antics would impact my everyday life directly, by becoming something that, in one way or another, I’ll have to answer for (because unfortunately everything a black person does here is a reflection on all black people) only exacerbated the dread. And, unfortunately, that was the best-case scenario. Sometimes that “black” person beneath that Afro wig or wearing that bone as a nose ring wouldn’t even be of African descent, but a Japanese person approximating some outrageous notion of blackness, also generally for comical purposes.
Nowadays, my dread is difficult to dredge up. It’s mostly residual dread because my expectations, frankly, couldn’t get any lower. There’s nowhere to go from here but up, I tell myself optimistically. I’m of the mind that Japanese tastes will take time to evolve from finding racialized depictions of another people humorous and harmless, and likely it will occur at the same rate that the society itself comes to grips with its growing diversity and becomes less tolerant of discrimination and otherization on a whole.
I’m hopeful that, as was the case in the U.S., as more black talents break into the entertainment industry here and prove themselves profitable to its gatekeepers, among them will emerge someone with the irrepressible, undeniable, game-changing excellence of, say, a Sidney Poitier. An agent of change, if you will, capable of compelling Japanese audiences to question everything they think they know about blackness, as it pertains not to merely the outside world, but to their lives right here on this archipelago. Because then, and perhaps only then, will opportunities emerge for others to express blackness beyond the stereotypical framework it’s currently hindered by.
Black Eye met to discuss this and much more with a very talented, high-profile comedian and actor at a cafe in Jiyugaoka in Tokyo’s Meguro Ward. Not so much with the expectation that he was such an agent of change, but I must confess, I was hopeful.
Ike Nwala is a Nigerian-American, born in New York and raised in Washington state. He moved to Japan in 2006 at the age of 20, with little more than a valise and a visa … and, a plan to take the Japanese entertainment world by storm. He’s 31 now and, believe it or not, his plan is well-underway, a plan that was set in motion during his third year at university while shopping at a Seattle video shop.
“On a TV inside this shop there was this guy using a bazooka to wake up someone. And I was like, what the hell! I asked the store clerk, ‘What is this?’ because they weren’t speaking English,” says Nwala. “The clerk said that it was Japanese comedy. And I said, ‘This is really crazy!’ I’d never seen anything like it before. The clerk told me the comedian’s name was Junji Takada, and I told him I wanted to see more of this stuff. So he showed me all these DVDs and I rented them.”
None of the DVDs were in English, though.
“But that sparked my interest,” Nwala says. “I wanted to know what they were doing and what they were saying. The comedy acted as my gateway.”
It wasn’t long before he made a life-altering decision: He decided that once he finished university he’d, well, he’d go to Japan and become a comedian.
“Uh huh…” I say.
“Seriously,” he says.
Nwala’s narrative wasn’t coming together in my mind. It felt like something was missing, like a heckuva leap had been made. Aside from the obvious — popularity and fame and all of its trappings — I couldn’t see any attractive attributes to being a black comedian in Japan. So, what was it he saw in Japanese comedy that cued him that there was a place for him in that world, I wondered. I asked him if he had seen any black performers in any of these Japanese comedy shows he’d watched. He said he hadn’t. I was perplexed.
“I was kind of a weird guy growing up,” Nwala says. “I didn’t like being portrayed as the stereotypical black guy, you know? I mean, it was the same with skateboarding, and even with IT. The reason I got into IT is, when I was 8 or 9 years old, I would go with my mom to her friend’s house, and while they talked I’d go to her friend’s son’s room. He was about 14 and in his room there were computers everywhere! I thought that was so cool. Stereotypically, you don’t see people of color into computers like that. That’s what made me wanna get into IT. I started studying it on my own, picking up books, taking apart computers, what have you. So when I see something that is out of the norm, I often give it a try.”
Nwala casually runs off a list of things it would take most people years to become proficient at that he had done so damn near overnight. Not just IT and skateboarding, but beat boxing, and mastering several instruments including piano and saxophone. I was astonished. It took me half a semester to get a decent note out of the baritone horn in junior high school. But with Nwala, soon after his mother bought him a keyboard, he was playing for their church. And his sole motivation for taking up these various skills and talents? “I thought that would be cool!”
It was starting to become clear to me what I was dealing with here. He must’ve been some kind of child prodigy.
He would pursue “coolness” through high school and university, until one whole week after finishing university he was off to Japan to pursue what to his approximation was the consummation of cool: becoming a comedian in Japan.
