For Comedian Yuki Nivez, Japanese Comedy Has Some Issues

For Comedian Yuki Nivez, Japanese Comedy Has Some Issues

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Comedian Yuki Nivez speaks into a mic while a spotlight illuminates her in front of a projected brick wall.
In the wake of a famous entertainer being accused of harassment, Tokyo-based standup comedian Yuki Nivez discusses the type of comedy she wants to see in the world.

Growing up in Japan, I wasn’t exactly interested in our local brand of comedy. It wasn’t just that I wasn’t interested, though; I also didn’t really “get” much of the comedy I was exposed to. My thought process when watching comedy often went something like this:

“Why are those women being groped? What’s funny about being violently unclothed by male comedians (playing stereotypical ‘perverted’ characters)? Is that the entirety of the joke? Why is dressing and acting ‘gay’ automatically supposed to be humorous?”

Wait… I Actually Love Comedy?

I didn’t quite get slapstick comedy either. So, being unable to laugh along with popular TV shows, I decided that I must not have a sense of humor.

I tended to maintain a straight face while everyone else around me was laughing. This gained me a few nicknames. But the thing is, it’s not like I didn’t like laughing or joking around.

I loved making my friends and my mom laugh with silly anecdotes. I just didn’t understand mainstream “comedy.” And I didn’t know much about standup comedy either, and the few snippets that I saw didn’t really speak to me.

That was, until a few years ago.

The author, Yuki Nivez, performing standup in Tokyo.

In 2019, I started watching standup on Netflix out of pure boredom. Much to my surprise, I came across some comedy specials that were relatable and even hilarious to me. Soon enough, I was laughing out loud.

But best of all, after hearing tired sexist jokes all those years, seeing female comedians taking them down was exhilarating.

I had finally found it: comedy that I felt was made “for me.”

The problem was that it took so long for me to find it.

For a long time, mainstream humor has forced already put-upon groups of people to confront the same hostility we have to endure in real life: misogyny, sexual harassment, homophobia, racism, and so on. That alienates and makes some of us feel left out. Some of us internalize prejudical humor and conform; all this is occurring while comedy is supposed to be about having a good time.

A List of Personal Rules

So, I decided that I wanted to become the type of comedian that I wish I had seen growing up. I started doing standup, and even formed a comedy project called Not Just a Diversity Hire in 2022.

For me, the happiest moments of doing comedy are not only when I get to make people laugh, but also when I receive messages from women like “Thank you for saying that!” I think I get that sort of feedback because my jokes reflect the experience of women today.

Now, the number one rule of comedy is pretty simple: be funny. But I also have some personal rules for when writing jokes, and for me, what I don’t do is more important than what I do.

I hate having to explain patriarchy and misogyny in 2024, but sadly, I still hear arguments like “Feminism has gone too far.” “We can’t even make jokes anymore.” It’s obnoxious hearing that sort of complaint, when in reality, the situation women face today is no joke.

The Reality on the Ground

On top of existing inequality (Japan ranked 125th out of 146 countries in gender equality rankings in 2023) and sexist culture, Technology has brought forward new threats. Deep fake porn, doxing, online stalking, etc. Just more things for us to worry about.

And a large proportion of victims of such harassment are women. I’m still struggling with how to handle this reality in comedy, as I’m no stranger to being a victim of these crimes.

Some things are so normalized in society that their oppressive natures are almost invisible. Women are often oversexualized and objectified just for existing, but when a woman expresses her sexuality on her own terms, or embraces her beauty, she’s shamed and “humbled.” In a misogynistic culture, a woman’s sexuality is often only accepted when exploited, and that’s how autonomy is robbed.

Many of my jokes purposely challenge this culture of double standards and slut shaming.

While lookism and agism affect everyone, women are affected disproportionately harsher. We have all seen talented female actors get criticized and ridiculed for aging, which pressures them into getting cosmetic procedures. But when they do, they’re made fun of for that, too. It’s an impossible double bind that robs women of their freedom.

