For Those Non-Japanese Who Feel "Homesick" For Japan

The Bravery of the Comedy of Nippon Erekiteru Rengo

This past week I was able to catch the filming of a New Year’s comedy special at the Asakusa Engei Hall, a site I visit often for my research (I’m a PhD student). It was a great show that was broadcast later that day on TV Tokyo. It featured many comedians that rarely perform in Asakusa and it was well worth getting up and leaving early to be part of the standing room only audience. One of the featured comedic duos in the show, Nippon Erekiteru Rengo, could be called the hottest new duo of the year. The phrase from this female duo’s famous skit, “Dame yo. Dame! Dame!” won the award for phrase of the year in the media. Their success is really quite puzzling and their brand of comedy is hard to describe. I guess I’ll let their comedy speak for itself. Below is a clip of the skit and characters that flung them into the spotlight.

As you can see their comedy is certainly unique, at times bordering on bizarre and unsettling. Still, for some reason I liked the Akemi character and their popularity shows that I’m not alone. Why do I think their comedy is brave? Back to comedy show I attended yesterday, the duo performed a skit as different characters on television with a national audience and in front of a live audience that is used to more orthodox comedy. Instead of playing it safe and perhaps performing as Akemi and the old man once again they chose to perform one of the more strange, non-sensical skits I have ever seen with a bizarre story involving a Filipino lover, her politician boyfriend (played by a poor excuse of a dummy) and his wife. The reception of the skit was mixed and some of the audience and the hosts of the show were shocked a bit by the accidental murder of the dummy part way through. Still, the duo stayed true to their bizzare nature and refused to compromise their style despite the national attention.

Nippon Erekiteru Rengo performs on a New Years comedy special.

Recently, after being forced to appear on countless shows as Akemi and the old man, performing a variation on the same skit, Nippon Erekiteru Rengo have finally been able to test out other characters and skits on television. The reception to the skits I would say have been mixed but in a way that doesn’t really matter. The concensious is that Nippon Erekiteru Rengo is another in a long line of comedians that hit it big out of the blue with a unique character and phrase, only to disappear quickly when the public tires of them (one industry source estimated this period as 8 months).

If this is true the duo has a small window of national attention to show audiences what they are about. Nippon Erekiteru Rengo’s brand of comedy, I feel, is too strange to sustain mainstream popularity. This isn’t to say it’s not funny or lacks comedic value. It’s just too unusual and at times unsettling for most audiences. The success of the Akemi-chan character and the “Dame yo. Dame! Dame!” phrase was like capturing lightning in a bottle. Perhaps no one is more aware of this fact than the duo themselves. That is why I think it is so brave that they are staying true to their brand of comedy and let their true colors fly while they still have a chance on television. In the long term, this duo will likely disappear from television and return to their life of performing live in comedy theaters making this their biggest chance to build their fan base and attract them to their live shows with the future in mind. So here’s to Nippon Erekiteru Rengo! Enjoy your time in the sun and let your freak flag fly!

New Kyoto Favorite: Otagi Nenbutsu-Ji Temple

Recently I made a short trip down to Kyoto for three days with my wife. I have been to Kyoto several times and love it but get tired of going to the same famous places. To combat boredom each time I go down there I try to see at least one place that I haven’t seen before. This time, besides visiting Arashiyama for the first time, we were able to visit Otagi Nenbutsu-Ji Temple. A ten minute or so bus ride from in front Arashiyama station (Randen), this temple features 1200 unique figures of Rakan (disciples of Shaka, the founder of Buddhism according to their website). While not very big compared to some of the more famous temples and shrines in Kyoto it was great to see all the different statues and get away from all the tourists. If you looked up could find statues with guitars, drinking, boxing gloves, sunglasses and more. Below are some of my favorites.

My Rakugo Debut! Introducing Kōjiya Heiyū!

You can now call me Heiyū (hey you!)

You can now call me Heiyū (hey you!)

