Ken Tanaka: YouTube star smashes stereotypes

We tracked down Ken Tanaka, the Caucasian-Japanese star of numerous YouTube shorts parodying Asian stereotypes.

Tanaka says he was adopted by Japanese parents in the ’70s, and was only recently reunited with his long-lost twin brother, Californian actor/comedian David Ury. Despite their side-by-side appearances in videos seen by thousands, some still suspect they’re—ahem—the same person.

Why did your Japanese parents decide to adopt a Caucasian American?

In the mid-’70s, Japan had a big booming economy and it was popular for Japanese families to adopt American babies. Kind of like how American celebrities such as Madonna and Angelina Jolie adopt babies from other countries.

What was it like growing up as a white Japanese person in rural Shimane?

I lived in a very small village high in the mountains with a population of under one hundred people. Everybody had known me since I was a baby, so nobody treated me any differently than any other boy in my town. 

How is your search for your birth parents going?

It is a difficult journey, but I will never give up. 

What inspired you to begin making videos?

I met a person when I first came to Los Angeles who suggested that YouTube would be a great way for me to share my story. I had never heard of YouTube before and I had never made a video. But my friend had a camera; he showed me how to work it and how to upload videos. It’s been seven years now since my first video.

Tell us why Asian stereotypes make your videos funny.

You’re probably referring to our videos, “What Kind of Asian Are You?,” “But We’re Speaking Japanese,” and “Asian Stereotype Police.” These are all videos that question assumptions about race and identity. When we write these comedy sketches, we look for common but absurd situations that we think people will be able to identify with.

How does the response to your videos about Asian stereotypes differ in the West and Asia?

For “What Kind of Asian Are You?” we got a lot of comments from Caucasian people who were sure this could never happen in real life—and then a lot of comments from Asian people who said they experienced this kind of situation often. I think people in the West generally are more sensitive about these kinds of comedy videos.

What do you have in mind for your next video?

We just released a new video where David and I discuss Japanese jokes and David tells some jokes that I have heard from many Japanese language learners.

Tell us about your new book.

Earlier this year, my brother and I collaborated on a new book called Everybody Dies: A Children’s Book for Grown-Ups. It’s an illustrated picture book that can help grown-ups cope with the inevitable fate that awaits us all. It includes fun activities like “match the corpse to the cause of death” and a last will and testament that you can fill out. It’s fun for the whole family. 

More information on Ken Tanaka, his work and his books can be found at www.kentanakalovesyou.com

Mr. Porter “A Saturday with…Zim of Black Shadow”

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Film by Mr Antony Crook (Text by Dan Grunebaum)

They are Tokyo icons. Visit Yoyogi Park or the waterfront of Odaiba on a Saturday or Sunday and they’ll be there, rain or shine. Swivelling in leather get-ups to vintage rock blasted through portable sound systems, they’re Japan’s self-styled rockabillies.

Zim is the leader of Black Shadow, a well-known gang who dress up like 1950s rock’n’rollers. During the week, Zim is Mr Kinya Ueno and he holds down a regular nine-to-five job. But he prefers not to talk about his life Monday to Friday, for he is a man who is truly working for the weekend.

Black Shadow’s heyday was in the 1980s, when Japan experienced a retro-rock boom and American and British pop culture offered an irresistible lure of freedom to rebellious Japanese youths, who railed against a conservative society ruled by the proverb “the nail that sticks out gets hammered down”.

Zim left high school in the provinces as soon as he could and fled to Tokyo as a teenager, determined to become part of the scene. Like many who reject Japan’s corporate treadmill, his decision consigned him to a life on the margins.

But for a member of Black Shadow, being part of the gang was more than ample reward. Music and fashion provided more of a satisfying life than being one of Japan’s corporate salaryman drones ever could.

Heavily tattooed, clad in black leathers and with their “Regent” pompadour hairstyles blow-dried and styled to crazy heights, Black Shadows do what many Japanese can only dream of: express themselves. Extravagantly. Unabashedly.

Now these rock’n’rollers are growing old. Zim, now 45, has been in the gang for nearly 30 years. But teens today are into J-pop or electronic dance music. They have home-grown styles such as cosplay (dressing up in anime/ manga/ cartoon costumes) and don’t look to the West as much as Zim’s generation once did.

Still, as long as Zim can wax his Regent and shake his hips to the rock’n’roll beat, he’ll keep coming back each weekend to the place – and the people – that gave him his identity and set him apart from the mainstream; that made him and all the Black Shadows, in a word, different.

The Love Behind Anime: Patrick Galbraith’s “The Moé Manifesto”

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When it comes to Japan’s image in the global eye, kawaii—the “cute-ification” of just about everyone and everything—is a staple. However, lesser known is moe, an emphasis on the emotional response to fictional characters, as opposed to the characters themselves.

The moe phenomenon has been misrepresented and stigmatized as bizarre overseas. But Patrick Galbraith, author of The Moé Manifesto, the world’s first English book on the attraction, sets the record straight.

