Among the English-speaking community in Japan there has been a long-running debate over whether to use the word “foreigner.” Personally, I prefer using “non-Japanese.” The word “foreigner,” I feel, implies difference, exclusion and an inability to assimilate.
Having said that, Bryan Jenkins is a foreigner. The main character of NHK World’s groundbreaking new sitcom “Home Sweet Tokyo” is a recent arrival to Japan who is slow to figure out how things work here — and it’s his foreignness that caused many non-Japanese living here to respond with a collective groan across social media after seeing trailers for the show.
Bryan, played by English comedian B.J. Fox, marvels at vending machines, causes a scene at a cafe and forgets his young daughter at the supermarket (“Don’t worry, Japan is a safe country,” we’re told), and amid the buffoonery Fox scores some genuinely funny one-liners. It isn’t “Seinfeld,” but family-friendly comedy has never needed snark.
As foreign as Bryan is, however, by playing the fool he’s actually taking part in a Japanese comedy tradition: manzai — a type of stand-up comedy performed by two people in which one is the boke (fool), the other the tsukkomi (straight-man). Bryan’s father-in-law, Tsuneo, is the tsukkomi (as is his wife … and pretty much every other Japanese person in the show).
This dynamic is where “Home Sweet Tokyo” gets the bulk of its gags and, let’s face it, these situations are perhaps more common than many non-Japanese would like to admit.
Where the show missteps, however, is in its “Let me tell you about Japan” segments that take the form of mid-episode language lessons. They’re short but jarring enough to disrupt the flow of the action. (Though not as jarring as when Bryan employs full kabe-don during an intimate moment with his wife, Itsuki. If Bryan is so new to Japan, how does he know about this cringe-worthy Japanese flirting technique?)
“Home Sweet Tokyo” has only just debuted and the next three episodes serve up a productive story arc between Bryan and his father-in-law. To lessen stereotypes, though, it might be good if the program introduced non-Japanese characters who fit in and don’t need to play the fool. Now that would be groundbreaking.