Fair Targets for a Laugh?

And this doesn’t end with public figures. It has an impact on regular women, too.

I never make self-deprecating jokes about my appearance, because when I do, I’m putting down other women too.

There are a lot of things that personally don’t offend me, but I don’t take them lightly because they affect other women. Society is already obsessed with humbling and shaming women,and I don’t feel like I need to add more. 

Another thing I don’t do in my comedy set is to mock “pick me girls.” The term is used to refer to the “I’m not like the other girls” type of women who are often criticized for seeking male validation. Other perceived issues of “pick mes” is putting down other women, and subscribing to misogynistic ideas like “girls are too much drama.”

In more serious cases, they may participate in victim blaming, saying things like “she shouldn’t have xyz…” which leads to a culture of excusing sexual assault.

Punching Up

While those behaviors and remarks are problematic and seem worthy of mockery, I don’t feel like ridiculing the other women struggling to find a way to survive amidst a systematic, gendered power dynamic and normalized sexist culture.

There are different ways women find to deal with misogyny. Some may internalize the misogyny and cater to the patriarchy. Some may become “pick me girls” and try to be one of the boys. And some may go through different phases.

Instead of making fun of these women, I’d rather go for the ones who benefit from them. (Even if often unknowingly or while in denial.) I prefer a joke aimed at those who exploit our unfair system and culture. As I said in the interview with Unseen Japan in 2022, even though I don’t punch down, it doesn’t mean my comedy is wholesome.

I hear all sorts of arguments, like: “If the table was turned, you’d call us sexist/racist.” “It’s a reverse sexism/racism.” These are ridiculous.

The table IS turned.

For the longest time, those in power have denigrated the less privileged, and now we’re turning the table and poking fun at their actions and behavior, pointing out the absurdities of society. Context matters.

Dealing with Current Events

I think the desire for male validation affects men more strongly than women.

Recently, a rising male comedian, known for being popular among women, opened his special with a domestic violence joke. It wasn’t edgy, ironic, or original. It was a very old, outdated “If she knew how to cook she wouldn’t have been hit” hack “joke.”

It’s “just” a joke, but it was streamed on a major streaming service. And media and entertainment have a huge influence on normalizing culture and behavior among people.

I grew up watching feminist figures (there were very, very few of them on Japanese TV) being mocked, ridiculed, and called ugly hags. No wonder Japanese women of my generation are scared of being perceived as feminists. Japanese women often start their sentences with “It’s not like I’m a feminist but, …“ It’s just like how some people in the West start their sentences with “I’m not a racist/sexist but, …“.

Believing in equal rights shouldn’t be something women are afraid to be mocked for.

A portrait of the author, Yuki Nivez.

Grassroots from a Comedy Stage

Now, in the age of the internet, we all influence others, even if our personal influence can’t match the mainstream media.

It’s grassroots, but as long as I hold a mic and have access to the internet, I’d like to bring positive messages to women, especially to the next generation, for them to feel it’s ok to speak up.

Comedy is powerful.

Being able to laugh off situations and hardships you went through, things that were once tragedies, is a powerful experience.

I often try to find humor in unpleasant experiences and turn them into jokes.

Like Mark Twain said, “Humor is tragedy plus time.” Writing jokes out of unpleasant, and sometimes even traumatic experiences is healing and therapeutic. But laughing them off with people with shared experiences is even more therapeutic and empowering.

Yuki Nivez is a Japanese comedian based out of Tokyo. You can catch her upcoming show, Not Just a Diversity Hire, on March 9th, 19:30 at BnA Wall in Nihonbashi.

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Yuki Nivez

Yuki is a stand-up comedian and the founder of Not Just a Diversity Hire stand-up shows. Yuki started the NJaDH nights when she realized the demand for a comedy space that was free from misogyny, for both performers and audience members. Since then, the show has grown to offer an inclusive platform to comedians of all kinds, but especially to those who know what it’s like to be treated as “the diversity hire.”

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