“Moe—which is the noun form of the verb moeru (which can mean ‘to sprout’ or ‘to burn’)—is a response to fictional characters,” explains the American author. “It has the connotation of something that gets your motor running.”

“There’s a lot of misunderstanding,” he says regarding fans of manga, anime and game. “It’s easy to look at images of Japanese men embracing pillows with their favorite characters and say, ‘Man, those guys are weird!’ It’s a joke; we laugh and move on.”

“The Moé Manifesto is an attempt to talk with people on the inside—creators, fans and critics of manga, anime and games in Japan—and get their perspective. It’s a manifesto in the sense that it’s a political statement: let’s take people and their lives seriously. Rather than point, laugh and dismiss, let’s listen to them and respect that we might not understand it immediately.”

The moe style is characterized by exaggerated features, such as unnaturally huge eyes and nonexistent mouths and noses. First used in girls’s comics, these elements were introduced to emphasize characters’s emotional responses, and were later adopted in men’s manga and anime, through which they became a standard.

“One interesting result is … ‘anti-realism.’ Cute girl characters don’t exactly look like real women. You can have characters that are attractive without any comparison to or connection to the ‘real’ thing.”

But exactly how important is sexual fantasy to moe? “I posed that question to Honda Toru,” Galbraith says of the moe guru. “He married a character from a PC game. He was attracted to her sexually, sure, but there’s something more to it. Honda describes that ‘something more’ as love.”

What surprised the author, though, was how robust the discourse on moe is in Japan. “Many of us can regonize the allure of comic book and cartoon characters, but how often do you hear people talk about marrying them—and what that might mean socially and economically? Or advocating [a] sexual orientation toward fictional characters?

“What surprised me most was how serious people took their relationships with fictional characters, which were described to me as life-saving—a reason for living, or an alternative way of life.”

Metropolis, issue 1073

It Came From Japan: Podcast brings the ‘creamiest’ J-indies to the world

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There is no lack of Japanese tunes on the web, but little of it is presented with the authority wielded by It Came From Japan. English journalist Daniel Robson and his sidekick Asuka Eiki not only offer a Japanese music-crazed perspective and inside details on what’s going on in the music scene—they also produce the only podcast that plays all-Japanese music with permission from the rights holders. We heard from Robson about interviewing the likes of Buffalo Daughter, and which bands he expects to break big in 2014.

When and why did you start ICFJ?

ICFJ started out in 2006 as a tour agency taking Japanese bands to the U.K. and later the U.S. The podcast was originally a freebie for our audience to keep them wet between tours. It turns out—who knew?—that simply submitting a song to be played on a podcast is a lot less commitment for the artists than flying halfway across the world for a show, so we’re able to expose more bands on the podcast than we can with tours. Also, as a journalist who usually describes music in text form, I love that on a podcast the songs can speak for themselves.

Tell us how you became hopelessly addicted to J-indies.

I grew up with Western punk and rock music. Then in the ’90s I retrieved a discarded Shonen Knife CD (Let’s Knife) from a friend’s dustbin and fell madly in love. By the time I became a music journalist in London I was already hooked on everything from Melt-Banana to Puffy and would interview artists like Polysics and Utada Hikaru for U.K. publications. I moved here in 2006, shortly after the first ICFJ U.K. tour, to drink from the source. Nowadays, the indie scene keeps on throwing up new surprises, while most modern mainstream J-pop (AKB48 etc.) just makes me want to throw up.

How do you go about choosing bands to present?

Everything we play is with permission from the rights holders. Some of the major labels in Japan will allow usage on podcasts on a case-by-case [basis], but independent labels make up the majority of what we play. Within that, I mostly pick songs by artists that have a timely release or overseas tour. I program the show from a journalistic perspective but heavily influenced by my own personal taste, which luckily is all over the place, so we cover a wide range: rock, punk, pop, electronic, rap and all the glorious crossovers that Japanese musicians excel at. My cohost Asuka Eiki picks some of the songs, too, and although she’s a model she’s a total metalhead. As for the interviews, I choose whatever artist is most interesting that month, with a particular emphasis on artists who will be of interest to our mostly Western listeners. And of course when ICFJ has an overseas tour coming up we feature those artists, too—all of whom are excellent, if I do say so myself.

Name three memorable ICFJ moments.

I recently interviewed the members of Cibo Matto for the show, which was a big deal because they just re-formed to release their first album in 15 years and it was miraculously not rubbish. Some other great interview moments have included observing the older/younger sibling dynamic between J-klezma sisters Charan Po Rantan, hearing the perspective of worldly Japanese artists such as Argentina-raised drummer-singer Shishido Kavka and an emotional John Lydon appearing on our post-tsunami fundraising podcast. In addition to on-air moments, I’m proud to have persuaded the Japanese government to spend money exporting contemporary artists overseas, with the Japan Rising showcase at The Great Escape festival in Brighton, England, on May 10—that one features Buffalo Daughter, Mayu Wakisaka and TarO&JirO and is going to be a real thrill.

