The Art of Small Talk (or “How Living in Japan has Turned Me into a Total Weirdo”)

Me having a basic English conversation

Being back in Amerrica for the first time in eight years has certainly been an eye-opening experience in many ways. It’s been great to be back in a country (or at least a hometown) where the stars aren’t completely non-existant at night and traffic congestion and packed trains and light pollution and regular polution and fifty white haired dudes hacking up a lung in full business suits aren’t just parts of daily life.

I’ve been living in Japan for essentially all of my adult life with the exception of a week’s vacation in Hawai’i and being back in California over the last month plus has made me realize just how much my life as an expat in Japan (despite being a citizen) has turned me into a complete and total weirdo (this is in addition to the many other ways I was a total weirdo before moving across the Pacific Ocean after college). One subtle and yet important category where I realize being in Japan for the better part of a decade has affected me is the ever so crucial “small talk.”

In my various vocations ranging from when I was a plain English teacher new to Japan and later on as a translator, fixer, and “English teacher to the stars*”, I’ve often stressed the importance of knowing how to make small talk as a key step in achieving fluency in a secondary language. Sure, their pronunciation might not be perfect but they could at least feign attention as some client or the other would tell them about a vacation they had to the Balkans or whatever topic rich powerful people tend to talk about when they get together.

“Know how to hold a basic conversation about nothing in particular and you’ll sound like a fluent English speaker,” I’d always tell my students with abundant confidence. This prescribed fluency of course would mostly consist of just being able to ask basic follow up questions.

*Mostly B-Listers and behind the scenes guys

“I went to the zoo yesterday.”
“Oh yeah? Why?”

Sure, they would run the risk of sounding like a cop in the midst of a really really stupid interrogation but at least they’d be talking. And that would make them sound fluent. Or so I’d tell them.

But being back in America for a month has sorta taught me that being a truly fluent speaker is more than that…

That’s right, today I realized that I am no longer fluent in English, the language I grew up speaking.

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Life Updates (Again) -Flying Internationally in the time of COVID-19 and rueing the Olympics

Sleepless in Sacramento.

Well hello there. I’m curently writing this from the bed of my parents’ guest bedroom in Sacramento, California.

“But Stephen,” you say, befuddled but only a teensy little bit while you feign interest, “I thought that this was a blog/site about your life in Japan!”

Yes, well, I’ve been in America for the last month and a half and only feel a little guilty about it. Sometime around mid-April in Tokyo, things started to look a bit gloomy in Japan. Vaccination efforts were fully underway in California while Japan still seemed intent on doing it’s typical “Nihonjinron” thing and asking the stupid questions no one else dares ask like “Do these vaccines work on Japanese people?” (As if there are no Asian people in any of the countries where vaccination drives were in full effect) and “How long can you force people to ganbatte for the sake of the Olympics?”

COVID cases were reaching a critical tupping point in Osaka and rising in Tokyo, prompting the priime minister to declare yet another flaccid state of emergency, this time with additional special “Don’t sell alcohol at your restaurants please” provisions. So I did what any self-respecting coward/holder of a US passport would do and jumped ship (temporarily but we’ll get to that in a bit). Booking a ticket on the first flight out of Haneda Airport that was landing in the general vicinity of somewhere I could actually go, I hit up my local PCR test clinic (there was miraculously an open slot at the precise right time for someone looking to catch an international flight in the coming hours), hastily taught my Japanese grandparents how to use FaceTime, apologized profusely to my comedy partner, and, within two days of booking, was on a redeye flight from Tokyo to San Francisco.

Several things that stuck with me about travelling internationally from one of Asia’s major transportation hubs in the middle of a global superpandemic:

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“What about your career in showbiz?” – Working as a low level entertainer during COVID-19 in Japan

It’s day two of my new “write more crap!” mindset and, I’ve gotta tell ya, I’ve run out of things to tell ya.

In case you’re just emerging from a long medically-induced coma or living in the COVID-free paradise of New Zealand, the world has been in the grips of a raging pandemic over the last year, which isn’t really conducive to a lifestyle full of things for a random dude to write about on his site that no one reads.

Sure, Japan has thankfully avoided the full brunt of the pandemic but I’ve tried to my part to stay inside, wear a mask, and interact with as few people as possible. (In my defense, this was pretty much my strategy pre-pandemic as well.) The furthest I’ve traveled in the past year is probably my aforementioned long-ass trip to the Chiba countryside for a TV thing and even that was only an hour away by freeway. My travels within Tokyo itself have been just as limited, which is to say I can pretty much count the number of times I have rode the train in the last year on my fingers alone.

Really one of the best parts of this entire situation (if pandemics can even have good parts) has been the long walks I get to take on the abandoned Tokyo streets at night. Sure, it’s night so you wouldn’t expect many people out and about anyways but in the before times, an uncrowded Tokyo street was still crowded by normal human being standards. Now though? Pure solitude. And now I can laugh at dumb podcasts while walking without having to worry about drunk old salarymen giving me the stinkeye.

“But what about your career in showbiz, Stephen?” you ask, sleepily feigning interest as you read this while taking a poop.

Ah, good question! Let me see…

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Things you learn during a hellish 18-hour Japanese TV shoot

It has come to my attention that some people think my writing “doesn’t suck” or is even, as someone put it, “good”. You’d think I’d take that as a hint that I should write more often and consistently. (If I had an editor, they would probably tell me that often and consistently both sorta mean the same thing in this context and that a proper writer would never drop a ‘sorta’ into their work.) Hell, it’s almost been a year (the start of COVID-19!) since my last post (in which I promised to showcase some of those much ballywhoed Seventh Generation of Japanese Comedy members in my next post but then summarily never go around to it) and to tell you the truth, I don’t think I got enough riding juice in me to squirt out all over this keyboard on a consistent basis (is that how sex/writing metaphors work?).

