A couple of months ago I got an email from a guy named Stewart Johnson. I was a bit surprised since I didn’t know anyone by that name. We started talking and I found out he’s an independent videographer, director and film maker. Actually, he does all the stuff I’m interested in. After a few more mails were exchanged, I thought it would be a good idea to interview him. So we got together at Shinjuku Gyoen and this video you are about to watch is the result. He also has some really interesting personal experiences in Japan and of filmmaking which I think you will be interested in. Please enjoy! Read more
Posts from the ‘interviews’ Category
Recently I had the good fortune to become acquainted with a guy who has made his name in the world of hip hop, Randall “SHUX1″ Murchison. He`s a producer, director, editor and cameraman, who currently resides in Japan. I actually met him through work and after talking with him for a while thought he would be a great person to put here as he has a lot of great experiences and also has interesting perspectives on living in Japan. And on top of that he also has his own web TV show which he hosts on his site, Music&StrengthTV.com. I won`t say any more as I`ll end up giving away too much of what is in the video. Please enjoy! Read more
Recently I met with Tomoko Inoue at Fukumori, a restaurant that specializes in dishes from Yamagata prefecture (in the north of Japan). Tomoko has made a career of travel and food and wishes to share her knowledge with visitors to Tokyo through her business, “Food Tourism Japan Consulting”. Here is my interview with her: Read more
Recently I met with Ian Chun, the CEO of Matcha Latte Media in Nihonbashi. Matcha Latte Media is a Tokyo-based startup that is putting Japanese culture into the hands of consumers around the world by helping Japanese small businesses with English language e-commerce marketing. We talked with Ian about his company and about Tokyo. Read more
When we see many things about Japan, the emphasis often seems to be on animation, comics, cosplay, cars and … sake? There are other things as well, but for many people those probably come to mind first. Luckily though, there is a new series of videos from Gaijin Channel that is going to expand our knowledge about the country with, “Just in Japan: Local Discoveries”. Read more
Have you seen any live comedy in Tokyo yet? If not, you should see the, “Pirates of Tokyo Bay”, as they are very funny and their bilingual act is completely improvised. Rohan Gillett found them at one of their local haunts in Shinjuku recently and had this interview with them.
RG: Where are you and your members from?
PoTB: For the Tokyo group, currently we have three Japanese members but everyone else is from different parts of the United States. Our Osaka group is far more international with people from all different countries.
RG: How did the Pirates come together?
PoTB: In 2009 I moved to Tokyo from Osaka and formed the second Pirates group here in 2010. I put ads in many different magazines for auditions, for which we had 26 people try-out and we ended up choosing five. Two pirates came up from the Osaka group to help me with that audition and select the first group of Tokyo Pirates.
RG: Why did you name yourselves the Pirates?
PoTB: We had original names that might be funny in English, but they didn`t make any sense when translated into Japanese. Names like “A Clockwork Banana” or “Death By Squirrels”. After much thought, and advice from a close friend, we came up with, “Pirates”. Everyone in Japanese knows the word, “pirate” because of Disneyland or Johnny Depp`s, “Pirates of the Caribbean”, and it works equally well in English.
RG: What kind of stage experience did your members have before joining the Pirates?
PoTB: Everyone has done something a little different, some have done straight theater work, others have done stand-up comedy and others already had some improvisational experience.
RG: Where did you first perform as a group and how was it?
PoTB: Our first show ever was at the Tokyo Impro Festival and was Japanese language only, and it was a tournament against other Japanese speaking improv groups. It was great, we could only practice for three weeks and to compete against other groups who were native-speakers of Japanese we did very well. That first show was at the Puk Theater in Shinjuku. The following night we had our English show debut at the Pink Cow in Shibuya. It was a joint show with our Osaka group coming up to perform with us in an “Osaka vs Tokyo” comedy show!
RG: What kind of audiences you play to?
PoTB: We always play to large audiences, usually over 100 people. The breakdown of the audience seems to be about 60% Japanese, 40% foreign. It`s the perfect date show, because we do roughly five minutes in Japanese, 5 minutes in English. Most couples are studying their partner`s language, so if one person isn`t perfect in one language they can still get half of the show and they still have the chance to catch the other as well. So by performing bilingually, more people can enjoy our work.
RG: Comedy sometimes demands a performer has a background in psychology, what have you learned about your audiences?
