November 03, 2019

Expanding the narrative of adjusting to life abroad

Ben Jennings on creative forays and his role in NHK’s ‘Home Sweet Tokyo’


    Since arriving back in Japan in 2015, Ben Jennings, or B.J. Fox as he is known professionally, has built up an impressive body of work.

    Jennings has made a name for himself on the local comedy scene through his involvement with Stand-Up Tokyo, a collective that arranges performances and open mic nights for newbie and internationally famous comedians. He is also a writer and actor for NHK World’s popular comedy series “Home Sweet Tokyo.”

    The “B.J. Fox” moniker is a nod to his mother, whose maiden name is Fox. “I always promised her, almost cheekily, that when I write my novel — a space crime drama, which is still unwritten — that I would write it under the pen name ‘Fox’” he said, grinning.

    As a youngster, Jennings dreamed of a career in comic writing and editing, experiencing an early taste of creative success when a number of his science fiction story ideas were accepted and published in British comics.

    Some years down the line, his alter ego B.J. Fox served Jennings well during his first foray into stand-up comedy in Singapore. “I didn’t want people to see my real name on posters. You’re always a little bit worried about what your friends are going to think of you when you start doing stand-up comedy,” he said.

    With his recent marriage, B.J. Fox has now brought Jennings “full circle.” When discussing last names with his bride, the couple decided they preferred Fox over Jennings, and the comedian plans to legally change his name to “Ben Fox” as soon as he can carve out some time for paperwork.

    Comedy has been a common thread flowing through most of Jennings’ creative projects over the years, managing to incorporate humor into the scripts of his early science fiction comic stories. However, the limitations of writing to strict space constraints, coupled with the long lead time, was frustrating.

    “From concept to publication (with comics) it typically takes 12 months. This was one of the reasons I left the comics and moved into stand-up comedy while I was living in Singapore,” he said. “The difference with stand-up comedy is that you can think of a joke on the Yamanote Line on the way to the show, perform it that night and get instant feedback.”

    Jennings moved from Singapore to Tokyo in 2015, but had lived in Japan previously for a high school exchange program, studying abroad at International Christian University for a year and working in Shizuoka on the JET Programme. For him, being back in Japan “almost feels like a homecoming.”

    Drawing on his bilingual skills, Jennings performs shows in both English and Japanese. “In the context of stand-up, I don’t really change any of my material in either language. And interestingly, in terms of our group of people here in Japan, those who try to lean into what they personally find is funny tend to be the ones who are more successful,” he said.

    In addition to his own performances, Jennings finds satisfaction in mentoring up-and-coming comedians, both foreign and Japanese, through courses with Stand-Up Tokyo.

    “I don’t think the main issue we have in terms of audiences here is Japanese versus foreign; it’s knowledge of Japan. For example, at a recent show … we had some people who were only here for the Rugby World Cup. So if I mentioned Roppongi, they didn’t know what that was,” he said. “That’s the issue — what’s the frame of reference?”

    These insights have helped Jennings with his work on “Home Sweet Tokyo,” which broke ground as NHK World’s first situation comedy. Although his involvement was initially as a head writer, Jennings was encouraged to audition, subsequently winning the role of British father Bryan Jenkins.

    Following the unexpected death of his Japanese mother-in-law, his character relocates to Japan with his wife and young daughter. Bryan’s ups and downs while adjusting to his new surroundings allow viewers to learn about daily life in Japan with him, and the show has won fans around the globe.

    “Bryan is essentially the audience … they like Japan, haven’t ever been there, and maybe are hoping to go there. By the end of the second series he’s (still) only been here a month so far,” Jennings said. “Meanwhile, Bryan’s 6-year-old daughter keeps getting bigger and bigger,” he added with a laugh, referring to Isla Rose, the actress who plays little Alice Jenkins.

    He notes that from season two, the writers have also made efforts to inject diversity into the show with the addition of Bryan’s best friend, a semiregular Indian character who speaks fluent Japanese and represents an “integrated, non-Western foreigner.”

    Jennings is proof that exciting opportunities exist in Japan for those willing to dedicate time to developing new skills and take chances. For those ready to branch out or feeling stymied by their current profession, Jennings offered some insight.

    “Ask yourself what you want to be in two years’ time, and what skills you need for that job,” he said after mentioning the necessity of learning Japanese.

    “After the first season of ‘Home Sweet Tokyo,’ I thought people would suddenly start coming to me. But nobody called,” he said with a self-deprecating chuckle. In hindsight, he says he realized it was the foundation he had set with previous projects, such as directing online music videos and honing his writing skills through stand-up comedy, that lead to this major opportunity.

    Whichever future direction he takes, the momentum shows no sign of slowing down anytime soon for this multitalented Brit.

    A multitalented force in Japan and beyond

    After visiting Japan as an exchange student in high school, Ben Jennings, aka B.J. Fox, pursued a degree in Japanese and linguistics at Durham University. He went on to work as a coordinator of international relations in Hamamatsu, Shizuoka, through the JET Programme. Back in the U.K., Jennings accepted a position with international games developer Rockstar Games, which subsequently led to a transfer to Singapore in 2010. Since returning to Japan in 2015, Jennings combines his stand-up comedy performances with writing, producing, acting and emcee work. He maintains an interest in gaming and writes a blog in Japanese for a major company; Red Dead Redemption is currently his favorite game. Jennings also enjoys soccer and is a loyal supporter of Fulham Football Club.

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