The One Week Experiment

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.

The latest episode. Just for poops’n’teehees.

I’m at a crossroads (again).

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.

“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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Stephen Starts a Diary: May 12th

5/12 Saturday

“What do you do on your days off?”

It’s a question that people ask more often than not, blissfully unaware that as a brokeass young comedian, I have no days off. 

Today for example, was a “day off” where I had no official work but rather spent the day with my comedy partner working on stuff for our act at a local park.  The weather was great, the stuff we were coming up with was coming along well, I got beaned in the back of the head with some kid’s baseball.

I don’t know if it qualifies as work but I certainly don’t feel like I had a day off.

PS, even though it’s probably the city-est city in the world, Tokyo still has its charming places of greenery.

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Stephen Starts a Diary: May 11th

5/11 Friday

Some lives are better than others.  That’s just a matter of fact in this world of punchlines and acts.  The show we performed at today in Ikebukuro may have been the worst I can remember.

It’s not like we bombed or anything (we didn’t) but the overall atmosphere of the night when combined with the zombie-like audience and harried MC made what should have been a relatively relaxed night to try out new material into a night ripped straight out of a horror story.

I should backtrack and explain a bit.  As far as a young Yoshimoto comedian is concerned, there are two kinds of lives:  jimusho official lives and those that are not.  Today’s live, despite the incredibly demanding people who put it on, was one of the later.  

The theater where we performed, located a few minutes from Ikebukuro Station in north central Tokyo, isn’t exactly brand new and, it being cramped and dark, with room for maybe 40 people at the most, no one can really blame the over 60 people who came for not exactly being in a laughing mood.  That said, the last time I performed in front of an audience as listless and unresponsive as the one we encountered tonight was probably back in comedy school when the instructor told everyone not to laugh before class even began.  Continue reading

Stephen Starts a Diary: May 10th

5/10 Thursday

I’ve been seeing a lot of head office of late.   With my new part time job and increased first-thing-in-the-morning English lessons, I’ve spent far more time sitting around the offices of the biggest comedy entertainment company in Japan than I have actually being a comedian for the company itself.

I don’t really mind.  I get more money doing menial office tasks and teaching English than I do with the all-too-often pay-to-play set up afforded to young comedians in the labyrinthian Yoshimoto Creative Agency bureaucracy.  Today after my Yoshimoto work ended, I went to my ramen job.  I’d like to say that I enjoy doing it but it turns out I enjoy eating ramen more than I do slinging noodles and taking orders from drunk assholes til the crack of dawn.  Considering how much I’ve been working at Yoshimoto recently, I don’t really need to be working that job anymore.  But (a) the ramen is good and (b) I live in constant fear that my cushy sit on my ass at a desk all day doing absolutely nothing gig is going to go up in flames sooner rather than later. Continue reading