What stands out among the feedback to ICFJ?

We get such a wide range of feedback via Twitter and Facebook that it’s hard to pinpoint specific trends, but I’m pretty sure the majority of our listeners—who are split almost equally across the U.K., North America and Japan—hate AKB48 as much as I do, which means they’re a good crowd.

How are J-indies faring worldwide?

The Japanese artists with a following overseas are not necessarily the ones who are the most popular here—overseas activity counts for a lot, which gives independent artists an advantage. And of course the rise of Twitter has allowed artists to escape Japan’s payola-driven mainstream media and reach out to the world.

Tell us which Japanese act you think is most likely to break worldwide this year and why.

I’d love to see hip-hop duo Charisma.com, hardcore band Mamadrive, pop drummer-singer Shishido Kavka and others succeed overseas, though as with any Japanese artist they’ll have to want it, because the world won’t come to them. And of course, the artists playing at Japan Rising all have a good shot, since they were selected not by us but by the bookers of The Great Escape festival, who know the U.K. market better than anyone.

Name three indispensable Japanese music podcasts and websites.

I love Nihongaku Radio, which is a podcast of Japanese music recorded in Texas by a guy who lived here for a while, Jonathan McNamara. He works in radio, so the quality is great, and he has a very specific taste for Japanese rock. Most of the other Japanese music podcasts I’ve heard have been awful, but they serve as a good example of how not to do it. Basically, we try to keep the editorial and audio quality as high as possible, to mess around but keep it tight, and to show our passion for the music while maintaining a bit of journalistic perspective so it’s not just a fanboy gush-fest.

Damo Suzuki: An improvised life

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The gyaku yunyu (reverse import) phenomenon is a familiar route for Japanese artists like The Boredoms, who remained obscure until stateside recognition brought them to the attention of a wider audience at home.

But Japan also has a coterie of artists who go abroad never to return. Counterculture hero and former vocalist for Krautrock visionaries Can, Damo Suzuki has been overseas over four decades.

“Honestly, I was just a hippy traveling with my rucksack and guitar,” Suzuki says about leaving Japan in the late 60s on a ship headed for Russia with only twenty-thousand yen to his name. Yearning for wider horizons of which he’d caught a glimpse growing up next to a US military base, a teenage Suzuki had no inkling he’d end up a counterculture icon.

But he was clearly already one of Japan’s proverbial nails that stand out. “The meaning of travel was different back then,” he says from his longtime home in Cologne, Germany. “When I left Japan I thought maybe I would never come back.”

Like for YMO star Ryuichi Sakamoto, whose years in New York have given him the distance to pillory Japan’s “nuclear village,” Suzuki’s decades abroad have given him a different perspective than most domestically based Japanese musicians. “If you are abroad you can see your country from another perspective, and are much more critical,” he says. “I can now see Japan clearly, and it’s not a place I want to live.”

Nevertheless, Suzuki returns to Japan on a frequent basis—often to perform with musicians a generation or two younger than him—and calls Tokyo’s current experimental music scene “fantastic.” He’ll be back next week to “curate” an event for Red Bull—the caffeinated beverage maker that targets young urbanites through its Red Bull Music Academy events.

Still a bearded, idealistic hippy, if wizened and transformed by his years abroad and battle with cancer, Suzuki will stage an expanded edition of his Damo Suzuki’s Network improvisational happenings.

With Red Bull’s backing, the event will see Suzuki lead a group of 25 musicians in a giant improvisation to the 1927 silent film Metropolis. Among the noted players to appear will be noise music giant Keiji Haino and Omar Rodríguez-López of Mars Volta fame. “The event will be improvised,” Suzuki tells Metropolis. “I might give some simple directions for the flow, but there will be no rehearsing.”

Suzuki tours the world creating instant musical happenings. “I travel from place to place and improvise with local musicians I’ve never met before. There’s always a good energy, because I work with open-minded people who like to do this,” he explains. “Improvisation is the best way to share energy with the audience, because no knows what will happen. Music is not an answer, it’s always a process and question. Like Laotse said, the way is the goal.”

For Suzuki, improvisation is more than a method to generate an artistic experience—it’s a means to live life to its fullest. “If you travel with a plan then you concentrate only on famous buildings or restaurants,” he notes, “but if you don’t have a plan you can have a much more creative experience.”

“If you lay in a coma once and survive, then you have another philosophy,” concludes Suzuki. “It’s very special. I had a blood transfusion and survived, so I feel every day is important.”

Cyndi Lauper: Friend of the LGBT community, friend of Japan

“The Japanese fans and companies were great people and really stuck by me,” she recalls. “When the Americans made me feel like I should crawl and fall off the edge of the earth, these people would come to me and say, ‘Please make music—we love your music.’ And these are the same people that are suffering and you think I’m going to walk away? I don’t forget easily, and I was having nightmares about the Japanese.”

Metropolis, Jul 18, 2013

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