There are many ways to learn about a country’s culture, but B.J. Fox thinks comedy is one of the best. After being relocated to Singapore from his home country of England for work, he found that sharing a few laughs with others who were in similar situations helped him connect with his new surroundings.
“A lot of my knowledge of Singapore came from local comedians and how they talked about it,” Fox tells The Japan Times while sitting in a cafe near Tokyo Station.
Now based in Japan, he’s helping create a gateway for others into the country via his own comedy. Fox wrote the script to and stars in “Home Sweet Tokyo,” the first sitcom to ever air on national broadcaster NHK’s NHK World station. It’s also the first English-language comedy to appear on the domestic channel.
The four-episode series focuses on Bryan Jenkins (Fox), who has recently moved to the capital with his wife, Itsuki (Yoshino Kimura), and young daughter, Alice (Isla Rose), to be with his father-in-law, Tsuneo (Tetsu Watanabe), following the death of Tsuneo’s wife. From there, “Home Sweet Tokyo” builds on a familiar sitcom foundation — the fish-out-of-water scenario.
It’s a challenge NHK has been wrestling with for awhile now.
“Every previous attempt failed,” says Keiko Tsuneki, an executive producer at NHK responsible for making sure the show got the green light. “The goal was to have content that could be viewed by both Japanese and non-Japanese.”
“Home Sweet Tokyo” attempts to cater to domestic and international audiences, with help from Fox and director Teruyuki Yoshida. It has attracted considerable attention from a local and vocal online expat community, which is often quick to bristle at any Western actor on TV, let alone one playing a fresh-off-the-boat type.
Fox isn’t like the character he portrays, however. His high school in Slough had a sister school in Japan that sent several students to England every year, but not the other way around. That is until Fox broke new ground.
“I essentially went to Japan for three weeks after graduating high school to be a homestay test project,” he says. That experience pushed him to spend one year studying in Tokyo,which led to two years on the Japan Exchange and Teaching (JET) Programme. “And at that point, I thought my Japan journey had ended,” he adds.
Fox then went into the video game industry and ended up in Singapore in 2013, where he fell in love with stand-up comedy.
“What got me addicted was the feedback loop,” he says, referring to the thrill of performing live. “I wasn’t very funny, but then I did one good show … it wasn’t even a good show, it was a good line that got a laugh.”
He stuck with comedy after his work transferred him to Japan, helping to launch Stand-Up Tokyo, a comedy group that puts on shows and hosts overseas acts such as Hannibal Buress. Fox performs frequently, sometimes entirely in Japanese.
Tsuneki, having spent part of her life in Texas and connecting with American culture via airings of the show “Three’s Company,” has wanted to get a sitcom on NHK for a long time. “Home Sweet Tokyo,” she says, started life as a show focused on Japanese housewives but morphed into something with more of an outside point of view. Looking for that perspective, she went to one of Fox’s shows in October last year. They started working together shortly after, with Fox writing the script.
“What I wanted to write was about two people taken out of their comfort zones,” he says. “Bryan, for me, he’s not this Japan maniac. He’s here for different reasons … he’s here because his family has moved over.”
That couples with Tsuneo, whose plans for retirement get upended by the death of his wife. Fox and Tsuneki say they also wanted to offer a more “modern” storyline — for example, Bryan’s wife is the family breadwinner. This contemporary feel comes from two of the show’s main players being a Japanese woman and a non-Japanese man, demographics that rarely get creative input in Japanese TV programming.
Casting was completed in July, and the show was shot over eight days in September.
Fox took ideas from his own life, though he also drew from experiences his mother and friends had when visiting Japan. This was supplemented by director Yoshida, who injected what he found funny (or peculiar) about Japanese culture into the show, such as shogi.
“It was ultimately very much Yoshida’s style of show,” Fox says. It often brings to mind the director’s “Salaryman Neo,” a Japanese comedy that does for white-collar workers what “Home Sweet Tokyo” does for Japanese culture, to the point both programs feature straight-up documentary-style segments.
“A difficulty in writing it was writing for so many different audiences,” Fox says, noting how many in Southeast Asia tune in to NHK World. They borrowed a speaking-to-the-camera conceit deployed in many Western comedies (“The Office,” “Fleabag”) to help get points across and tried to avoid cliches (say, a character simply jumping into a public bath while covered in shampoo).
“One of the early goals from Keiko was wanting a program that could make people abroad look at Japan and think, ‘Wow, that’s an interesting country,’ but also something Japanese people could view and feel proud to be Japanese,” Fox says.
Dealing with issues of identity can be tricky, however, especially when many of your potential viewers are navigating those same issues in their everyday lives.
It wasn’t too surprising then that many on expat Twitter voiced skepticism about the show upon seeing the ad for it spring up in their social media feeds.
The program isn’t above critique, of course, but many of the reactions were similar to the kinds of gripes lobbed at non-Japanese entertainers such as Dave Spector, Jason Danielson (Atsugiri Jason) and Patrick Harlan, who all work in the Japanese system and speak the language fluently.
“We took all that into consideration when we made the show,” Fox says. “Obviously Brian doesn’t speak Japanese like I do, but he’s been in Japan three weeks by the time the show is set. He’s not hating Japan, he doesn’t love Japan. He’s there to support his wife and his child. And I think he takes a puzzled view of what’s going on, liking it sometimes as well as questioning the irony of things. We tried to lend that balanced view as much as possible.”
Fox and Tsuneki have yet to see the final verdict, but in the meantime they’re happy with the end results of their efforts.
“When Yoshida said ‘You should be the writer’ that was a great feeling, realizing I had been tasked and trusted with this,” Fox says. “Honestly, I’m just amazed it happened.”
“Home Sweet Tokyo” airs on NHK World Sundays at 1:10 p.m. You can watch it live at www3.nhk.or.jp/nhkworld/en/live. Catch up on past episodes free of charge at www.nhk.or.jp/homesweettokyo. B.J. Fox will perform at Craft Beer & Comedy at Two Dogs Taproom in Minato Ward, Tokyo, on Nov. 25 (7 p.m. start; admission costs ¥1,500). For more information, visit www.standuptokyo.com or www.okomedyaki.com.