Comedian Yuki Nivez Talks Stand-Up in Japan; Upcoming Show – Unseen Japan
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Stand-up may not be the first thing that comes to mind when considering comedy in Japan. The country has its own time-honored humorous performance stylings: The much-beloved Manzai format, where a duo with set roles interact via jokes and anecdotes; Rakugo, where a singular performer regales the audience with humorous stories from the seiza position, using a fan and a cloth as props. (Since the rakugo performer cannot rise from this position, it’s more like sit-down comedy.) In the ubiquitous owarai comedy shows seen on TV, comedians bumble about, make fun of each other, and strike funny faces and poses. However, proper “stand-up” – with a single performer on stage, often talking directly to the audience using observational humor – hasn’t been a Japanese mainstay. But, comedian Yuki Nivez would like you to know, stand-up very much does exist in Japan.
Yuki is the creator of the comedy project “Not Just a Diversity Hire,” whose goal is to provide a stand-up experience geared towards women. Yuki originally envisioned the event as a one-off performance, but positive reactions from the community have seen it grow into something more. Now, NJaDH has its biggest show yet coming up in a little more than a week’s time.
“I planned it as a one-off special event for Women’s History month,” said Yuki in a recent interview with UJ. “But to my surprise, I received an overwhelming amount of positive feedback, requests for the next one, and offers to help. Since then, the show has grown itself with the support of a lot of people.”
The upcoming Tokyo show, set for September 30th at the Hypermix, even goes beyond stand-up; featuring a diverse line-up of four comedians (Yuki herself, Bobby Judo, Mx Terious, and Freddy Slash’em), it will also a panel discussion featuring people in creative industries. [Tickets are available HERE!] I sat down with headliner Yuki and opening act Bobby Judo to discuss their paths to comedy, what the scene is like in Japan, and what we can look forward to with Not Just a Diversity Hire.
I was born and raised in Japan, and had little to no knowledge or interest in standup comedy.
I think during the New year’s holiday in 2019, I came across Ali Wong’s Netflix specials, and was thunderstruck. Not only was it hilarious and cracked me up for 2 hours straight, but it was also exhilarating to see a woman taking down common remarks that are said to women based on double standards like “If you sleep with a man right away you don’t respect yourself.”
That’s how I first took interest in standup comedy, but what inspired me to actually start doing it myself was Hasan Minhaj’s Homecoming King. In this special, he talks about what it was like to grow up with Asian parents as the oldest child, etc, and there were so many things that I could really relate to. I was tearing up from both laughing and being emotional, and thought that standup has that power.
I’m from the US, from Florida. I came to Japan as an ALT in 2006, and started working for Japanese TV in 2009; I’ve been a local TV personality in Fukuoka and Saga as my main gig for ten years now. I had always loved standup comedy, and when a British comedian named Ollie Horn started organizing bilingual comedy events in Fukuoka, he reached out to me to get me to perform in Japanese. [Editor’s note: Bobby and Olly host the popular podcast Japan By River Cruise, which UJ staff may have appeared on a time or two.] Once I had done it in Japanese, the idea of trying it in English wasn’t as scary anymore. Started by performing in English regularly in Fukuoka, and pre-Corona I would often travel around Kyushu, and to Osaka and Tokyo for gigs as well.
As part of my television work, of course, I’m always trying to be entertaining and always thinking of ways to be funny. Starting to perform standup comedy gave me a lot of new perspectives on joke writing and increased the amount of time I was dedicating to it. I found that having a bigger stock of material and more experience with what worked for an audience did benefit my TV work quite a bit; but at the same time, there are big differences between what works for an English-speaking standup crowd and what works on Japanese broadcast TV. There was a bit of a learning curve there.
In western comedy, performers tend to strongly voice personal opinions, especially about political or social topics, but Japanese TV is almost required (by the way the industry is modeled) to be as uncontroversial as possible, so even bringing up a potentially dangerous or critical topic can be inappropriate for Japanese TV. One of my favorite examples was during the Beijing Olympics, when I was asked during rehearsal what I enjoyed watching, and I said, “I enjoy watching Japanese commentators try as hard as they can to NOT say something racist about China.” Sometimes a joke like that will get a laugh in rehearsal, but it will always get a warning to not say it on air.
As for the Japanese stand-up scene, the Japan Standup Comedy Association (日本スタンダップコメディ協会) was founded by Shimizu Hiroshi, Zenjiro, and LaSalle Ishii in 2016, and has been holding weekly open mics and standup festivals as well as showcases.
