20 Jan 2019
12th July 2018
The JET with his own TV show
A former JET broke major ground last year when he became the first non-Japanese person to have his own sitcom on NHK.
BJ Fox – a comedy alias – is the star of Home Sweet Tokyo. The show focuses on the lives of the British Bryan Jenkins (played by Fox), his Japanese wife Itsuki and their daughter Alice after the family move to Tokyo when Itsuki’s mother passes away. Bryan gives up his career and becomes a househusband, finding himself in a country he doesn’t understand and a life he didn’t expect, passing his days in confused and monosyllabic interaction with his father-in-law Tsuneo.
Some of the comedy in this English-language show – which has Japanese sections subtitled – does play to the trope of the clueless foreigner: Bryan copying elementary school kids and thrusting his arm into the air when crossing the road. But the comedic thrust is the way Bryan’s bafflement highlights Japan’s idiosyncrasies.
In the first episode, Bryan can’t understand why his six year old daughter can travel to school alone, while his 65 year old father-in-law has to be accompanied to the bank. He starts covertly tailing Alice, whereupon it’s reported back to parents that a suspicious stranger has been seen following children and a special safety patrol is being put on (cue a truly hilarious artist's impression). “It’s too safe. It's so safe I make it a problem,” as Jennings explains to me.
In a later episode, after the stodgy fair he has been packing for Alice's lunches is mocked by her classmates, Bryan is forced to learn to make character bentos from a narcissistic YouTuber. While the content is light, covering different themes running through Japanese daily life, it also skewers the contradictions with some great one-liners.
The four-episode first series of Home Sweet Tokyo was shown on English-language NHK World as well NHK 1 (the equivalent of BBC1) during November and December last year: the first time an NHK show had been led by a foreign comedy writer.
Not bad going considering Fox started doing standup almost on a whim in 2013:
“I was on a business trip to Tokyo for two weeks. Maybe I’d been drinking too much, I’m not sure, but I’d been going to izakayas every night and was looking for something else to do. So I went to a comedy show and just ended up doing it."
“I didn't do very well but it wasn't just like I jumped up and grabbed the mic. I think deep down I kind of knew what I was going to say. ”
Back in the UK in 2005 after two years on JET as a Coordinator of International Relations (CIR) In Hamamatsu, Shizuoka, this wasn't part of the plan.
“Actually, I was never into comedy. I'd been to maybe two shows in my life. What I did do is I used to write comics in the UK indie press. I see an overlap there in terms of creation.”
“I also did the Sir Peter Parker speech contests [at SOAS] twice. And now I look back at it that was standup. It wasn't supposed to be, but I had an awareness of my own Japanese ability that I wasn't going to win. I didn't make any jokes, but I'd deliberately go on a different angle.”
He had no plans to return to Japan either: “It was almost a case of 'never go back'. There's other places I always assumed I would enjoy more.”
But after spells on the Ladbrokes graduate scheme and at Pokemon, Fox moved to the international office of Rockstar Games in London, where on day one he found himself discussing censorship of Grand Theft Auto in the Japanese market.
“One of the benefits of exaggerating blatantly you've got fluent Japanese on your CV is at no time did I ever think they were going to check."
“Then from the moment I got the job to moving, the Japanese guy in the office quit. Perfect timing... I remember on the first day they were like can you interpret?”
In 2010 he moved to Singapore, where after his impromptu standup moment in Tokyo he started to do one or two comedy shows a week. In 2015, a job came up in Tokyo and by now he had found his vocation performing standup as BJ Fox.
“I started running a lot of the shows in Tokyo. There wasn't much standup here so most of the shows I started. And it kind of really boomed briefly.”
In fact, Home Sweet Tokyo wasn't a long-time idea, but very much a collobaration. A producer at NHK called Keiko Tsuneki saw a video he’d made with another comedian, and came to watch him perform. The next day she got in touch to pitch an English language show to him.
“I saw some issues with it. I said, here's why. Why don't we meet next week and I'll kind of tweak this? To be honest, I totally changed it. And she just took it and ran with it, so we were doing this thing together.”
Fox considers the primary audience to be an English-language one overseas, interested in Japan, and research conducted by NHK has found Home Sweet Tokyo to be well-received. He describes the tone as “a light introduction, quite educational”, with one episode, for example, centred around the concept of ‘naked communication’ at a sento (which backfires quite spectacularly).
Fox and the producers were alive to the risks of leaning too much on cultural stereotypes:
“I realised even though Bryan's just one character he represents the entire land of gaikoku in many ways. Obviously, being concerned about your daughter,” he says, referring to the first episode, “that's a very universal thing. Bryan presents everything with a sort of wry cleverness.”
“That's what I like about the show. It's not necessarily just saying Japan's brilliant. Bryan as a character isn't actually in love with Japan, which often when you see foreigners on TV they are.”
Bryan’s status as a househusband and the fact his Japanese wife is the more international character, at home across cultures, are also subtly progressive.
“I think the actual show's about the state of masculinity. Two people having what they thought their life was going to be like taken away from them: in the grandad's case, assuming he was going to have a nice retirement and his wife dies, and in Bryan’s case, he was working in London and all of a sudden he’s disempowered and stuck in Japan.”
After its positive reception, a second series of Home Sweet Tokyo is being discussed with hopes for confirmation soon. Fox is still juggling comedy with a full-time job in marketing at Visa. He expresses some joking disappointment he’s only been recognised three times – despite being the star of a tv show on the equivalent on BBC1 – and admits it was "really weird" going back to work after it premiered like any other Monday.
He is also excited to get back to doing standup – the dual-language comedy group he is part of will play three dates in Singapore in July. One day Fox even harbours hopes to make a Japanese language sitcom playing off themes from his time as a CIR, where a provincial tourism board attempts to push rapid globalisation and ‘cash in’ on Tokyo 2020 – given the unlikely directions his career has taken so far, perhaps coming full circle isn't so unlikely.
All episodes of Home Sweet Tokyo can be watched in their entirety on NHK’s website.
Details of BJ Fox's upcoming standup shows can be found here.