PoTB: I wish I had a degree in psychology (much laughter). To help us we have three native Japanese speakers who help us understand Japanese language and culture. It`s not dumbing down the language, even the Americans are from different parts of the US so we all have terms or words that the others might not understand. So the psychology is more generalised, we have to reach everyone equally. Even the psychology of improvisation is applicable to corporate training. As a group if we can help cross-cultural communication by getting people to work together as a team. Usually we can understand within a few minutes of a show we get what they think is funny or not and can change the material appropriately. We did one show that was all diplomats at the Mayor’s residence, so the jokes and scenes had to change for that particular audience.
RG: How would you describe your typical audience?
PoTB: I would guess they would be in their 30s, couples and curious about us. We`re the only bilingual comedy group in the Kanto area, so many people are interested and want to see something new. Our audience is very active both at shows and online. We have an active Twitter following and a huge Facebook fan page. We also regularly have raffle prizes at our shows where we give out prizes totally 20,000 yen each show. That gets the audience excited to get involved with us and really makes them feel part of the overall group.
RG: How did you the group initially get its first break in Tokyo?
PoTB: We owe a lot to the Pink Cow in Shibuya who gave us our first break. They opened the place for us, for auditions, opened up the bar early for practices early on. We were a new group, started only 3 weeks earlier and the owner took a chance on us, not knowing how many people going to show up to our show. Thank you Traci!
RG: The Pirates have also done some overseas shows, how did they go?
PoTB: We`ve been to Hong Kong and Beijing, China. Of course we have plans to go overseas again this year, including the Philippines and Hawaii. We are rather unique in that we are the only group in Japan that currently travels internationally and the only English speaking group from Japan to ever perform overseas as a group!
And we were the first ever Japanese group to perform in mainland China. What was really cool about it was that we performed in the only privately-owned venue in the country. But the government came to every show and we had to sign a contract, we couldn`t talk about certain subjects. With all the government guys at the back of the audience watching us, it was actually kind of fun. And the shows were great, 200 people screaming out stuff and ideas at us. Maybe for the first time in their lives they had a chance to yell out whatever they wanted after we asked for suggestions. They really got in to it.
RG: Are there any difficulties doing a performance bilingually?
PoTB: They are times when Western members don`t know the Japanese and of course, vice versa, the Japanese mightn`t know the English. That of course would be the main problem. And moving into this type of improv comedy can be very intimidating. All of us before we joined the Pirates were initially very excited about doing comedy in another language, but when we got on stage for that first bilingual performance, we were hit by a great amount of nervousness and self-doubt. But we had to get used to it, it took time but we`ve all survived and gotten use to it and now thrive in it.
Plus we have to make everyone in the audience understand. So the bilingual part is not only about us, it`s about the audience. If a Japanese guy is having trouble with the English part, we need to help him by throwing in a more believable scene. If we are talking about a restaurant, it can`t be a generic restaurant … it should be set in a Royal Host or Saizeriya, something everyone in the audience will have some contact or knowledge of. Making the scene bilingual or bicultural is very important for us. The connection with the audience is so important. If we lose the audience members attention by not connecting with them, it makes it harder to get suggestions from them later on in the show.
RG: What`s the group`s most memorable highlight to date?
PoTB: Personal highlights ok? Before your first performance, you`re really nervous, but when you get up on stage and put into the action what you`ve learnt, it`s just great. Especially to know that someone else has got your back when things don`t work out as you thought they would. Our group is like a family, so when you see the other members helping you out on stage, it is just a fantastic feeling.
But group highlights … the last few months – we`ve done the Hong Kong and Beijing shows and now we are in the process of applying for government grants to do different things. We are seeing a lot of hard work pay off. After the earthquake in 2011 we suddenly lost 3 members, half the group, who decided to return home. That was a crushing moment. But we stuck with it and we are so glad we did.
RG: Have the Pirate`s had any on-stage disasters? If so, what were they?
PoTB: The closest thing to disaster was early on in our career, we had a show at one particular venue and we didn`t project our voices, so the audience couldn`t hear what we were saying. So the audience was leaning forward, straining to hear and looking rather lost. That was probably our greatest disaster, but it provided a very valuable lesson.
RG: What`s the funniest thing that has ever happened at one of the shows?
