People | WHY DID YOU LEAVE JAPAN?

Yuriko Kotani embraces Britain’s penchant for irony and dark comedy

by Kathryn Wortley

Contributing writer

After 15 years’ residency, Yuriko Kotani calls the United Kingdom home. The standup comedian has a thriving career, friends, hobbies and an affinity with British culture that has enabled her to become part of her London community. And perhaps what makes it even more surprising is that it’s a life built by seizing opportunities, rather than following a plan.

When asked why she left Japan, Kotani says she feels like she never did. It wasn’t a conscious decision, nor was staying in London for so long.

Kotani was in love when she left Tokyo, age 24, to accompany her then boyfriend on his return to Britain. She had a vague idea of meeting his family and friends before checking out the country, but she ended up staying, even after they broke up.

“A short time became a long time,” she says. “I like the British phrases ‘see how it goes’ and ‘play it by ear’ — and that’s what I did.”

From her arrival in the United Kingdom, Kotani approached her experiences much like she approaches life: as an adventure to be experienced. This attitude helped her overcome the culture shock she faced during the first few years.

Most difficult was the different attitude to time. Britain’s laid-back ways were in stark contrast to Japan’s order and punctuality.

“When I first saw signs on the platform saying trains were delayed or canceled, I couldn’t understand what was happening,” she says. “I wanted to know the reason, but everyone else seemed very cool.”

She also struggled with the concept of ‘ish,” the tricky suffix lovingly used by British people to make something vaguer. The sense of humor, too, was a barrier to fitting in.

“When it was raining, people would say, ‘What lovely weather,’” she says with a laugh. “I couldn’t get the sarcasm. I thought, ‘What are you talking about?’”

Yet, once Kotani grasped the United Kingdom’s penchant for irony and dark comedy, she fell in love with it. Having never experienced anything like it in Japan — where, she says, “comedy is comedy, and horror is horror” — she found the fusion “magical.”

After years spent devouring hours of British comedy shows and sitcoms, Kotani started her long-held dream of writing a sitcom. Then she had a light-bulb moment: Why not try delivering the jokes herself?

Although scared at the thought of doing standup, or even public speaking, she persevered by reminding herself that if it didn’t go well, no one would need to know.

But it did go well. As it turned out, Kotani’s insightful take on the cultural differences between Japan and the United Kingdom proved hilarious.

Following her debut in 2014, Kotani shot to fame in 2015, when she was named “One to Watch” by Timeout and scooped the BBC Radio New Comedy Award. Competing against more well-known talent and becoming the first Japanese person to win the coveted gong was a double source of pride.

“Everyone was so funny; I thought I couldn’t win,” she says. “When (the judges) said my name, I was over the moon. (Winning) gave me confidence and the belief that nothing is impossible. If you work super hard, anything can happen.”

Today, Kotani works full time on standup, gigging across the United Kingdom and, occasionally, in Japan. Last year was particularly busy, with the debut of her show, Somosomo, at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe and a series of funny infomercials for the British Embassy Tokyo targeting Rugby World Cup fans.

Her comparisons of Japan and the United Kingdom not only have delighted English-speaking audiences across the world, but also helped her embrace her identity. She welcomes the fact that she understands and appreciates both cultures.

“In Japan, the nail that sticks up gets hammered down. I felt that,” she says. “But being in the U.K. for 15 years, I now enjoy my individuality. I’ve found my voice. I enjoy my uniqueness and enjoy exploring what I think or how I feel. Doing comedy and being in Britain has allowed me to do that.”

Although Kotani says being funny will always be top priority when she writes her material, she also sees standup as an opportunity to share details about her native and adopted cultures. She spends a lot of time doing research and thinking about how and why experiencing a different culture has put her own into sharp focus. The outcome, she hopes, is a show with “many layers” that can go deeper than surface-level observations.

With preparation, travel and gigs, Kotani’s schedule is packed, but she has embraced the United Kingdom’s approach to work–life balance. While an office worker in Tokyo she never heard anyone suggest going out to see a comedy show at 7:30 p.m. on a weeknight because it was understood that everyone would still be working. In the United Kingdom, however, people enjoy doing something after work, like taking in a show, which has allowed her to think about work in a new light.

Thanks to her profession, observing and analyzing people, Kotani is conscious of her changing attitudes to British culture since her arrival. She recalls her first summer in London, when slightly warmer days brought friends and neighbors out onto the streets in T-shirts and flip-flops, much to her surprise. Now she understands their actions and does the same, she says with a laugh, explaining that, during British summer time, “tomorrow might be cold so we have to enjoy today.”

Over the years, she has also developed a soft spot for one of her previous points of cultural confusion — “ish.”

“I overheard a conversation where one person asked the other if they worked over the weekend. The person replied, ‘Yeah, ish.’ I love that,” she says. “Now I understand and feel comfortable in this ‘ish’ culture. I really live here now. I really enjoy being in Britain.”

Describing herself as lucky to have found a passion in comedy, she hopes that more people in Japan can explore their interests, to find something they love and have a go at it, just like she has done.

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