Having turned standup into a full-time job instead of something to dabble in between waitressing shifts and casting calls, Yumi Nagashima has a couple of small goals moving forward.
“I want to do standup comedy until I’m 88 years old, like Betty White,” the Tokyo-via-Vancouver comedian says, on the line from her apartment in the West End. “I kind of want to go on Ellen, and I also want a 30-minute Netflix special. This year would be amazing, but maybe next year if this year doesn’t work out.”
This ambitiousness is not lost on those who are paid to notice such things. Not that long ago, Nagashima was contacted by the Simon Cowell–created ratings juggernaut America’s Got Talent to see if she was interested in submitting an audition tape. She thought better of it, partly because she was worried she’d have to censor herself, something she did plenty of in tradition-bound Japan.
“I thought, ‘Okay, it’s great that I can get a crazy amount of exposure,’ ” she says. “But I also felt like it would be something where I’d have to ask for permission to do what I do.”
Presumably, that means Nagashima understands mainstream America isn’t totally ready for an adorably accented, deceptively demure Japanese woman announcing “When I am sad, my clitoris gets cold. Like a little frozen edamame.”
Or enraging the politically correct with “It’s actually great working in a Japanese restaurant because you learn a lot about other cultures. So far, I’ve learned that Chinese people are cheap. And Indian people are also cheap.”
More importantly, though, as her career takes off in ways even she might have predicted three years ago, Nagashima has fully embraced the idea that nobody (including the star-makers at America’s Got Talent) is going to tell her what to do.
“My natural instinct is to challenge people,” she says. “For example, I really care about gender roles and stereotypes of gender roles. Or stereotypes of Asian people—like Asian people can’t be funny, or they are always submissive. You might think that, but is that really the way that it is? I want to challenge that. There is so much freedom when you realize that you can offer a different perspective on things. It’s liberating.”
There are a number of ways to get a handle on how far Yumi Nagashima has come since she first accepted an offer to get on-stage at the Kino on Cambie.
Start with her YouTube channel, where the last three standup-routine videos she’s posted have done massive numbers, including over 420,000 views for January’s “Japanese Sweet Bite Technique”. That’s where, after wondering if she’d make a good lesbian, Nagashima goes on to give a male audience member some valuable Japanese-flavoured tips on cunnilingus. Namely that there are alternatives—that would be the Japanese sweet bite—to flicking one’s tongue up and down like Jim Carrey working a light switch.
February’s “What turns me on the most” (386,000 views) has her paying tribute to her boyfriend with “What turns me on the most is not when he wears tailored suits. Not when he brings breakfast in bed. But when he charges through the people in front of him to get the final 60-inch Hitachi plasma TV for me on Chinese New Year sale in Richmond.”
Her successes haven’t just been online. After years of working as a waitress in Japanese restaurants—where she’d practise jokes on her fellow employees—Nagashima is now on the road for good chunks of the year, not just in Thunder Bay or Winnipeg, but in New York, Los Angeles, Australia, and Europe.
For all this, Nagashima admits that she considers herself profoundly lucky. Not just for everything that’s come her way—that’s something she’s earned through a disciplined dedication to the craft of standup. Instead, grateful that, well into adulthood, she discovered something she now realizes was a calling.
“Some comedians are like, ‘I don’t really know if this is my thing or not, but I’m going to keep trying,’ ” she says. “For me, it’s been ‘I know this is my vocation—100 percent.’ ”
Nagashima didn’t arrive in Canada ready for the stage. In Japan, she was raised to think that lifetime goals had to include finding a husband and then having kids.
Having bought into that, she married a Chinese Canadian who was working as an English teacher in Japan, and then moved to Vancouver with him when his visa ran out.
The West Coast appealed to her immediately, even if the complete lack of efficiency in things like public transit baffled her.
“It was an exciting shock that girls are stronger here,” Nagashima says. “They are really assertive and say whatever they want to say without asking permission. I felt really safe to express myself 100 percent.”
That sense of empowerment eventually led to her divorcing her husband.
“When I was living in Japan I was kind of brainwashed as a woman,” she reflects. “You are told you have to get married at a certain age and you have to start a family at a certain age. That was my mindset.