PoTB: The whole show of course! Seriously though, we did a couple of shows in China, and we did the alphabet game. So we start with, “A” and we have to say a sentence beginning with, “A” and continue all the way to, “Z”. I speak Chinese okay and Lisa speaks it very well. So the two of us decided to do it in Chinese and we actually pulled it off, it was extremely improvised and the audience loved it.
RG: How do the Pirates wind down after a performance?
PoTB: A couple of pints usually help and we head out into the seats to talk with the audience. It makes it more an event, not just a performance. We talk to them, find out what they liked or disliked and say goodbye. We really like them to feel like our guests and we their hosts.
RG: Every show is completely improvised?
PoTB: It`s improvised in the sense that we don`t know what we`re going to say, but we have a program list of the games we`re going to do in a show like the Singing game or scene based games. But each show has a different list of games to keep the experience fresh for the audience.
RG: How often do you rehearse?
PoTB: We practice every week because trust is so important on stage. If something goes a little wrong one of the other members can step in and cover for the person who might be feeling a little sick or that particular game might be their weak point. And it is mainly through practice that we get to know each other and build that trust. I don’t think you can have a truly successful improvisational group if you don’t practice regularly.
RG: What does it take for any potential members to be a Pirate?
PoTB: It`s not joke telling or quoting movies. It`s about how quickly you can think. We want to make applicants slightly uncomfortable and see how they can think on their feet. We kind of quiz them quickly and see how they react and put them in group situations to see if people are too dominating in the group or too quiet. We would like to see people take different status roles in scenes to show their flexibility.
RG: What does the future holds for the Pirates?
PoTB: More corporate training, especially with Japanese companies. Hiring comedy groups for corporate training is quite common in America or Australia, but it hasn`t really caught on yet in Japan. We have already done some corporate training for some Japanese companies in Tokyo but we would like to do more. And of course we want to do more travelling, like an Asian circuit or US military bases in Japan. We performed at Camp Zama in Kanagawa before and we loved it! A Japanese embassy tour would be quite good, as Japanese speaking comedians who travel overseas are quite rare. We found this out after performing at the Japan Consulate in Hong Kong. They have asked us to return to Hong Kong in September of this year to do a joint show with them and the University of Hong Kong.
RG: And where can people catch your next performance?
PoTB: Our next shows will be May 20th and June 17th in Ebisu. Both of those shows are on Sundays and will be held at ‘What the Dickens’ bar and restaurant. We are also planning to have auditions for new members. All show information and audition updates can be found on our Facebook page https://www.facebook.com/TokyoImprov or through our Twitter feed: @piratestokyo.
And if you are after a little more of the Pirates, you can see one of their YouTube videos here:
Last week we visited the Prime Minister`s Official Residence to interview Mr. Noriyuki Shikata. We deeply appreciate him taking time out of his busy schedule to meet us. Mr. Shikata spoke with Rohan Gillett about Tokyo – its history, current situation and its future. Here is the full interview:
RG: I know you`re the Deputy Cabinet Secretary and Director of Global Communications. But what exactly do you do for the government?
NS: I was seconded from the Foreign Office to the PM`s office in July 2010. During the last one and half years I`ve been working as Deputy Cabinet Secretary for Public Affairs and Director of Global Communications. It`s international media relations and also public affairs. My focus is engaging with international foreign correspondents who are based here or come to visit Japan. I also accompany the Prime Minister when he attends international conferences or on international visits, and I act as an international spokesperson. I`m also involved in the coordination of activities related to global communications of the government. So especially in the period after 3/11 I was holding press conferences with other ministries like NISA (Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency).
RG: You`re originally from Kyoto?
NS: That`s right. Born near Ginkaku Temple.
RG: And 20 years in Tokyo?
NS: That`s right. After entering the Foreign Office, I was posted to the United States for four years, followed by three in Paris from 1999 to 2002. I have lived in Tokyo it`s close to twenty years now.
RG: So what exactly brought you to Tokyo the first time?
NS: To work for the government.
RG: Where did you live when you first came here?
NS: I lived in the Foreign Ministry`s dormitory which was located in Nakano.
RG: What were your first impressions of Tokyo?
NS: (Laughter) I was born and grew up in Kyoto. And of course Tokyo is gigantic and it`s metro was more crowded. At that time I was living in a rather small dormitory and was extremely busy but I found Tokyo to be exciting and dynamic. It was just before the Bubble years, it was a bit different to today`s Tokyo which is more mature.
