The Kansas-raised, Japan-based teacher and stand up performer discusses the strange experiences and reactions to her cerebral palsy that have fed into her comedy…
How did you first come to move to Japan?
I decided I was going to live in Japan when I was 13 – I was interested in foreign languages, and Japanese felt as foreign as you could get without moving to the moon. I studied there as an exchange student on a scholarship for a year, then moved back, found a job and have now been here for 15 years. I mostly teach English to businessmen, but also to housewives and kids four and up.
Had you written and performed comedy before moving to Japan, or only start pursuing it seriously once there?
It’s something I’d always wanted to do, but in the Kansas ‘sticks’ where I’m from there were no opportunities – I figured it was something that just rich people did. When I came to Japan for the second time it was for a schoolteaching job in central Japan, but I got fired on my first day, which I was quite upset about. I then moved to Tokyo, and while looking for work saw an ad in an English magazine looking for people interested in trying comedy. I think I was ready for more rejection at that point!
Why were you fired?
It was an English school that had hired me from abroad. They’d requested that I video myself singing some children’s songs and send it to them, which I did. We then had long conversations about the fact that I’d be living in the country and visiting different schools, and I was upfront about the fact I couldn’t drive, but they said it’d be fine. So I flew myself out, and when they found out I had cerebral palsy they said, ‘We don’t like the way you skip, or clap – we’re afraid the children will think all foreigners clap the way you do. We’re very sorry you have cerebral palsy, but you’re not the image we want to portray about our school.”
What have been your experiences since then of attitudes in the country towards your disability in particular, and disability in a more general sense?
I’ve experienced the whole spectrum. My disability is such that in most cases I can ‘hide’ it from the average person. If they do notice, they’ll often assume it’s a cultural difference; they’re more dazzled by the fact that I’m an American, blonde and blue-eyed. For me, that’s one of the appeals of living here – you get more of a grace period before people think ‘something’s off’.
I’ve got a Japanese Disability Card that helps a lot with medical expenses. My doctors’ visits are a bit cheaper and I get discounts on taxi rides, though not many and none for free, as they don’t want people abusing the system. I’ll also get ‘massage’ tickets and other things, which have been really helpful. I was a bit concerned at applying to the Disability Office – I didn’t know if they’d see me as a ‘mooching foreigner’ – but they gave me all the cards and tickets and urged me to use them. I think there’s more of an issue here with disabled people not using the things they’re entitled to, out of pride.
Why is that?
People don’t want to stick out too much. I’ve met a few women with similar disabilities to mine, but I didn’t feel free to say comment on it. It felt like crossing a line of some kind.
How would you characterise the Japanese stand-up comedy scene, in terms of its place within the country’s culture?
I perform at the Tokyo Comedy Store, which started around 20 years ago as a place mainly for the expat/immigrant community. It’s since grown beyond that, and we now have quite an extensive improv chapter split into Japanese and English sides, with the stand-up mostly performed in English. We put on two or three shows per week in Greater Tokyo to audiences that tend to be 50/50 English and Japanese speakers. There’s also a scene in Fukuoka, which held an international comedy festival in May this year, and another group in Osaka now. There’s a growing circuit.
You’ve performed in both Japanese and English – does your material differ depending on the language?
Most of my material is about living here, dealing with the language and the experiences I’ve had. Japanese audiences are always keen to hear about my take on Japan, how unique they are, that kind of thing – but if you do the same material to audiences abroad who don’t know the country, it’s easy to sound racist. I make an effort to tell stories and explain things in way that people will understand – it’s more about perspective, than anything else. Sometimes the situation I’m talking about will be so bizarre and out there, that people who haven’t been think I’ve made it up.
Are there any examples of that in your current show, Kept In Stitches?
I had knee surgery last year to repair my anterior cruciate ligament. The surgeon was a recommended sports doctor, but when I met him the very first thing he said was, ‘This is medical tourism, this is why Japan doesn’t have any money.’ I should have just walked out then, but I wasn’t sure if he just had a bad sense of humour. He went to work on my knee, but got a bit cocky and ended up breaking my kneecap. I was awake throughout the surgery, because Japanese authorities seem to be against general painkillers – and being asleep, I guess. I’m not a big fan of opiates, but I would have liked some then…
What can audiences expect at a Spring Day performance?
A dark and bubbly show designed to appeal to people’s sense of schadenfreude – though by that, I mean mostly taking pleasure in my own misery. There’s a Buddhist saying that goes something like, ‘Through the thickest and stickiest mud grows the most beautiful lotus flower’; this show ended up as that kind of flower.
Spring Day will perform Kept In Stitches at this year’s Edinburgh Fringe between August 6th and 30th. The run of shows will take place daily at the Counting House Lounge, commencing at midday; for more information, visit www.springdaycomedy.com or follow @springdaycomedy on Twitter
– A regular headliner at the Tokyo Comedy Store since 2002 (the history of which can be seen in in this feature-length documentary), Spring has also performed in London, Manchester, Dublin, Los Angeles, New York and Paris, and previously taken several solo shows to the Edinburgh Fringe Festival
– Spring is fluent in Japanese and occasionally works as a voiceover artist, reading out grammatically erroneous English earthquake warnings, including “In case of an earthquake, buildings may attack you…”
– She is also a contributor to the Japanese English language magazine Metropolis, having written for its regular satirical column, ‘The Negi’
– Spring grew up in a home with 20 dogs, five rats, three cats, two birds and a ferret. She has no plans of owning a pet any time soon.