At their open mics, big-name comedians and complete first-timers share the stage, which is extremely rare in Japan. I occasionally perform at their mics, and I always have so much fun there.
Actually, I was a bit hesitant at first to join them and do standup in Japanese; I was worried that my jokes might not translate/be taken well, or that the older big-name comedians would be strict and scary. I had the preconceived notion that Japanese people are not used to the style of standup comedy, and that Japanese entertainment industry culture is very hierarchical.
Despite my concerns, my jokes have been received very well, and the big-name comedians have been very friendly and welcoming.
Since the concept of standup comedy is still relatively new in Japan, the hosts always make sure to explain all the differences between mainstream Japanese comedy, and also announce that no punching-down jokes (racist/sexist/lookism, etc) are allowed at their mics.
Being based in rural Kyushu, I’m not super knowledgeable about the history of the scene in Tokyo, but there has been a western community in Japan for more than 20 or 25 years?
[Bobby then proceeded to give a detailed account of the English scene’s genisis.]
There’s a comedian named Dave Gutteridge who ran shows for years and years, on and off, and I think the events that he was doing provided inspiration for people who wanted to see a more regular (and a more profitable) Tokyo scene. There’s also been a really consistent Improv comedy scene, with Pirates of Tokyo Bay, and Pirates of the Dotombori in Osaka. In the handful of years prior to Corona, with the Inbound Japan boom, we started to see lots of different groups making the most of not only incoming audiences, but also big-name western comics who were traveling to Japan. The group ROR in Osaka did weekly shows that were ranked the top Osaka attraction on Trip Advisor, and at one point, there were at least one or two different venues doing live comedy in Tokyo almost every night of the week.
Stand-up Tokyo produced regular professional shows and open Mic Nights. JJ Wakrat, who was a comedy organizer in Shanghai, moved over and brought in relationships with international shows like Roast Battle and Your Hood’s a Joke, founding Tokyo’s own Roast Battle chapter. Japanese performers, like YouTuber Meshida started organizing their own English comedy nights. The scene got so vibrant that, even post (mid?) Corona, Stand-up Tokyo showrunner BJ Fox (of NHK World fame), and others were finally able to open Japan’s first dedicated stand-up comedy venue, Tokyo Comedy Bar, where they’re successfully hosting regular English and Japanese language stand-up events.
The Japanese comedy scene is, of course, dominated by Japanese culture and Japanese groups, with most Japanese comedy theaters controlled by a major comedy talent agency, and the prominent style of comedy is Manzai. There are lots of Japanese comedians performing all kinds of comedy, including more controversial, political, or personal material, but currently, financial success as a comedian in Japan is still dependent on being as broadly appealing to the TV market and to sponsors as possible. So, mainstream comedy in Japan (the comedy that reaches most TV-watching residents) tends to be lowest-common-denominator, very easy-to-understand stuff.
Unfortunately, that tends to include a lot of slapstick, a lot of fat-shaming, and a lot of punching down based on being conventionally unattractive or stupid. There also isn’t really much meaningful dialogue in Japanese media about diversity, equity, and inclusion, so that’s why it’s still not rare to see Japanese comedy that relies on stereotypes of minorities, misogyny, sexual harassment, and bullying. In my experience, even very famous Japanese comedians tend to be funnier and perform more targeted, smarter, and riskier material at live venues, because the audience is smaller and it limits their liability.
The number one rule in comedy is that it has to be funny. And for me personally, I also like to be authentic, so I actually mean most of the things I say during my sets. I don’t say things that might pander to toxic stereotypes of women. While self-deprecating humor can be a good way to cope, and even healing sometimes, personally I do not do self-deprecating jokes that might send the wrong message to someone like me.
Finding the balance between messaging and being funny is challenging. When I can create something that achieves both and the audience loves it, it’s the best feeling.
I also often find myself struggling with the dilemma of making jokes about issues that women actually face in today’s society.
For example, I have jokes about receiving unwanted messages/remarks, which actually often happens to me, or about deep-fake porn, which is a real threat that affects many women today, including myself.
I usually tackle these issues and fears by turning them into something that instead empowers me. But also, I sometimes question myself, “Am I trivializing the real issues that women face/are victimized by in real life?”
Finding that balance between going reclaiming power from these topics vs. trivializing real issues is something that I will keep struggling with as long as I keep doing comedy, I think.
