The Japanicity of Ken Tanaka and the Social Media Community of Youtube

Ken Tanaka

As stated on his Youtube “helpmefindparents” profile, “Ken Tanaka lives in a reality that is likely very different from your own. In this reality, rather unreal things can and do happen.” I have been fascinated by Ken Tanaka ever since seeing his first Youtube video last year. At the time of writing this, having achieved over 87,000 channel views, it is evident that even after his emergence, the quality of Ken Tanaka’s humor, presentation and creativity is here to stay, hopefully for a long time to come. If you have not seen Ken Tanaka’s videos and are interested in Japanese culture, Japanese language and Japanese comedy, then I recommend you visit his page and give him a try. Moreover, I think that he presents a relevant study of the depiction of the Japanese culture through the filter of an American gaze. As stated on his Youtube profile, “My name is Ken Tanaka and I am from Shimane Prefecture Japan. I was adopted and I am in The United States to find my real parents. Please send a message if you know Jonathan and Linda Smith.

Ken Tanaka’s Reality and Communication

The reality that Ken Tanaka lives in is a bright one, although perhaps perpetually overshadowed by the fact that he never achieves the satisfaction of finding his birth parents. His reality is perpetually side-tracked by the minute, by friendship or by wanting to purely entertain us. At times, Tanaka plays the role of educator and has produced two videos showing how one can communicate in Japanese without having to actually speak a word of Japanese. This is particularly interesting to those of us who have been immersed in Japan and how interact through these ways of communicating in our daily life: the perpetual nodding of the head, the shifting eyes not penetrating, but hesitant, the “heeeee” and “unnn” of affirmation or the “tshhhhhh” and tilt of the head while disagreeing. This playful look at the Japanese way of gesturing is humorously yet skillfully pulled off by Tanaka and friends.

The Warmth of Ken Tanaka

It is perhaps not so unusual to envision a Japanese child being raised in America, speaking both English and Japanese, but I think that one point of interest with Ken Tanaka is the reversal this image. That is, Ken Tanaka, being visually Caucasian, but carrying the tropes of a Japanese identity, make for an authentic comedic experience of interest to both Japanese and non-Japanese. Moreover, the way that Ken Tanaka interacts with the other Americans in Los Angeles makes for a warm blend of humor and social commentary. That is, Ken is not trying to take advantage of his Californians, but rather, under the umbrella of a man searching for his birth parents, really asks nothing of them, doesn’t try to expose their flaws or trick them into humiliation (as seen in the Borat character). Moreover, my Japanese friends immediately took an interest in Ken Tanaka and could instantly relate to the humor that he was creating. When visiting Japan, Ken confuses the Japanese people that he interacts with, playfully fooling them or playing into their conversational tropes.

Youtube and Social Media Community

What Youtube has been providing for some time now is the experience of character creation through the social media platform by providing a free opportunity to upload original content (within limits of both time and content). It seems that a character such as Ken Tanaka, while perhaps being too risky a venture in the eyes of television, given the context of a user-generated viewer base such as Youtube, can flourish without corporate backing and perhaps serve as a relevant resume builder future potential movie or TV proposals based on interest generated through the social media platform. With the advent of Lonelygirl, the Youtube experience was transformed as a space for bottom-up likability and popularity, not to mention, the interactive element of the site, provided viewers the chance to help fuel a given channel’s ideas for future relevant videos.

But, that was then and now we are fully immersed in such networks of media accessibility and open upload-ability. I have lost track of sites similar to Youtube and have given up trying to follow Youtube built characters and such social commentary. What happens at this point and perhaps I am not the only one, is the searching out or stumbling upon a certain “channel” that sparks our interest, knowing full well that there is no possible way to keep track of the perpetually uploaded barrage of new content. As Nick Cave may suggest, “No news from nowhere.” We search the forums, follow links, track blogs to no end until at some point an authentic slice of video pie lands in our lap…the labyrinth is deep, the hole leads to God knows where. We spread, mash, mass email, post, link, cut-up and comment on these sporadic visions of the yet-unknown others.

Questions

If one spends enough time on Youtube, one finds the continued use of the word “community,” but I want someone to explain to me the purposes and aims of this community. What is a “community” in the minds of a dedicated Youtube vlogger? How does a centralized site such as Youtube foster the sense of community? How has the idea of community shifted with the advent of such video uploading sites? Moreover, to what end are these communities advancing?

In closing and to briefly return to Ken Tanaka, I would like to add one comment. Does not Ken Tanaka’s search for his parents play out like a Japanicized “Waiting for Godot?” That is, up until now the searching for his parents has been the pool in which he swims, in what guides him and, many of his videos act as daily life adventures with the implicit undertone of this searching. These videos are him searching and what he does when he is not searching (but, it seems we are led to believe that in his reality, he is always searching, hence his coming to LA).

Thank you for reading and I hope you can enjoy some videos of Ken Tanaka.

Ken Tanaka’s “Help Me Find Parents”
TokyoMango on Ken Tanaka
Ken Tanaka on Myspace

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8 thoughts on “The Japanicity of Ken Tanaka and the Social Media Community of Youtube

  1. Pingback: Three Questions with Ken Tanaka « The Eyeslit-Crypt

  2. not kentanaka

    Ken Tanaka is really an American actor who spent some time in Japan. Its a great act but I thought the secret was out already.

  3. jgrefe Post author

    @”not kentanaka”: Yes, I believe that most everyone who watches the videos are aware of the fact that it is a performance (the Groundlings improv Japanese sensei piece also displays his Japanese talent quite well). One purpose of this post was to open up the idea of the character Ken Tanaka and express the Japanicity of the “reality” that he creates.

  4. interval

    Ken Tanaka is actually David Ury, comedian from California, I believe he was a member of the Groundlings (if that’s wrong David I apologize.) He’s done a brilliant job of playing an American adoptee of a Japanese family on youtube. His Japanese is very nearly flawless but you can see a crack of truth in one video where he is talking to a Japanese native and is surprised when the native remarks that he detects a very slight accent in David’s speach.

  5. Pingback: renaissance chambara | Ged Carroll - Links of the day

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