People | WHY DID YOU LEAVE JAPAN?

Yumi Nagashima: Keeping the funny side up

by Kaori Shoji

Contributing Writer

In 2015, Yumi Nagashima was feeling a little uncomfortable. In fact, she had been feeling that way for a few years. It was like being bothered by a tiny thorn, barely perceptible but still there, reminding her that she wasn’t living the life she had envisioned when she left Japan.

Rewind to 2008, when Nagashima was 28. She was teaching English to kids at a conversation school in Japan. She had always loved English, and majored in English literature at Bunkyo University. Life was fine but uneventful, until she fell in love in with a fellow teacher from her school. “I thought he was just amazing,” says Nagashima over Skype. “His name was Kevin.”

They started dating, but before long, Kevin, who was Chinese Canadian, decided to return to his hometown in Vancouver.

“Parting wasn’t an option for either one of us. So he proposed, and I said yes. And that’s how I left Japan,” Nagashima recalls.

But in early 2015, she was really feeling the prick of that tiny thorn, and she knew the reason why.

“Married life was fine, but I realized that I was doing nothing with my life. Sure, I had my own income from doing jobs like waitressing at a Japanese restaurant, teaching Japanese or working in a nail salon but I didn’t have a career and I wasn’t following my passion.” she says. “I didn’t even know what my passion was, exactly, and when Kevin started talking about having a baby, I woke up to the fact that I wanted more from my life. I realized that I didn’t leave Japan just to be a happily married wife and mom.

Nagashima says that ultimately, the realization led to divorcing her husband, a fact that she is still racked with guilt over.

“I was in therapy for a while, and even now I still go when I feel overwhelmed. I broke up my marriage and hurt my husband and I can’t change that,” she says. “But I’ve learned to own my decisions. That’s something I probably couldn’t have done had I stayed in Japan.”

She also learned to be frank about her desires, and to speak up for herself. In Vancouver, she says, no one paid attention to her when she played the demure and quiet Japanese woman, “but the minute I asserted myself, people looked at me and leaned in to listen to what I had to say.”

Before her divorce, Nagashima had taken acting classes and had gotten a part in the TV series “The Man in the High Castle.” She was exhilarated by the experience and seriously considered becoming an actress.

“But not everyone can become Lucy Liu,” she says with a laugh. “I didn’t even come close. And I found out very quickly that in both the Canadian and American acting industries, blondes were always in demand but roles for Asian women were few and far between. That’s more or less when I decided to make the switch to comedy.”

Once Nagashima experienced the power of comedy on stage, her circle of friends in comedic theater began to grow. “I got a part in a comedy play called ‘How Much are Those Feelings in the Window?’ My part was a Japanese wife with the killer line: ‘I’ve been married for three years and it sucks.’ I got a big laugh when I said that. I thought, ‘wow, this is fun!,'” she recalls.

In September 2015, she started dating Vancouver comedian/actor Byron Bertram, who took Nagashima to her first stand-up comedy show.

Yumi Nagashima | © NORMAN WHALEY
Yumi Nagashima | © NORMAN WHALEY

“It was a revelation for me,” she says. “I had never seen anything like it and I was especially impressed by how one can keep a whole audience entertained with nothing but oneself and a microphone.” A little over a month later, she made her debut as a stand-up comedian.

Though a natural at comedy, she says it wasn’t “easy,” like a lot of people assumed it would be for her. “It’s part of my job to seem effortlessly funny,” she says. “But it was a lot of hard work and I had to fight more than a few battles.”

One such battle was over her accent.

“I was told by my agent that I had better fix my accent and was advised to go to a dialect coach,” she says. “I went a couple of times, but then I decided: No, this is who I am, so why change it?”

Keeping the Japanese accent turned out to be a wise a move, she adds, explaining, “As a comedian I sound funnier with my accent. It’s like Japanese comedy sounds funnier in the Osaka dialect. I consider my accent an asset.”

Japan and its culture also factors into Nagashima’s comedy routines. She’s become well-known for bringing up distinctly Japanese topics, even controversial ones, such as dolphin hunting.

“Japan is a very secretive country and the rest of the world wants some answers,” she says. “‘Why hunt dolphins? Why are there so many vending machines?’ and, this the one I get a lot: ‘Is it true that Japanese men buy used women’s underwear?'”

Her most popular routine is called “Creepy White Man” and it looks at the allure that Japanese and other Asian woman have over certain white men. Though she says, “I do the set with a lot of love,” stressing that there is no malice here.

“Canada is a nation of immigrants and everyone has stereotypes and loves to play on them,” she explains. “Basically, everyone’s poking fun at themselves and each other. In my routine, I’m pitting one stereotype (the shy, demure Japanese woman) against another (the white male attracted to such women) and I get a lot of laughs.”

Does she fear accusations of racism or alienating her audience?

“I won’t say there’s zero risk,” she admits, “but sarcasm, irony and spoofing are what comedy is about in the West. My routines are very popular with white men — they come to my shows to have a big laugh, many at their own expense.”

Having a sense of humor, too, seems key to Nagashima’s life in general.

“Comedy has taught me not to take myself (or anything) too seriously,” she says. “Whenever I run into a problem, I’ve learned not to just hunt around for a solution, but to laugh it off. Life just gets better with a couple of laughs.”

Profile

Name: Yumi Nagashima
Profession: Comedian, actress
Hometown: Tokyo
Key moments in career:

  • 2008 Moves to Vancouver, Canada, with her husband.
  • 2015 Divorces, becomes serious about pursuing an acting career and wins a role in Amazon’s “The Man in the High Castle,” before debuting as a stand-up comedian in October.
  • 2016-17 Becomes a finalist in both years’ Yuk Off Comedy Competition in Vancouver
  • 2019 Appears at the Winnipeg Comedy Festival

Things I miss most about Japan: “The food and the onsen spas. My parents and my sister.”

Things I love about Canada: “There’s very little gender discrimination. When I first went to Canada, it ranked seventh in terms of gender equality. Japan, on the other hand, ranked 113th. Until I lived in Vancouver, I never knew how good it felt to be treated equally.”

Words to live by: “‘Who cares? You’re perfect!’ The Japanese are so worried about other peoples’ opinions, and I think this is something we should all say to ourselves. Whenever something gets me down, I say this aloud to myself.”

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