“I was already living in that box, trying to find the right partner and trying to have a good marriage,” Nagashima continues. “My ex-husband fitted that box really well. He works at city hall with a 9-to-5, very safe job with security. But after moving here, after five years I started to feel like ‘I haven’t really lived my own life.’”
The breaking point came when she was asked if she was ready to start a family. “I was like ‘Sorry—I am not.’ ”
Instead, she committed to making a new life for herself.
During her initial years in Vancouver, Nagashima taught Japanese to English speakers. She also started taking acting classes. These helped her to land commercials as well as the kind of gigs one might expect to be offered an Asian woman who speaks English with an unmistakable Japanese accent.
“It’s so hard to get the roles, because they always have to be, like, Japanese scientist or Japanese-western waitress,” Nagashima says. “That’s where my accent makes sense.”
At the beginning of her acting career Nagashima was pressured by an agent to see a dialect coach to make her sound more westernized.
“I took a few lessons, but it really felt wrong,” she notes. “To me, the way I speak is exactly how it should sound when Japanese people try to speak English. This my authentic way of speaking—why do I have to try and change that to fit in some sort of Hollywood box?””
Frustrated with how things were going with tryouts, Nagashima decided to take a stab at theatre, appearing in a friend’s play at the Havana Theatre on Commercial Drive in December 2015.
“I played ‘unhappy Japanese wife’—that was the role,” she relates with a laugh. “It was my first lead role and first comedy play. I had to say, ‘I’ve been married for three years. And it sucks!’ When I said that, the whole audience started laughing. I didn’t expect that, but I loved the way that when you are creating something, it’s very interactive. That’s when I thought, ‘Maybe this is my thing.’ ”
She already had an idea she was onto something, having taken an early stab at standup a couple of months before. The man who’s now her boyfriend—Byron Bertram—took her to the Kino on Cambie Street for a comedy night on their second date. Bertram was headlining, and his set left Nagashima wowed.
“I was laughing so hard,” she recalls. “The manager went, ‘Hey, I’ve never seen a Japanese lady tell jokes here. Would you like to give it a try?’ ”
After spending two weeks writing and refining jokes, trying them out on the staff at her waitressing job, she made her debut on October 20, 2015.
“My heart was beating really fast,” she recalls, “and I was going, ‘Why oh why am I doing this to myself?’ But as soon as I got on-stage, it was just so much fun.”
All that holds true today.
A couple of things stand out during Nagashima’s sets. First is her carefully measured delivery, which is laconic enough to make one wonder if she’s thinking in Japanese and then translating things into English in real time. (For the curious, she’s been in Canada long enough now that she thinks in English.)
Nagashima also has an endearing habit of laughing at her own jokes—mostly because she’s anticipating the reaction she’ll be getting right before her punchlines.
And what brilliant punchlines they are, whether Nagashima is educating Westerners about Japanese pubic hair or marvelling at the way white people drown every piece of sushi in a small lake of soya sauce.
A major part of her appeal is that she obviously doesn’t come from here, even though Vancouver is her home. That faux-outsider status casts her as someone whose feet are planted in two very different worlds.
On that note, My Name Is Yumi is wickedly insightful when Nagashima is training her crosshairs on English teachers living in Japan.
And the album is just as smart when she’s wondering why it’s okay for white folks in Vancouver to think every Japanese woman wants to go for sushi.
As she waits for Ellen and/or Netflix to call—which doesn’t seem that far-fetched, considering her likability and the way her YouTube stock has been rising—Nagashima will be busy. She’ll be on the road for much of 2019–something she’s excited about thanks to a deep love of travelling.
There’s also an album to promote.
But what Nagashima may be proudest of is the fact that she’s the one drawing up the rules of her life. She may have rewritten her future in Vancouver, but she hasn’t forgotten where she comes from.
“I am from Japan, and I’m proud that I’m from Japan,” she says. “What I’m doing is going up on-stage and just being me—not making any effort to change my accent or the way I speak. It’s me doing my jokes and showing my craft.
“I’m very unique—a Japanese female comedian with English as a second language,” she adds. “You really don’t see that often.”More