RG: Twenty years ago it was a more dynamic city?
NS: I would say Tokyo continues to be dynamic. Now there is a greater sense of maturity. In 1986 there was a feeling it was still growing with a lot of new constructions. Even though there is still a lot of construction today, in those days there was no Midtown or Roppongi Hills.
RG: What are your first memories of Tokyo?
NS: Actually, I was living in the dormitory and there was the Kanda river nearby. There is a famous Japanese folk song named, “Kanda River” which was from the 70s, influenced by the Beetles a little. For me, “Kanda River”, always reminds me of that era.
My office has been in Kasumigaseki, so it is strategically located in a sense. Of course Kasumigaseki, if you are American, coming from Washington D.C., it`s a bit like the State Department which is located at Foggy Bottom. Foggy Bottom has a similar name to Kasumigaseki (the kanji for Kasumigaseki is, “霞ヶ関”, which in English can mean, “gate of fog”).
The Foreign Ministry is located close to Kasumigaseki station and Sakurdamon. Sakuradamon, for many Japanese, is the name that you learn in the context of the latter days of the Edo period when several historical incidents occurred there. When I came to work in Tokyo I was impressed by the fact that my office was centrally located among Ginza, Roppongi and Akasaka. My friends were telling me that I was rather fortunate to be surrounded by those three fashionable areas.
RG: When you were younger did you spend a lot of time in those areas?
NS: When I was younger, yes … we went out eating and drinking mainly in those areas. But now (with a laugh) I don`t go to Roppongi very often anymore.
RG: Currently what is the best thing about the city?
NS: I would say that among the cities that I`ve lived in, restaurants in Tokyo are the most competitive and excellent, and also aren`t expensive if you know where to go. One of my favourite restaurants is, “Salt“, a restaurant located in the Shin-Maru building. Luke Mangan, from Australia, is the chef and it`s a very good restaurant.
Tokyo of course has great Japanese restaurants too! And it has the largest number of Michelin stars in the world.
RG: Is there anything about Tokyo you would hate to see change?
NS: I like “Shitamachi”, the traditional side of Tokyo. So I hope that in spite of the construction of Tokyo Sky Tree, the traditional side of Tokyo will be preserved. I guess the attractiveness of Japanese society is the combination of modernity and traditions. And we so far have managed to preserve a number of our traditions so we should be attentive to that aspect.
RG: Is there anything you dislike about Tokyo?
NS: (He pauses to think about this question for a short time) Actually I don`t have many dislikes, but like many people I don`t enjoy crowded trains. So I decided to live in a place where I wouldn`t suffer from the commute.
RG: When you have free time what do you like to do?
NS: Let`s see. Because I live near the bayside, although I`m not good a tennis player, I play tennis and other outdoor things. My interests are finding new restaurants. The place that I go most frequently during weekdays is the restaurant named “Shunju“, very near here in the Sanno Park Tower in Tameike Sanno. There are also a couple of other nice places for tempura, sukiyaki or Kyoto cuisine in this neighbourhood.
RG: You mentioned the song, “Kanda-river”. Are there other songs or movies for you that have a direct connection with Tokyo?
NS: Movies or songs about Tokyo? When I was in the States for four years, it was the time of the “Bubble” in Japan. There was a movie titled, “Baburu e go!! Taimu mashin wa doramu-shiki”, (or in English, “Bubble Fiction: Boom or Bust“). It an interesting movie about what Tokyo was like during the Bubble years. I was not in Tokyo at that time, 1987-1991 so I was kind of perplexed that my friends in Tokyo were talking about, “bubbles” and I really had no idea what they were talking about.
RG: The movie is a comedy?
NS: Kind of. There were some serious parts, for example when they talked about economic policies. It has a famous actress in it, Ryoko Hirosue. The movie was created several years ago. But when I think of Tokyo and it`s changes, and the fact that I was out of the country for some years, the movie it is an interesting reminder of what the city was like. It is an interesting reflection of what Tokyo was like at that time.
RG: When you came back to Tokyo from overseas, were there any big noticeable changes?
NS: Of course, when I came back, the bubble had burst, but the economy wasn`t in such bad shape, the pain was coming later but at the same time, in those days real estate prices had gone up like crazy and it was much more expensive to live in Tokyo. Now (in 2012) deflation is a problem and I do not feel Tokyo is very expensive to live in
When I was in the United States in the 1990s there were a lot of issues about price differentials. For example, there was a big gap in the price of the Sony Walkman sold in the US and Japan. When Sony sold those products in the United States, they sold simpler models that were cheaper.
