Stage

Yuriko Kotani: The Japanese comedian laughing her way through dark days in the U.K.

by J. J. O'Donoghue

Contributing Writer

Yuriko Kotani is in a league that very few other Japanese people have or would want to wade into: performing stand-up comedy in English.

She’s the only Japanese recipient of the BBC New Comedy Award and is one of only a handful of performers from Japan to bring her own show to the Edinburgh Festival Fringe, one of the biggest stops on the global comedy circuit.

This week she brings that show, called Somosomo, which she debuted at Edinburgh in August 2019, to Tokyo and Osaka before returning to her base in London and taking it back on the road in the U.K.

Like fellow comedian Kazu Kusano, who is from Nagasaki but is now based in Los Angeles, Kotani’s comedy is a wry take on being both an outsider and being Japanese in a new culture — in Kotani’s case getting her head around the British, their mannerisms, their language and their fondness for that odd dangling adverb nobody ever teaches you when you’re learning English as a second language — I’m talking about “-ish.”

As Kotani, 39, deadpans: “We don’t have that word in Japanese.”

In her breakout set that helped secure her BBC award in 2015, Kotani goes on to riff on how “-ish” would work in Japan: During a visit back home to Tokyo she arranges to meet her mother at “1 o’clock-ish,” by which she explains she means some time between 1:05 p.m. and 1:25 p.m.

Her mother’s response is visceral: “I saw her eyes (filled) with confusion and rage,” Kotani says.

One of the things that attracted Kotani to the U.K. in the first place was its comedy, a very different beast to manzai, the double act mainstay of the Japanese comedy scene.

“I love British humor and British comedy, (even though) some of the stuff is very dark, and I guess I’m doing it (stand-up) because I love British humour,” she says while back home in Tokyo for the new year and ahead of her two shows in Japan.

One of the shows that got Kotani hooked on British comedy was “The League of Gentlemen,” a surreal, dark comedy sketch series that ran on the BBC from 1999 to 2002, gaining a dedicated following along the way.

Another British show Kotani was captivated by is one with even more of a cult following, “The Mighty Boosh,” created by Noel Fielding and Julian Barratt. Kotani also namechecks “Black Books” and the farcical horror movie “Shaun of the Dead,” starring Simon Pegg. “Oh my God, I love ‘Shaun of the Dead,'” Kotani says with a laugh.

When Kotani moved to the U.K. 15 years ago she didn’t intend on staying put for more than a few years. And she had absolutely no intention or inclination that 10 years into living there she would willingly put herself on stage to try her hand at a stand-up routine.

“I never, ever, ever thought that I would do comedy,” Kotani says. “Anywhere.”

For starters, as Kotani notes, public speaking, central to stand-up comedy, “is very scary.”

“Life takes you in very strange ways,” she says, and while that may be true, Kotani can take full credit herself for making the decision to move from an office job and taking that significant first step onto the comedy stage.

Initially Kotani’s idea was to try her hand at writing comedy — but not performing it — for the stage, radio or TV. What she had in mind was sketches or a sitcom.

But, as she recounts, there came a pivotal moment in the writing process.

“I thought maybe if I really want to do comedy, maybe, stand-upwise … maybe I can give it a go, and then if I don’t tell anybody, and nobody knows …” she trails off, laughing.

And, at this point, I am laughing, too, because her last point is downright funny and totally relatable. For who in their right mind would set themselves up for what could be a monumental public failing, and do so in front of their friends and peers in a country not their own?

Perhaps not unsurprisingly, given Kotani’s Japanese background, her very first ever attempt at stand-up back in January of 2014, was as part of a double act. She roped an acquaintance into coming on stage with her as “doing straight stand-up was way too scary.”

However, for the next gig she decided to go solo, and the risk paid off.

“I got huge laughs all the way through and I cried on my way home — happy tears,” she says.

Things happened quickly for Kotani in the years after that.

In 2015, she was shortlisted along with five other comedy novices for the BBC New Comedy Award. She went on to win it, becoming the first ever Japanese nominee and winner.

“The final was at The Comedy Store in London, but it was live on BBC Radio 2 and it was (judged by) listeners’ votes,” Kotani says. That gave me huge confidence, especially because it was radio and I have this accent and I wasn’t sure if people would accept it. I was over the moon.”

Since then, Kotani has, as she says, “kept practicing to get better at comedy performance, and also writing.”

In those intervening years, Kotani has popped up in “Pls Like,” a BBC sitcom, in which she played Nozomi, “a megastar tech blogger from Tokyo.” She appeared on English comedian Russell Howard’s “Stand Up Central” on the British channel Comedy Central, as well as being more recently commissioned for a series of segments for Channel 4 in the U.K.

For the Rugby World Cup, which was held for the first time in Japan last year, Kotani made a series of short infomercials for the British Embassy in Tokyo to help the legions of visiting fans with all things Japanese. “No need to hug,” she tells visitors, adding that she tried it once with her grandfather in Japan. “Maybe he will appreciate my globalness,” she says. He didn’t. They ended up shaking hands, awkwardly.

Undoubtedly, one of Kotani’s biggest milestones to date was bringing Somosomo to the Edinburgh Festival Fringe in the summer of 2019.

“The show was for the whole month of August, every night at 7 p.m.,” Kotani says. “I did it!”

Kotani likened the month-long marathon of performances to a “training session.”

“I think most of the comics get better (during the festival),” she says. “It’s intense.”

As to the bread and butter of Somosomo — not to give too much away — the show is, in a manner of speaking, a three-person act: the U.K., Japan and Kotani, and her experiences and observations of knowing — and not knowing — all three.

Of course, like any job, comedy comes with its own setbacks and hardships, and, for Kotani, has come with a degree of sexism and racism, but the comedian deals with it all with a smile.

“The great thing about comedy is you can turn it into jokes and we can laugh at it all together,” she says.

Like many in the British Isles at the moment, jokes and laughter are also her remedy for dealing with the ongoing circus known as Brexit — the U.K.’s much-postponed divorce from the European Union.

Thus far Kotani hasn’t done any stand-up in Japanese, but she’d love to give it a go if the opportunity arises.

And as to why she keeps doing what she describes half-jokingly as a “bonkers” profession, Kotani is no different from any other comedian.

“Once I get the audience’s laughter, it’s such a magnetic feeling,” she concludes.

Yuriko Kotani performs at Good Heavens in Tokyo on Jan. 10 and ROR Comedy in Osaka on Jan. 12. For more information, visit twitter.com/yurikocomedy.