Recently, after taking a three month course on the traditional Japanese comedic storytelling art of rakugo I was lucky enough to perform for the first time on stage as part of the NTV Rakugo Juku 13th Class Show. Performing the story “Tenshiki” under my rakugo name of Kōjiya Heiyū (麹家へい遊)(sounds like “hey you!”) I was able to entertain an audience at the Nagatani Theater in Shinjuku. It was a nerve racking but rewarding experience that capped three months of studying, memorizing and practicing a 15 minute comedic story in Japanese. Along the way I was able to make many new friends from a variety of backgrounds in the form of my juku classmates. Despite a couple small mistakes I was able to save my best performance for the stage and end the course on a high note. Now I look forward to performing this story somewhere else as well as learn new stories an try my hand at rakugo in English. Check back here for more about this as it develops!

Japan Ice Hockey Wins Again, No One Notices

A Team Japan player at a past exhibition game

A Team Japan player at a past exhibition game

The headline may be a bit on an exaggeration but in the few days team Japan has been doing unusually well at the 2014 World Championships Division I in South Korea and you would be hard pressed to find any mention of their results on the news or Internet. Earlier this year with the women’s team making their first appearance in the Olympics since 1998 there was a welcome amount of coverage devoted to them. Unfortunately the mens team is far from making the Olympics and ice hockey in Japan is a very minor sport. Still, it’s great to see the men’s team doing well finally. Team Japan started out the tournament with a surprising 2-1 win over Slovenia, a team that made their Olympic debut this year. In Slovenia’s defense they were missing several players from the Olympic team but never the less the outcome should be lauded. Continue reading

Entrance Ceremonies: Looking Back and Forward

Beginning of my last step!

Beginning of my last step!

Waking up on the morning of the 2013 fall matriculation ceremony for ICU it was hard to look back on how much has changed since I attended the same ceremony two years earlier (for my Masters). In 2011 I had just returned to Japan for the first time in almost seven years and had arrived only a day or two before the ceremony. In fact, the first time I set foot on the campus was that morning. So much at time was unknown to me. I was returning to school for the first time in years and going for my first Masters. I was also living in an area of Tokyo that I was unfamiliar with (in a dorm like set up). In the following two years I would make countless new friends, meet many famous comedians in my research, fall in love with Asakusa and even have the chance to appear in television commercials and a movie as an extra. But on that morning I came alone, not knowing anyone. I didn’t even bother to get someone to take a picture of me with the sign at the ceremony entrance.

Flash forward to present to the morning of September 3rd, 2013 and it’s amazing how much has changed. Of course I now have a Masters degree under my belt and am on my way to a PhD. I also now live closer to the school in my own place. Most importantly I have someone very special in my life and the future in Japan looks bright (although certainly challenging). I can’t wait to get started again!

On Newsstands Now! My First Published Article!

Manzai on the cover of Metropolis!

Manzai on the cover of Metropolis!

This week I was happy to see that my article on the Toyokan in Asakusa and the charms of Tokyo manzai was finally published in the magazine Metropolis! Not only was it my first published article (aside from one academic journal) but I was happy to see the it was the cover feature as well. If you are in the Tokyo area please pick it up. The original article was actually much longer but had to be edited down to around 1500 words. In the future I may release the entire version on this blog. For those who would like to see it online here is the article. The issue is also available in a PDF version here.


Heatwaves and Thunderstorms: Crazy Weather in Japan

For the last few days the summer weather in Japan has been getting even more extreme than usual. Since last Friday or so temperatures have jumped to new highs reaching as high as 41.7 C (107 F) in Kochi. In Tokyo it’s gotten as high as 40 degrees C (104 F). Mix in with that very high humidity and you have a hellish time. To make matters even worse for the last two days Tokyo (specifically the Mitaka-Koganei-Fuchu area) have been hit but violent sudden thunder storms. I have never since and heard lightning and thunder so close in my life. It was so dramatic I took a little risk and filmed it outside. The video doesn’t capture the lightning as much as I would like but the thunder is there in full force. If you heard such sound effects in a movie you would think it was too much or fake. Take a listen.