RG: I`d like to ask a historical question. What do you think Tokyo was like to live in 100 years ago?
NS: So you`re talking about the early 1900s. I`ve heard the stories about the Great Kanto Earthquake (1923). The basic framework of Tokyo was developed in the 1920s after the quake and more people began to live in the suburbs. And that`s when the trains, like the Seibu line, started to go to those areas. Many of the train companies date back to that time, the 1920s.
According to Professor Heizo Takenaka the earthquake helped to revitalize Tokyo, as the destruction created demand. Many of the big companies that exist now started then or shortly after then, for example National (which is now Panasonic). Many companies were created around that time. After the Kanto quake we succeeded in revitalizing or creating something new. The Professor`s main point was that disaster can bring about something new with innovation. So although 3/11 did not directly hit Tokyo, we were more or less affected. It`s hard to say how Tokyo will be affected in the long run. But, Tokyo a 100 years ago, was transformed by that quake.
RG: A question not exactly about Tokyo, but do you see the same thing happening in the Tohoku area that was devastated by the events of 3/11/2011?
NS: I think there is the potential. This is now a crossroads … Japan in the Meiji restoration, we were not colonized and there was a lot of effort to modernize the country. In the 1910s during the Taisho democracy the situation was not that bad unlike the 1930s and early 1940s which were very bad periods for the people. After Tokyo was bombed and destroyed, we recovered again. So I believe there is a good potential that the disaster areas will recover in due course.
RG: For you personally, what do you think is the main symbol of Tokyo?
NS: This year we have Sky Tree opening. From my home I can see both Sky Tree and Tokyo Tower. So we have double symbols we see every day – the old and the new. This is kind of symbolic in terms of being able to create something new, especially for Eastern Tokyo, the Shitamachi area. This is an issue how we can achieve compatibility between tradition and modernity.
RG: Since the Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923, what other developments have influenced Tokyo over the years?
NS: Of course World War II, had such an impact on the landscape of Tokyo. Though devestating, it also created so much potential for creating something new. But at the same time when I compare Tokyo with other cities such as Paris or Boston, we do not have the kind of uniform city planning or preservation of some of the buildings from pre-war days. Of course we still have some ancient buildings. But having lived in Kyoto, Washington, Boston and Paris I find lots of city planning in those cities.
Tokyo has taken a different approach in my understanding. You have seen regional growth and development. Each district has its own unique feeling and ambience. I have in mind Roppongi, Ikebukuro, Akasaka and others. They all have different tastes. They have different types of people in those places.
RG: Among modern Japanese people, who has had a great influence on this city?
NS: I can think of somebody like Governor Ishihara. If I chose one person it would be him in my opinion. He started the Tokyo Marathon and the bids for the Tokyo Olympics. Governor Ishihara is coming up with his own straightforward views.
RG: Do you think Tokyo influences cities in other countries?
NS: In my travels I`ve seen the influence is from public transportation, especially the train and metro systems. Also the connections between the metro and high speed rail (i.e. Shinkansen) and now we are getting better with airport connections such as Narita, and also with Haneda becoming an international hub.
The model here is for an, “eco” (or environmentally friendly) life. You don`t need to drive or get stuck in a traffic jams. Tokyo provides great opportunities for business and investment.
RG: For anyone wanting to visit Tokyo or one of the surrounding prefectures, where would you recommend?
NS: Kamakura, and also one place many people may not visit is Kawagoe in Saitama prefecture. There is an old Edo-style town there, which is extremely interesting and I highly recommend it. And of course it is not too far from Tokyo.
RG: What about Tokyo`s future?
NS: In the 1970s Tokyo suffered from air pollution but today it has very clean air. So I think this could be a great model for other countries, especially for other Asian cities. That relates to lifestyle and environmentally friendly cities. Tokyo in that sense, is cutting edge. At the same time, Tokyo is the largest economic area in the world.
RG: Lastly, any words for people who want to visit Tokyo?
NS: Tokyo has modernity and traditions combined so you will find many surprises. It will take many days to discover both sides of life here. And of course, the food is great.
RG: Mr. Shikata, many thanks for giving me your time today.
NS: You are very welcome.