Like most comedians in Japan, 30-year-old Ike Nwala is an all-arounder. He does live shows with two different comedy troupes, appears on variety shows, and does commercials. He’s on TV just about every day, which is a typical workload for a rising star in Tokyo.
Probably the only atypical thing about Ike is that he’s black.
Ike got into Japanese comedy completely by accident. Raised near Seattle, the Nigerian-American had always intended to go into computer science, having taught himself programming while in elementary school. He continued taking courses in college, and then one day he wandered into a Japanese video rental store. Playing on the screen was a skit by Junji Takada, one of the most crude and surreal comedians ever.
Ike was immediately hooked.
“I thought, ‘Is this guy on drugs?’’’ he told me over green tea lattes at one of his favorite cafes. “I loved it.”
This video segment originally aired May 3, 2017, on VICE News Tonight on HBO.
Ike asked the man behind the counter if he could rent that DVD, and if he could recommend more like it. The employee happily obliged, and handed over a few other discs.
“By the way, do you understand Japanese?” the man asked.
“Nope,” Ike said, then picked up the bag of DVDs and went home to watch them.
In fact, before the man told him what language it was, he’d thought maybe the videos were in Chinese — he’d had no contact with Japanese culture before that. But there was something about the comedy style that spoke to him. Almost immediately, Ike says, “I went from saying ‘Wow, this is funny’ to ‘Wow, I want to do this.’” But first, he had to get to Japan.
“So I got a job at Goldman Sachs in Tokyo,” he tells me, as if that were the most natural path to the goal. “I worked in computer engineering. And the whole time I was watching comedy DVDs nonstop, teaching myself Japanese, and working on my material.” He started working with a comedy troupe as its only non-Japanese member. But it was his appearance on a popular TV show, doing an impression of the announcer at the Tokyo Disney Sea resort, that really launched his career. A video clip went viral, and before long he was fielding calls from shows that wanted him as a guest.
Ike’s not the first black person to enjoy some celebrity in Japan. One of the most recognizable in recent years would be Bobby Ologun, a Nigerian former MMA fighter. But that’s not really a lineage that Ike is interested in, mostly because Ologun’s on-screen character was a stereotypical minstrel buffoon. In a popular skit series, Ologun played opposite a white comedian. The white comedian gave orders, and Bobby stumbled around speaking in a low, stupid voice and generally acting like an overgrown child. Basically, a Stepin Fetchit character adapted for Japanese TV.
So it’s understandable that people — especially black people — might be a bit wary about Ike’s fame in Japan. And to an outsider, it might look like Ike is also being forced into this stereotypical character: On the children’s TV show “Oha Suta,” he wears an almost clown-like outfit, and in some of the skits he performs with his comedy troupe, he’s getting hit in the head or imitating a black celebrity.
But Ike is strategic about his public persona. As often as he plays a goofball, Ike also takes on more serious roles, like teaching English to Japanese celebrities or chiming in on daytime news commentary panels. When I ask him if he feels any responsibility to be a positive black figure on Japanese TV, he’s a little cautious in his answer. “I don’t see it as a responsibility,” he says after a long pause. “I see it as an opportunity. That’s all I see, just opportunities. It’s one of my goals, just opening their eyes, you know? Showing that not all black people are the same. Me coming out of doing technology, I think that helps.”
Of all the work he does, though, Ike says that his role on “Oha Suta” is the most important.
“I think me being on the children’s show every day is huge,” he tells me. “The children now who are growing up to be adults, they already have the image of different people, you know?”
When I ask Ike if he’s thinking about someday taking his talents back to the U.S. to be an actor or comedian in his home country, he shakes his head. “If I ever stopped doing comedy here and went back, I’d probably just get back into tech,” he says. “I’m not funny in English.”
It’s true. He’s not. When he speaks English, he’s quiet, his gestures are subdued, and he makes a lot of thoughtful pauses. But when we’re speaking Japanese in a mixed group of Japanese people, or even when he and I switch to Japanese one-on-one, his eyes light up, he cracks more jokes, and occasionally breaks into a faux-southern Japanese dialect that’s common among Japanese comedians. It’s not too surprising if you think about it. Ike never took Japanese-language classes, and his earliest contact with the culture was a video of a man who thinks stripping down to your underwear and harassing people in public is the height of comedy. He had a pretty weird “upbringing.”
“Also, I just like the challenge,” Ike says. “That’s not to say that doing comedy in English isn’t hard. Like, standup looks really hard. But I don’t know, doing it in Japanese is just more of a challenge for me, you know?”