Tigers vs. Giants: the Best Rivalry in Japanese Baseball

Last week, thanks to the generosity of a Yomuri Giants season ticket holder, I was able to see my Hashin Tigers take on the Giants. The two teams have a natural rivalry with the Tigers being the most popular team of the Kansai region (Osaka, Kobe, Kyoto, etc.) and the Giants being the most popular team of the Kanto region (Tokyo, Saitama, Kanagawa, etc.) if not all of Japan.The Giants and Tigers came into the game in 1st and 2nd in the Central League and the game was not surprisingly sold out with over 45,000 fans on hand. The Tigers scored in the first and held on to a 1-0 lead until the 9th inning when they added 3 more runs including two on a home run by Arai Takahiro. Besides the game itself it was fun to see all the interesting Hanshin fans in their unusual Tigers fashion. Despite being a home game for the Giants the Tigers fans sure made their presence felt, filling approximately 40% of the Tokyo Dome and cheering loudly for their team. Below is a short video of the fans in the 9th plus the two-run home run by Arai.

A Surprise at a Local Summer Festival!

The saving grace of the horribly humid summers in Japan are the festivals that pop up all over the country during the season. Some are quite big in scale but a few days I noticed that the area in front of a little local train station was having festival (called matsuri in Japanese). Not expecting much I still decided to stop by on the way home on Sunday afternoon to soak up the atmosphere and maybe buy some yakisoba. Boy, was I surprised when I got off the train to notice that a pretty famous magic duo, the Napoleons, were performing on stage! I was shocked to see a duo that I had watched for years in TV in Japan at such a little festival. I made sure to take some pictures (I ran home for my camera) of this rare chance. After the show I was even able to get a shot with them! Below are some highlights of the festival with the Napoleons.

A surprisingly fun time just minutes from home.

A Week to Remember

In a whirlwind of events my June ended with a huge bang. Here’s how it turned out:

Monday, Tuesday: Handed in the bound version of my masters thesis! Worked for ten hours at the part-time job, returned home to prepare my Masters thesis presentation (for Wednesday).

Wednesday: Presented my masters thesis on the experience of female comedians in contemporary Japan successfully to my peers. It lasted about one hour and gave me many hints for what I would have to work on before I presented at an academic conference on Saturday.

Thursday: Zoomed up to my old haunt in Saitama and had my old barber cut my hair especially for the next days graduation. As always he did a great job. After the cut I was off to Ikebukuro for some last minute omiyage (souvenir) shopping. Than, an unexpected invitation by a nice lady and I took a chance and went to Ebisu to meet her. We instead had coffee in Hanzomon and it was a short but special time.

Finally, I met up with some comedian friends and we took in the Manzai Shinjin Taishō. A yearly contest to choose the top young comedian duo. It was great. Every duo had their own unique style and brought down the house. Really a funny show. (Japanese article on the event here) After talking with some comedian friends after the show and thanking them for their help with my thesis I was even able to receive a couple of the left over bento (box lunch) from the show (meant for performers). They tasted great and were perfect for the broke me.

Friday: The big event of the week and one of the biggest of my life, my graduation from the masters program at ICU. Although the ceremony was tedious at times it could not overshadow the accomplishment of getting my masters from a Japanese university a true dream of mine. It was a blur of pictures, congratulations, sweat (hot robe!), and food. Not quite as emotional an experience as my BA graduation but wonderful in a different way. At night, as others partied I worked to prepare a presentation for the Asia Studies Conference Japan on Saturday.

Saturday: It was off to J.F. Oberlin University for the conference and presentation. This was held a special meaning for me as not only my first conference presentation but a return to “Obirin”, the place where I first touched down in Japan as an exchange student some 16 years ago(!). After taking a nice stroll around the campus and snapping some pictures of the new buildings I returned to the conference and prepared to present.

The presentation limited to only around twenty minutes went well as I didn’t use my notes, speaking without a prepared speech. The room was full, the audience seemed interested and several questions were posed at the end. A great ending to my illustrious return to “Obirin.” (J.F. Oberlin University was called Obirin while I studied there in the late 90s)

With not much time to spare I was taking the train to Mitaka to have a final dinner with the Rotary club whose scholarship made my second year of grad school possible. A couple hours of good food, drink and expressions of gratitude later I was finally home, with the trip home on my mind.

Sunday: With a late take-off time I spent the day cleaning and packing for my trip home to the US, my first time home since returning to Japan some two years ago. Unable to contain my excitement I made out for Haneda early, much earlier than needed, arriving six hours before my flight. An extremely busy week ended with some shopping at the cool Haneda Edo shopping center and ah, well let’s just keep the rest secret. I have to have some private moments don’t I? Finally I was off to my home town after a monumentally fun and memorable week.