“I went to Osaka with a tourist visa and a suitcase,” Nwala says, grinning slyly, likely aware of how incredible his origin story must sound to me. “I had to find a job within the 90-day visa limit. I went to Osaka initially because all the research I’d done on the Japanese comedy scene lead me there. Japanese comedy originated in Osaka.”
Nwala made some friends there, but whenever he’d tell them about his master plan to be a comic in Japan he kept running into the most obvious of obstacles.
“But you don’t even speak Japanese, they’d say, and laugh at me,” Nwala says, laughing himself. “I picked up the Kansai dialect just hanging out in Osaka. I never went to Japanese school. I never had the time or money.”
Now, it was beginning to sound a little preposterous. Prodigious is one thing, but picking up a language and a dialect in three months? C’mon …
“Without studying?” I ask, incredulously.
“I studied on my own,” he replies.
“Oh! That’s different,” I say, laughing. “You had me picturing you walking the streets of Osaka absorbing Japanese by osmosis.”
“Nah, nah, nah,” he laughs, contagiously, the same laugh that he’s brandished during a number of the TV comedy skits I’d watched of his on YouTube. “Of course I studied. You definitely have to, especially if you want to learn kanji. And you will need it if you’re going to get anywhere in Japanese comedy or in any other area of Japanese life.”
He eventually landed a job with Goldman Sachs, and through the company he got settled into Japan for the long haul. For the next five years he spent his days doing IT work for the rather prestigious global investment banking and securities firm. But with his evenings, in his own words, he “went hard!” He spent them studying, networking, going to shows and mimicking Japanese comedians in order to learn the language and culture of Japanese comedy.
One of the first tricks he learned to generating laughter from Japanese audiences was a bit of gender-oriented linguistic play. A good deal of Japanese is gender specific, and experience taught him that speaking inappropriately to ones gender can result in some humiliating moments. But, to a comedian with the right mind-set, humiliation is fodder for hilarity. As he became more adept at the intricacies of the language, he began to use this to his advantage.
“I started making notes. Like, if I say something a certain way, or make a certain face, people responded one way. But if I reversed it, or said it funkier, or used a different tone, or a different dialect, then people have another reaction. I kinda mastered that. Now, I’ve got it down,” he explains.
Nwala glances at the two girls seated at the table beside ours. “I could make these girls right here laugh in 10 seconds.”
He gestures. They notice and begin giggling, in even less than 10 seconds. He looks back at me, like, “See.”
I don’t know what he’d done to arouse their amusement. But, that’s not saying much. I don’t get the appeal of a lot of Japanese comedy. I’d secretly been hoping I’d glean its appeal from this conversation with one of a handful of foreign rising stars in the land of the rising sun, a man so passionate about it he’d left his home and family behind to make Japanese people laugh for a living. But, I hadn’t.
However, scanning through Nwala’s work, I was impressed on several occasions. In particular, on a program called “Nakai-Kun no Manabu Switch,” where he actually puts his knowledge of IT and finance together with the linguistic tricks and comical faces he mentioned and, hilariously, teaches some Japanese celebrities about Bitcoin. Now that was cool by my approximation, and on so many levels.
Also cool is, as the only non-Japanese member of the popular and venerable Japanese comedy troupe, Choshinjuku, he gets to perform live and on television regularly. And, another bit of coolness is, he’s landed a gig as a cast member on the popular morning kids’ show, “Oha Suta” — no small feat. Nwala is cognizant that this gig not only could do wonders for his visibility and career, but will also have a fairly significant impact on the young minds that will constitute Japan’s future. So, he doesn’t take his role here as lightly as he’d like.
He has to keep the power the media has in shaping perceptions in his mind at all times, particularly now that he is established, and as his profile grows and the offers and career opportunities are thrust his way. He must also keep his mind geared to Japanese sensibilities at all times. And the higher he climbs this ladder of success, the more clear a target he becomes. Even a brief and fairly-lighthearted interview with Vice he did recently, once translated into Japanese, left him open to criticism. So, when he speaks, I find him to be very cautious, and careful with his wording — ultra-conscious of how easily his ideas could get lost in translation.
I’m sure Nwala didn’t have this level of anxiety on his list of things that would be cool. But, otherwise, he’s thrilled with how his plan has panned out so far.
“Being here, I feel like I’m a better human,” Nwala says. “I’m not quite sure how to say it. I mean, I have both mind-sets now, Japanese and American, so I guess what I’m saying is I feel culturally enhanced? Yeah … that’s it.”
Baye McNeil is the author of two books on life in Japan. See www.bayemcneil.com.
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