Japan's English Comedy Scene
People love to laugh all over the world, and people in Japan are no different, whether they're locals, resident expats or visitors from overseas. For that reason there's a steadily growing English-language live comedy scene that's truly international; as well as people from English-speaking countries, audiences have seen comics from as far afield as Sweden, Chile and Kenya take to the stage, as well as a good number of Japanese natives.
The comedy you'll find in Japan comes in two basic styles: stand-up and improv. Stand-up means there's one person on stage talking: think Louis CK, Richard Pryor, Jimmy Carr, Russell Peters, Chris Rock and the like. Improv is a team effort, with two or three or more people on stage together, taking suggestions from the audience then creating something on the fly; if you've seen the TV show Whose Line Is It Anyway? you'll have some idea of what to expect.
Stand-up in Tokyo
There are two groups organising stand-up shows in Tokyo, the long-established Tokyo Comedy Store (TCS), and more recent arrival Stand-Up Tokyo (SUT). Both have regular shows with different focuses: some shows allow performers to experiment and try out new material, while at other shows you can see more experienced comics doing tried and trusted routines. There are also occasional headline shows by visiting comics from abroad, most notably two shows by Hannibal Buress of 30 Rock fame, one of them also featuring Eric Andre.
Shows have come and gone throughout the years as venue owners and managers change, but at the time of writing, there are something like six or seven shows a month. Despite the name, TCS is not actually a venue: they have long-running shows at Double Tall Cafe and The Hobgoblin pub in Shibuya, while SUT are often to be found at Vega Wine Bar in Ebisu. TCS also offers occasional half-day stand-up workshops and, if your language skills are up to it, a monthly show with international comics performing western-style stand-up in Japanese.
Improv in Tokyo
TCS do a lot of improv. They have two weekly workshops, one at beginner level and one intermediate, respectively teaching skills for short skits and longer scenes. There are occasional showcase nights, where students of the workshops get to show off in front of an audience what they've been learning; and once a month there's the Improvazilla show, which has TCS' most experienced improvisers strutting their stuff with full production values.
Founded in 2010, Pirates of Tokyo Bay are the capital's other improv outfit. They hold two monthly shows, one bilingual at What the Dickens pub in Ebisu, and one English-only at La Guinguette in Shibuya, and they also hold regular auditions and practice sessions for people who want to get involved.
Osaka may be the comedy capital of Japan, but it wasn't until 2011 that the city had an English stand-up group. ROR Comedy (geddit?) have regular shows in the city centre, occasionally perform in nearby cities such as Kyoto and Kobe, and have hosted headline shows by visiting comics from the USA and UK, including Adam Bloom and Ben Norris.
There's been improv going on for longer there. Named for the river into which some excitable baseball fans once threw a Colonel Sanders, Pirates of the Dotombori have been improvising in English and Japanese since 2005. Again, shows and venues have changed over the years, and will likely continue to do so; checking the website is the best way to stay up to date.
Launched in early 2014, Comedy Fukuoka hit the ground sprinting with a flurry of activity. Styling themselves "The friendliest stage in Asia", they have regular shows with local performers in both English and Japanese, have hosted an international festival featuring comics from around Asia, and have also hosted well-known comedians from the UK, among them Josie Long.
There's been English comedy happening on and off in Nagoya since the 1990s, more off than on until recently; but it looks now as if the scene there is becoming more settled, with a core of performers doing regular stand-up shows once or twice a month under the NagoyaComedy banner.
And finally, having been a crowd favourite already in Osaka and Tokyo, a victim of Japanese companies' habit of transferring their employees around the country has set up Sendai Comedy Club. In the offing are regular open mic shows, with probably more to come once he's found more performers to share the stage with.