From acting in film and television to writing and directing stage works to recording music and touring with her cult-alternative pop performance group Frank Chickens, Kazuko Hohki is a prolific artist.
Hohki is also a self-proclaimed Anglophile. Sitting in her cozy kitchen in Seven Sisters in north London, where she has lived for more than 30 years, she cracks a smile and says, “I never really made a conscious decision to leave Japan, I just wanted to come to England.”
Born in Tokyo in 1952, Hohki developed an interest in British culture from a young age through her encounter with the characters in books such as “Winnie-the-Pooh” and “The Borrowers.” Later on, she discovered the music of David Bowie and the art of Gilbert & George. The common thread that connected all these references was humor. “I really liked and understood English jokes, even more than Japanese ones,” she says.
Hohki studied educational psychology at the prestigious, but frustratingly male-dominated University of Tokyo, and then stayed on to do another undergraduate degree in British studies. While on campus, she got involved with feminist activist groups, which led her to the realization of “not really being able to fit into the Japanese working culture.”
In 1978, in the middle of her second degree, she decided to visit England. Her intention was to stay in London for six months, but four “exhilarating” years later she was still there. She obtained permanent residency through her marriage to an Englishman, which also granted her the right to work, and she began to realize her childhood dream of becoming an artist.
“I had always wanted to become an artist,” she says. “But in Japan there was no way to do that. Here in the U.K., on the other hand, if you express yourself, anybody can become an artist, even while living off social security benefits.”
1978 was also the last full year of James Callaghan’s Labour government and the postwar welfare state era of ambitious healthcare, housing, education and arts projects. The following year, Margaret Thatcher led the Conservative Party to power and gradually led the country into an age of neo-liberalism and cuts.
The British pound was worth around ¥370 in 1978, which made living London an expensive prospect for Hohki. Like many fledgling artists at that time, she found herself living in squats dotted around the city. Though uncommon today, squatting was prevalent in postwar Britain and, by 1979 there were estimated to be 50,000 squatters in the U.K,. with the majority living in London. Living in such a way proved a crucial experience for Hohki in terms of developing new ideas and meeting artists.
Hohki taught Japanese language in local community centers and took classes at the Camden Arts Centre and other institutes in North London. From etching and painting to pottery and poetry, “there were so many arts courses and education programs available” she recalls, “I had been always wanted to learn these sorts of skills but had little opportunity in Japan. I was able to make my own syllabus by paying one pound per class, which was surreal to me.”
The combination of an insatiable curiosity and, as as she puts it, an “obsession to create something,” laid the foundations for Hohki’s idiosyncratic and versatile artistic career. In the early 1980s, she co-founded the Japanese American Toy Theatre of London and created short films for Channel 4 and the BBC, including “James Bonk in Matt Blackfinger” (1988), an animated pastiche and spoof on the British novel and film character, 007.
In 1982, she launched an alternative pop music performance group with Kazumi Taguchi called Frank Chickens, named after the words on a pencil Hohki had bought in Japan. The duo scored a chart hit with the song “We are Ninja (Not Geisha)” and in 1989 they had their own chat show titled “Kazuko’s Karaoke Klub” on Channel 4. Still creating new work today, Frank Chickens explored a wide range of musical genres from pop and punk to traditional music, including Japanese and Okinawan minyō (folk songs), enka (Japanese ballads) and Tsugaru shamisen, and released five studio albums.
Hohki started creating interdisciplinary performance work in the late 1990s through a string of collaborations with artists including Andy Cox, Clive Bell and Nao Nagai, as well as with theater companies such as Duckie, Clod Ensemble and Yellow Earth Theatre, to name a few.
More recently, however, Hohki has become known for her collaborations with non-theater professionals. After becoming a mother in 2008, she worked with local secondary school students to create site-specific promenade shows.
“When I was younger, I was an attention seeker, always me, me, me” she jokes. “But those self-centered days are past and I am more interested in the learning possibilities that workshops with students provide.”
Hohki has also published four books that revolve around her views as an “outsider” or “alien” living in England: “London no Yukashita” (“London Underfloor World,” 1994), “London Kaikai” (“London Joy Joy,” 1996), “Deep London” (1998) and “Igirisujin wa Tsurai Yo” (English people are hard to live with, 2000).
At the core of these quasi-autobiographic works is an imagined “Kazuko,” Hohki’s alter ego, who explores different aspects of Hohki’s experience living and working as a Japanese female artist in London. While much of the writing is critical about those experiences, her childhood passion for British culture is still very much alive.
Reflecting on what she might have become had she not left Japan, Hohki says “I would probably have become a very lazy hippie or a tremendous artist due to the layers of oppression in Japanese society. Well, more likely a hippie.
“Ultimately it was England that made me into an artist and I really appreciate that.”
Name: Kazuko Hohki
Profession: Theater director, writer and performer
Key moments in life and career:
1978 — Moves to London from Tokyo
1982 — Founds Frank Chickens, a Japanese pop art music group, with Kazumi Taguchi
1984 — Frank Chickens releases the double A side “We Are Ninja/Fujiyama Mama,” which becomes a U.K. chart hit
1995 — Creates “Toothless,” a solo theater show based on her mother’s death, establishing her as a dramatist
2002 — Starts a collaboration with Andy Cox, ex-member of Fine Young Cannibals
2005 — “Evidence for the Existence of Borrowers,” a collaborative work with Cox, wins the Total Theatre Award, and Hohki wins a Herald Angels award
2008 — Becomes a mother
2010 — Creates “Great Escape — Borrower’s Tale,” her first show for children, with Andy Cox
2014 — Creates her first immersive show with secondary school students
2016 — Organizes first Ura Matsuri, a festival of immigrant culture in U.K., with some members of Frank Chickens.
Life philosophy: “Carpe diem (seize the day); Enjoy the now.”
IN FIVE EASY PIECES WITH TAKE 5