For Reina Saiki, 28, the world is her oyster.
The Ivy leaguer who studied counterterrorism and Arabic at Brown and Harvard universities had been given chances to work for the CIA and FBI. With interning experience at the Clinton Foundation and Interpol, she could have taken any job to fulfill her goal of making the world a better place.
But Saiki chose something unfathomable for someone of her background: The U.S.-born and-bred Saiki became a comedian in Japan, where her parents are from.
Now she just goes by Reina.
“Within the CIA, the FBI or Interpol, you are just a really tiny cog of a super complex machine in which one person is never going to be able to do anything significant,” said the comedian, who grew up speaking Japanese. “But now if I can increase my name value, I can deliver messages that might change the world in a more significant way, which I would not be able to do at the FBI or the CIA.”
Her unusual background was immediately noticed by Japanese TV stations and she is seen as an up-and-coming owarai geinin (comedian). But rather than doing skits, she mostly serves as a commentator who offer detailed explanations about the U.S. presidential election and counterterrorism.
Reina might be a good fit. Japanese comedians dream of taking the helm of the owarai (comedy) industry and hosting a number of variety shows in their own name. But nowadays, the ability to make people laugh is not enough to survive: Comedians have to be versatile.
Some of the comedians who graduate from top-tier Japanese universities are highly sought-after commodities. Japanese seem to be fascinated by the contrasts presented when highly educated people do and say things that are silly, or the other way around. They can be used as commentators or even anchors on serious news programs to push up anemic ratings. TV stations even produce quiz shows where those with elite diplomas can compete to show off their intelligence.
To be sure, Reina isn’t the first highly educated American comedian to hit Japan’s shores. Patrick Harlan, who also went to Harvard, has already established a foothold in the industry.
But her about-face career change made a lot of Japanese think. Some suspect (maybe jokingly) that she is an undercover agent posing as a comedian, while others questioned the authenticity of her background, especially after a Japanese magazine recently debunked TV celebrity Sean McArdle Kawakami’s claim that he earned an MBA from Harvard.
“I had to submit the copies of my diplomas and offer letters to show that my background is real,” Reina said as she showed the documents to The Japan Times, confirming she graduated from Brown and Harvard.
Reina said the 9/11 attacks changed her life.
“To have something like that so close to home, it was just really deeply shocking,” said Reina, who was then a 13-year-old junior high schooler in New Jersey, just a 40-minute train ride from Wall Street, aspiring to become a neurosurgeon.
“I just felt that I had to do something.”
So instead of pursuing a career in medicine, she went to Brown University to study counterterrorism. The fact that she looks Japanese but speaks multiple languages, including French, Arabic and Persian, made her an attractive candidate for the CIA: Reina said the agency offered her a job after graduation while she was interning for the Clinton Foundation.
But the secretive nature of the agency made her think twice about that career. CIA officers can only reveal their activities to close family members.
“I am the type of person who wants to talk about issues. I did not feel that it was a good fit,” she said. “I had my doubts as to whether I wanted to risk my life to do something cool but couldn’t talk about it with anyone.”
So she went to Harvard to continue her global security studies with an emphasis on the Middle East. While at Harvard, she also had an internship at the U.S. office of Interpol, where she was referred for a position at the FBI.
But then came a turning point. She failed the final polygraph test.
“I’d been dedicating a lot of my life to counterterrorism. I could not think about any other career choices,” Reina said. “Failing that polygraph was the excuse I needed to say . . . I can use my knowledge but also have a good time . . ., and be able to tell my friends and family what I am doing.”
Then she came to Japan to seek out opportunities in comedy.
Although she left her counterterrorism dream behind, her comedy skits revolve around it.
In one, she poses as a television reporter in a shopping mall but jokes that her interest is not in the shops and restaurants, but the closed-circuit TV system instead.
Still, in stark contrast to U.S. norms, it remains unclear whether the Japanese comedy industry can embrace her politics-heavy background.
While political satire is an unspoken taboo on Japanese TV, it is common for American comedians like John Stewart or Stephen Colbert to mock politicians and political parties with all manner of jokes.
The well-known comic duo Bakusho Mondai once confided they had to delete part of their skit about politicians because NHK thought it was too political. Legendary comedian Kinichi Hagimoto also said in a recent Asahi Shimbun article that a joke he made about then-Prime Minister Eisaku Sato had to be deleted from the pre-recorded TV show.
While she has naturally tried to draw parallels between the U.S. election campaign and Japanese politics, Reina said she was told not to do that on Japanese TV.
“As an American, we grow up on that and that’s how we learn about politics. So the disinterest that a lot of younger people here have for politics has to do with the fact that they do not really connect to it in any sort of way, whereas we grew up on it,” Reina said.
Unlike other comedians who seek to control the industry, Reina does not seem to be obsessed about winning prestigious contests to gain fame. Instead, she said she wants to concentrate on not limiting herself to just one opportunity.
“I want to use this as a stepping stone for other different opportunities that I might otherwise not have,” Reina said.
In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.