Hello there everyone! Surprised to see another blog post so soon? Me too!
After a year plus of total inactivity, even one post a week may seem like a rapid fire rate but I assure you, I am trying to be as sustainable in terms of my miniscule amount of stamina as I can be.
So what’s this post then? Well, for the last week plus, I’ve been posting daily “podcasts” on the old Small in Japan YouTube channel about, in a very tangental sense, the latest news in Japan.
Yeah, your boy is hopping on the bandwagon and talking about hot button news issues like COVID-19 and government corruption and natural disasters (“Finally! Another chance to listen to an ill-informed thirty-something-year-old straight guy’s opinions on the news,” I’m sure you’re all saying as you pump your fists into the air triumphantly.)
But there’s a catch here. I’m only getting my news for this daily cast via the News tab on LINE, the most widespread messaging app in Japan. For the most part, I have major issues with relying on an AI algorithm to determine anything in my life. However, the experience of reading the news as brought to me by whatever formula LINE uses to generate interest in the ‘news’ has been somewhat enlightening.
Hello again, from a dinky, dark Showa-era concrete apartment in Tokyo. It’s been a year but I’m finally back in Japan. It wasn’t my original intention to spend an entire year with my parents in America but that’s what happened.
A lot can change in a year but, much to my bemusement, not much did in Japan. Embroiled in possibly the worst heatwave in its recorded history (along with other places in the country experiencing record breaking rain), Tokyo continues to be staunchly pro-mask despite repeated attempts by government officials to convince citizens it’s alright to take them off when no one else is around outside. That’s right, coming from America, where it seemed 95% of the country up and decided to pretend the last two years didn’t happen, it’s been shocking to find myself in a society where people are willing to give themselves heatstroke in the 100+ degree weather rather than remove their masks.
That isn’t to say that Japan is some COVID-free utopia, with Japan seeing the highest reported case rates in the world (lots of this is simply due to Japan being one of the only places in the world to still be testing people regularly) and various offices and services having to cut back on services due to all their employees.
Live show theaters seem to be back up to full capacity (though I haven’t been in one since I’ve been back) and people are getting sloppily drunk at izakayas again (Dudes are passing out in the gutters in front of train stations again). The only thing missing seems to be the tourists.
Sure, as of June 10th, Japan was “officially” opened up to tourists again but that came with serious caveats, the main one being that they could only enter the country as part of a guided and heavily surveiled group tour.
Is it weird being one of the few people in Japan with a “different” face again after a year in California, where everyone is generally “different” by Japanese standards? You bet. Thankfully, with it being as hot as it is (one thing I didn’t miss during my year away: the freaking humidity), I don’t have many excuses to leave the apartment and meet the prying eyes of my increasingly isolationist neighbors.
It also helps that I pretty much have absolutely no work in the pipelines right now.
As I’m writing this, I’ve been back in Japan for about two month and aside from some low-key translation work and one Yoshimoto compliance seminar (drugs are bad, kids!), my schedule has been completely blank.
My comedy duo broke up last year (hard to perform together when one of the members is overseas) and a couple of big projects sorta wrapped up for me over the last couple of months, which has led to my entire life being enveloped by a sort of general malaise since coming back to Japan. I’m no longer a fresh-faced precocious youngster or a new “Gaijin” talent on the scene, which does limit some of my opportunities compared to before I left for America. (Just in general, the Japanese entertainment industry seems to have pulled back from the ‘fetishization’ of foreign talent as a thing during the last couple of years of the pandemic and some of the guys who came in after me are really good at what they do.) In other words, I’m here in career No-Man’s-Land and need to find a way out.
Yeah, this all sounds like a whole lot of me complaining about a whole lot of nothing but all this alone time has give me nothig but time to think (also immense writer’s block).
I obviously can’t just keep doing nothing and wait for the next gig to show up on its own but at the same time, that year away from Tokyo has left me in a weird position where the connections and avenues I had access to before are gone and/or shifted.
So what choice do I have but to strike out on my own?
Here’s what’s out there/what I’m working on (or at least hoping to work on):
The Japanese History Junk Food podcast (AKA that other podcast that Nick and I were doing that absolutely no one was listening to) is back up and running and hopefully going to be on a semi-regular release schedule. Unlike before, these are probably going to be a solo endeavor from now on and are thus probably going to be more produced/stylized than they were before. I just released an episode about a Ancient Man Lookalike Contest last month and, in the coming weeks, there will be more epsiodes that will hopefully be somewhat interesting or educational (and more importanty be on a semi-regular schedule).
On the Japanese language side, the old Iruka Punch YouTube channel is now the Stephen Channel, though I’m not sure what I’m going to post on it aside from the English teaching videos random people keep telling me to make despite there already being thousands of good Japanese-language ESL videos out there. Just to give myself something to do though, this might be something I keep doing.
Before my combi broke up, we had gotten approval for an English language channel on YouTube (yes, getting approval opening up a YouTube channel is a must in the Japanese entertanment industry). While we never actually posted anything on it (even though we did actually film stuff in English), the channel’s still there for me to do whatever I want with it.
Small in Japan largely went on hiatus during the pandemic and after a discussion between the hosts, we decided to close down the old feed. (The season one episodes are up on Patreon and I’m working on getting the rest of the old episodes on there as well.) The Small in Japan YouTube Channel is still up, however, and I’m planning on posting stuff there in the interim (voice only to skirt jimusho rules about non-company sanctioned appearances) while I figure out what to do with Small in Japan. (Plus Small in Japan remains a sweet name for something.)
So yeah, this was a bit of a nothingburger of a post that took me way too much time to write (I swear this Japanese summer heat is sapping my creativity) but it was far past time for me to post an update/force myself into doing stuff by putting the plans out there in the public. We’ll see how long this lasts but it’s something, which is better than nothing. I’ve made these sorts of posts in the past. Hopefully this time, it sticks.
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.
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:
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.