But look out world! Stephen was on a hellishly long 18 hour shoot for a TV show segment that he’ll probably be cut out of and he’s got some things to say!

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So What the Hell IS Manzai Anyways?

Don’t tell anyone now but this is apparently “real” manzai.

When we last left off, we were talking about the rise of a new batch of Japanese comedy stars, dubbed by the media as the Seventh Generation of Japanese Comedy, a term determined more by savvy marketers than by any actual generational shift in how comedy is crafted in Japan.

I had originally planned on introducing some of the “top” members of this “new” group in a new post but while writing it, I had a long and deep conversation with my podcast co-host and actual Japanese comedy researcher Nick about manzai and its various evolutionary shifts as a comedy form. More specifically, we spoke about the act of performing manzai in the era of remote lives and plastic shields aimed at preventing the spread of COVID-19. (Side note, it was a great and really deep conversation about the craft of being a manzai comedian that probably only five or six people in the entire world would probably enjoy hearing.)

A long long time ago, Yoshimoto attempted to introduce the world to manzai via a Netflix “documentary” that I still have crazy stress nightmares about being in. In it, we said that manzai was one mic, two people, and the “Japanese Dream” (Note: I really wasn’t lying about those stress nightmares.). But is that really true? In the four years since then and in the last several months, I’ve given this idea a lot of thought.

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The Comedy Landscape in 2020 Japan – The Seventh Owarai Generation and the Great Corona Pause

The “New” Generation of Comedians appearing on Ametalk

As pretty much any returning reader to this blog knows, I am an “owarai geinin” in Japan. Why don’t I just call myself a comedian? Because the more and more time I spend in the Japanese entertainment industry, the more I’ve come to understand that comedians and geinin are two completely different categories of roles/people entirely.

With the novel coronavirus pretty much putting everything on hold everywhere in the world, now is the perfect time to take of stock of how the Japanese entertainment world has changed or shifted over the last couple of years.

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Keeping it Corona

I’d rather be alive and broke than dead and still in a functioning economy. In recent days as this whole new reality, this bizarre world of social distancing and quarantines and complete and total lockdowns, this thought has become a light sort of mantra, the general idea being that the economic sacrifice of shutting down restaurants, offices, and retail outlets to quell the spread of this new deadly virus (the result, I always finding myself thinking, of some dude somewhere in China deciding eating undercooked bat meat was a good idea) would be worth it in the sheer number of lives saved. Japan, it turns out, seems to operating under the complete opposite doctrine.

Dumb people DO exist in Japan.

Really I’d compare living in current bizzaro state-of-emergency-in-name-only Japan after watching things unfold (badly, it should be said) around the world to watching Jaws and knowing that there’s a giant rabid shark (can sharks get rabies?) swimming in the water where those teenagers are gonna try to get it on. Since Prime Minister Abe declared a State of “Emergency” earlier this week, it’s become abundantly clear that what he had in mind lies somewhere between an “Emergency” in name only and some oddball reinforcement of the tried-and-true nihonjinron concept of Japan being safe from the worst of the coronavirus outbreak simply by being Japan. Yes, it is the 21st century and, yes, just like the rest of the world, Japan is still being run by morons.

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Long time no see…

Happy Thanksgiving, Merry Christmas, Happy New Year, and whatever other holiday greeting I forgot about in between.

Sorry guys, I’ve been really busy and I’m sorry to say that this blog has kinda been at the bottom of my list of priorities.  I have been showing up on the Big in Japan podcast a lot of late and have been on Twitter and Instagram if that’s the sort of stuff you’re into.

 

I’ve been busy going back and forth to Osaka helping prep the big show for the grand opening of Cool Japan Park Osaka.  Besides that, I’ve been busy with a bunch of miscellaneous translation jobs and English lessons and that’s just on the non-creative side.

My comedy career has always been a bit of a rocky road but more good than bad of late.  Oh I also happened to form a trio (something that somehow was the top entertainment news story in Japan last night).

 

不思議なタンバリン!! 宣材写真.jpg

 

Fushigi na Tambourine!!.  We’ll see how this goes.

I’ve Been Busy: Big in Japan, King of Conte, and All the English Classes in Between

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Like a nesting doll, only bald and lifeless.

I know, I know.  Long time no see.

In my defense, I’ve been busy with stuff.  My career as a comedian hasn’t exactly been amazing or anything but I’ve gotten increased work behind the scenes with English logistical stuff (surprisingly, or perhaps not, almost no one at one of the biggest entertainment companies in Japan speaks English) and teaching English lessons to company employees, spouses, et cetera.

It’s sho race (comedy contest) season in Japan and this year, my comedy duo somehow made it to the quarterfinals of King of Conte, a yearly contest to find Japan’s best sketch comedians.  Thanks to a variety of inter-agency political issues, we wound up having to go on first but it was an educational experience nonetheless and there was much rejoicing (and my comedy partner apparently dropping 100,000 yen, a thousand bucks, on celebratory bottles of champagne with his friends).

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Meanwhile, I (and Nick and Ann) have been busy building up Big in Japan, launching a Patreon, expanding our podcast content, and, perhaps biggest of all, working on the launch of our new online variety show with the alternative idol group NECRONOMIDOLStarting mid-September, the Witching Hour will be broadcast live every Monday (Japanese time) at 12 PM, with highlights of the show being edited and posted on Necronomidol’s official Youtube page.  Thanks to agency restrictions, I will not be appearing on the show (at least regularly) but I will be directing and producing it in addition to putting together most of the script.  This has, obviously, been a very time consuming process.

 

While I haven’t had and probably won’t have going forward much time to update the blog, I have been attempting to post more on instagram and always talk about my comings and goings on the Big in Japan podcast.