At a grassroots level, I think comedy definitely has the power to influence people. For example, starting NJaDH has connected me with so many people who share the same struggles/values. Collective laughter can definitely bring people together.
I really like the idea of comedy as a voice that speaks truth to power and that can be a force for social movements. But, honestly, in the current global climate, I don’t see that being the case. I kind of feel like comedians today (especially the almost entirely political comedy of late-night shows, etc.) are the band on the Titanic. We can play all we want, but the ship is still going down.
I worry that, too often, people targeting a social issue with comedy, or attacking injustice with comedy, is replacing more effective forms of activism. If you joked about it, and you all made fun of it, maybe you feel like you’ve dealt with a problem; in reality, you haven’t dealt with it, you’ve just turned it into entertainment.
At the same time, I think comedy is a very effective tool for dealing with personal anxiety and trauma. It helps you control the lens through which you view the things that scare you or harm you. It gives the comedian agency and, in the best cases, it can be cathartic for the audience as well. For me, I think that the best comedy comes from a place of personal truth, it exists in a space that has real stakes in terms of what it’s saying about the world, and if comedy is going to be used to attack, it should be attacking the flaws in the power structures in society, and not the people who suffer under those power structures.
I don’t know if my own comedy accomplishes any of that, but I definitely use it as a way to deal with my anxiety about the state of the world, and to work through how I feel about raising a family between the US and Japan, especially in the midst of all this environmental, economic, and social turmoil.
This show is first and foremost a safe space for women, but also, there’s no punching-down jokes at NJaDH. So, no homophobic jokes, transphobic jokes, racist jokes, etc, even in an “I’m doing it ironically” way.
There is a big difference between punching-up and punching-down, and just because this show doesn’t allow punching-down jokes, it doesn’t mean it’s a “clean” or “wholesome” comedy.
Especially, me personally, I go hard on making fun of assholes.
The show on the 30th is a special edition, where we also have a short panel talk session with guest panelists: Film director Lilou Augier, and Samantha Lassaux, host of the Femin Tokyo Podcast, sharing their experiences in the creative field.
One of the great things about comedy is that there are so many themes to work with and so many audiences to cater to. You can have a Dirty Jokes show, you can have a Maternity show, you can have a Christian show, you can have an LGBTQ+ show; there are shows built for Black audiences, asian audiences, ESOL audiences, anything. Not Just a Diversity Hire is a show that was built to cater, first and foremost, to women.
Yuki started it because, at the time, there were no other shows in Tokyo that were catering to that specific niche, and she was noticing that many of her female friends and fans felt like the broader shows, which were supposed to be “for everyone” could actually feel like they were “for men” at the best and misogynistic at the worst. It’s not like there are any comedy venues in Tokyo that are actively anti-women, but comedy showrunners aren’t (and shouldn’t be) responsible for the individual jokes performed by each comedian, so you never know what you’re going to hear.
I can absolutely understand the feelings of a woman who does NOT want her night out at a fun comedy show to include having to sit through a male comedian’s ill-advised bit about train gropers, or pedophilia, or worse.
I’ve also seen how sometimes my own comedy can be grounded in things that are widely accepted as social norms and hinged on things like ageism, sexism, lookism… attitudes that affect women much more severely during daily life, and I get how someone wouldn’t enjoy being confronted with those same attitudes, ones that carry real consequences and cause real harm to them, in a way that makes light of them, normalizes them, or espouses them.
I’m excited for the show on the 30th because it’s the first time I’ll get to be a part of a show that has ALWAYS been a rampant success. The audience always loves it, the comedians always feel great about it, and it creates one more option for audience representation in an already vibrant comedy scene, making the community as a whole more inclusive.
I’ll be doing a longer set about the real questions that I wrestle with as a parent of mixed-race daughters, as I watch my home country and my adopted country both fail miserably at women’s rights. That sounds hilarious, right?
The show is open for anyone to attend, but we especially hope to reach women who don’t yet know that there’s a space where they can enjoy comedy that’s performed with their enjoyment in mind.
So, there you have it – English-language, woman-oriented stand-up flourishing amidst the comedic ecosystem of Japan. If that sounds appealing, and you’re in Tokyo, consider joining in on the 30th. I’ll be there for what will actually be my first-ever stand-up experience in Japan. See you there – and watch out for Yuki Nivez’s comedy career as it continues to develop!
Tickets for Not Just a Diversity Hire: Special Edition are available HERE.
View all posts by Noah Oskow
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