How can learning Japanese lead to a career in comedy? When asked how they got started in show-business, most comedians cite memories of being a class clown or a longstanding interest in performance. In contrast, BJ Fox, British writer and star of the recent NHK sitcom “Home Sweet Tokyo”, traces his interest to the annual Japanese speech contest held once a year at London’s School of Oriental and African Studies. Having returned to the UK after several years in Japan, he entered the competition as a means of keeping up his Japanese. His idiosyncratic performances included an address on how corporate life retards the imagination that ended with the line “I looked at my business card and the image of Pikachu was crying tears of blood”. His unconventional recitals never won the top award, but always gained a special prize: “I would like to think they created the category for me – every year I won a vacuum cleaner”.
Fox was introduced to Japan early in life. One of the nuns at the convent school he attended from age eleven had previously been assigned to a school in the coastal city of Hamamatsu in Shizuoka Prefecture. Aged seventeen, he was chosen to come to Japan for a three-week homestay in the same place. He had already started learning Japanese from an old-fashioned textbook from the 1960s: “Cameras were referred to as shashinkis”. He returned to Shizuoka in his early twenties, as a teacher for the JET Programme (a Japanese government initiative that brings mostly native English language university graduates to teach in Japanese schools) and again later after spells in London and Singapore.
It was in Singapore that he began to become seriously interested in stand-up. He went to a gig in which a friend of his then-girlfriend was performing: “I just thought: I fancy doing that”. He had always wanted to write comics and had some of his scripts had already been made into comics in Britain. Stand-up offered a way of continuing with his writing with an added social dimension: “All my Singaporean friends are through comedy”. At that time, Singapore was gaining new prominence with as the launch-pad for such major new comics as Fakkah Fuzz, Jinx Yeo and Rishi Budhrani. The city offered numerous opportunities for Fox to learn his craft—so that when his company posted him to Tokyo he already had lots of experience.
When Fox arrived in the Japanese capital in 2016 he found the moment was right for stand-up. Increasing numbers of English-speaking foreigners led to a growing appetite for Western-style entertainment among foreigners and Japanese people alike. One major watershed was a popular performance given by the renowned American stand-up Hannibal Buress, hosted by Fox, and subsequent visits by celebrated British comedians Jimmy Carr and Eddie Izzard. When Fox entered this prospering scene, he even managed to set up one stand-up night by accident. A friend from Singapore arranged for him to meet up to talk with the manager of Brewdog in Roppongi. “For whatever reason, when I googled “Brewdog” [the other Roppongi bar] “Two Dogs Taproom” came up. So I went to “Two Dogs” and told the barman I was there to see the manager about doing a comedy show. He just said “yeah, let’s do it”. About half an hour later I got a message from “Brewdog” asking where I was”. His big break came at the English-language open mic night he set up at Good Heavens Bar, in the hipster area of Shimokitazawa, where he was approached about the series that would become Home Sweet Tokyo. He had been back in Japan for about a year: “which shows what a blank canvas Tokyo really is”.
Fox describes Home Sweet Tokyo as “a fish-out-of-water comedy about a British man who met his Japanese wife in the UK and made the quick decision to come back to the country”. The main focus is the relationship between Londoner Bryan Jenkins (played by Fox) and his widowed father-in-law Tsuneo Matsuyama (the esteemed Japanese actor Tetsu Watanabe). Neither speaks more than four words of the other’s language. “For me the show is about the two of them—the granddad and Bryan—how they both had what they thought was good about their lives turned upside down and…their journey together”. So central is this dynamic that the Japan Times compared the series to manzai: a Japanese comic tradition in which a straight man (tsukkomi) and a clown (boke) rapidly exchange jokes. The series is a fusion of British and Japanese humor that resists the conventional narrative in which a foreigner arrives in Japan, falls in love with its exoticism, and eventually triumphs by converting the Japanese to so-called Western individualism (see, for instance, Ridley Scott’s 1989 movie Black Rain or the 2003 Tom Cruise film The Last Samurai). Instead, “Home Sweet Tokyo” highlights Bryan’s everyday struggles as a househusband.
The series seeks to introduce international audiences to Japanese culture at the same time as acquainting Japanese audiences with a foreign perspective. “I am always surprised by how similar the British and the Japanese are—We don't say what we mean either!” Fox observes that British and Japanese people share more than they expect, from a tea culture to household habits: “I don't know what your family was like but my Mum would not be pleased at all if I did not take off my shoes indoors”. Most of all, people from both countries are good at laughing at themselves: “Japanese people love having their culture mocked—we’re the same we like being told we’re funny and that we have a British sense of humor”. At the same time, as an Englishman with a Northern Irish mother, he is interested in challenging assumptions: “This whole idea that ‘Igirisu’ [the Japanese word for ‘Britain’] equals England is wrong”. At the same time, Fox is interested in challenging international stereotypes. He cites the line “I thought I was coming to the city of robots and it's the city of vending machines”.
Fox found his first experience of filming nerve-wracking but revelatory. “As a foreigner you are sometimes treated with kid gloves [in Japan] ...but there was no time for that”. In particular, he was fascinated by how the older crew and performers sought actively to teach tricks to the younger workers—for instance showing them how to make fake beer. “I really felt there was this knowledge passing down on set…they were actively trying to bring up the new generation”. Fox also relished the surrealism introduced into the show by director Teruyuki Yoshida. As someone used to writing and performing standup, seeing his own script translated onto the screen showed him the importance of visual humor: “Everyone remembers the physical jokes”.
As for future projects, Fox cites the new series he is developing for a local entertainment company, Higashi Machi 2020, which looks beyond central Tokyo, to the areas of Kanto facing economic difficulties. In the series, a local mayor seeks to arrest the migration of young people to the city-centre by undertaking an elaborate scheme to coincide with the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. Fox is also interested in developing a second series of “Home Sweet Tokyo” set in rural Japan and perhaps even in setting up a bilingual comedy club in Tokyo. “Something is wrong with me because, whatever I am doing, I always want to do be doing something bigger.”