When Aiko Tanaka was born, her mother purposely chose a simple first name that would be easy to pronounce by non-Japanese. Perhaps her mother was prescient. By the age of 18, Tanaka had already left Tokyo in search of experiencing the culture of America, which, she reminisces, pervaded her quiet Japanese life in Mitaka in western Tokyo.
“I was raised by a single mom,” says Tanaka, who says that she felt wanderlust early. “I think that makes you independent. It’s why I found it easy to leave and I had no fear.”
You could call it the fortuitous naivety of youth.
“I was fearless because I didn’t know there was anything to fear. I was raised comfortably and I never really thought about how hard it might be to survive,” she says. “I thought, how can it be that difficult? My mother’s biggest worry was that I would be in danger. Perhaps she saw the violence in the news and movies.”
Tanaka’s mother, herself a former model, had her daughter catalog modeling as a toddler.
“I did it for a long time and enjoyed it, but my mom pulled me out when she felt I was getting too self-centered,” Tanaka recalls. To help her gain more balance, she was encouraged to attend a number of extra-curricular classes, including ballet, jazz, piano and ikebana flower arranging. But the lure of the West and its entertainment industry never left her.
“Growing up without my dad made me open-minded,” says Tanaka, whose parents are now divorced. “My father’s way of thinking was rigid. In a sense I wanted a change of life. I wanted to make a big splash. I needed a dramatic change.
“Western culture is huge, and I wanted to be a part of it. In a way, (that desire) was an escape from where I was growing up. I (have since) learned to love Japan from a distance. Now I feel the same about the U.S. I used to think it was a big amusement park, but now I see the good and bad in both countries.”
When Tanaka moved to America in her teens, she found the challenge she had been looking for: learning to survive, to communicate in another language, “to do simple things like go to the market. I really ‘grew up’ in two countries,” she says.
After finding dance gigs at clubs in Boston, she was scouted by a talent agency and swiftly moved to Los Angeles, where she became a dancer on MTV’s “The Grind” and then later on “Soul Train.” Parts in TV shows and movies followed, including an appearance on “The Howard Stern Show” and a bit part in “The Fast and Furious: Tokyo Drift” (2006).
“Being in ‘The Fast and Furious: Tokyo Drift’ and on ‘The Howard Stern Show’ (were defining moments) because they were something I had imagined, and I realized I was capable (of doing them),” she recalls. “I hope to have more of them.”
The same fearlessness that led her to move across the globe also helped her to, more recently, step onto the stage and try to be funny in her adopted country. “I don’t really see it as brave,” she says, remembering her transition to comedian. “I thought about it and was like, I can do this.”
The comedy, thankfully, came naturally. “I was funny as a child but introverted. My mother and sister are both outspoken and I withdrew into myself. I wasn’t tall or into sports or music, but I became quietly funny and used to like writing poetry,” she says. “My mother is an artist. She was happy when we expressed ourselves in that way.”
Her mother, too, had a strong sense of wit that Tanaka thinks may have rubbed off on her. Once, when teasing her mother about aging, she joked that her mother would have to start shaving her moustache. “No,” her mother replied. “It makes me look important.”
Like most good comics, Tanaka is a keen observer of the human condition. Her comedy is at times self-deprecating but also telling of the kinds of cultural ignorance she encounters in day-to-day life in her adopted country.
“People have said things to me in America that were inappropriate,” she says. “I turn them into comedy as a defense mechanism.”
One of the jokes she used to tell, for example, retells a boyfriend wanting her to speak Japanese to him. She describes him as saying “It really turns me on.” To which she retorts, “Why don’t you go to Chinatown? … You don’t know the difference.”
“I’m kind of lazy,” she says, laughing, when asked about her writing process. “I have conversations with friends, and things come up and I use them. When I’m on stage, it’s like talking to my friends. Even the way I dress is just me. When I first started, I was putting an outfit over who I am. Now I dress to reflect who I really am.”
Tanaka now works in comedy clubs in and around LA and San Diego, travels for shows at U.S. Army bases and sometimes performs at colleges.
Last July, she performed stand-up in both Singapore and Malaysia with Comedy Central’s Stand-Up Asia!, along with a group that included Esther Ku, Sugar Sammy, Helen Hong and Hung Le.
She also performed for prison inmates in LA County. “They are the best audience,” she jokes. “They can’t leave.”
Although she recently started performing in Japan, she says it’s not the same experience.
“I have respect for comedians working in Japan, but the comedy is different. It’s a different art form,” she says. “Working around Asia and in America has been a blessing. I not only learn about other cultures, but I learned a lot about myself through comedy.”
Now comfortable in the United States and Japan, Tanaka easily glides back and forth between the languages and also works as a Japanese language instructor.
“My advice to someone learning a new language is to have a goal and a purpose, like traveling,” she says. “To just say, ‘I am going to learn Japanese’ is too vague.”
And for Tanaka, she says there are always new goals: “I am still looking for new challenges. As an artist I don’t want to be one sided.”
Name: Aiko Tanaka
Hometown: Mitaka, Tokyo
Key moments in career:
Late 1990s-mid 2000s — Moves to America, dances for “The Grind” and “Soul Train,” and appears on The Howard Stern Show and various TV Shows
2006 — Appears in “The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift”
2010s — Starts performing stand-up comedy at small venues, and appears at various clubs, including The Comedy Store and Hollywood Improv. Performs across the U.S. for army base shows.
2018 — Performs in Singapore and Malaysia for Comedy Central’s “Stand-Up Asia!”
Words to live by: “I like the concept of wabi-sabi. For me it is the sense of beauty that is Japan, a taste for the simple and quiet.”
Things I miss about Japan: “I can’t point to one thing I miss about Japan. My culture, my family, everything is in Japan, but at the same time, I love working in the U.S., so I can appreciate Japan more.”