From a simple cooking blog to semi-regular TV appearances, Bobby Judo has risen to become a local star. Initially attracted to Japan through his interest in Zen Buddhism, Bobby began life in Japan on the JET Program, and was based in Saga for six years. After several years teaching, he created his own cooking blog, a YouTube channel and began to push for TV roles on local networks. The rest, as they say, is history. Bobby is now a well established TV personality appearing regularly on a cooking show in Saga since 2010. His success on YouTube with over a million views is no surprise either – charmingly presented with effortless Japanese, he explores intercultural topics, such as the use of hand-gestures and why foreigners shouldn’t be praised too much for their Japanese. While Bobby acknowledges that his foreignness got his foot in the door, he hopes that soon foreigners can just be themselves on TV and not forced to be stereotyped caricatures. Fukuoka Now recently caught up with Bobby to hear about his new found fame, his future ambitions and life as a media star.
Hometown: Lake Worth, Florida
In Japan: 8 years
Identity: Television/Radio Personality
Interviewed on Nov. 25, 2014.
Ok before we begin… Bobby Judo? Really? What’s the story with your name?
As you suspect its not my real name! (laughs) Luckily the Judo is in there, and it sounds like it has something to do with Japan or Japanese culture, but it’s a total coincidence. When I was in high school, I had an ex-girlfriend who called me Papi Chulo – I think its a Spanish term of endearment, like honey or baby. But it’s also used to describe a man who relies on a woman too much. My friends who didn’t understand Spanish misheard it as Bobby Judo, and they asked me “why is she always calling you Bobby Judo?” I didn’t tell them the truth, because I thought Bobby Judo sounded kind of cool. So I used that as my nickname and my internet handle name on my blogs and on Facebook. Then when I came to Japan, for my own studies, I started a cooking blog in Japanese under the name Bobby Judo – and when it got popular I had the chance to take it on to TV. The producers told me since people are looking at my page and know me as Bobby Judo, I should use that name for my public persona. I think it’s what they call a ‘nanchatte geimei’ – a pen name that I never really intended.
What brought you to Japan?
That’s a question people ask a lot. I went through a Zen Buddhism phase in high school. I think most people go through a “what is religion all about?” phase and I got really interested in Zen Buddhism. It was a short phase, but I think I kept in the back of mind that Japan had something to do with Zen Buddhism. Then when I was in college, I always knew I wanted to travel and experience a different country, learn a new language, and experience a different culture, but I didn’t have any money. So I looked into different programs where you could work and live in a foreign country. The JET program is an extremely popular program that has been around for forty years, where they bring foreigners in to Japan to teach English. I still had that positive association of Japan with Zen Buddhism in the back of my mind, and the salary and the conditions were better than some of the other programs. It also seemed like a completely different world. So that’s how I chose Japan. When I got here, I was most surprised that it wasn’t as different as I imagined it.
When you got here, do you mean Kyushu?
I was placed in Saga for the first six years – in Kawasoe-machi. Much more than I expected, it was very much like small town America. A 7-Eleven in the corner, kind of dusty, lots of farmland and a used car dealership and a video rental store. Daily life was not as vastly different as I expected it would be.
So what were those early days like?
Well, I studied Japanese for a year before I came here. But Saga has a very strong dialect – which is nothing like what you study back home. Even to the basic kana – sa shi su se so – is sha shi shu she sho! (laughs) I would walk around town and people would say “shen she nanba shiyoto” which is “sensei what are you doing?” It was completely different from the Japanese that I had studied. It was hard to communicate, it was frustrating, but also very interesting. The people were extremely friendly. There’s still not as many foreigners in Saga as there are in Fukuoka, and in the town I was living in there was even less. I think there were two, and I was one of them – so people are very interested in you, so you make a lot of friends very quickly. And then, the more your communication skills develop, the more you realize that some of them are not the kind of people you would be friends with in normal situations. (laughs) I think when you don’t communicate well, you tend to give each other the benefit of the doubt. So when someone says something weird, you’re like “I probably misunderstood that in the linguistic context or the cultural context…” and you let it go. Then once you get a better understanding of the language you’re like, “oh no, I did understand, that guy is just a pervert!” And you lose the initial friends you made along the way and develop better and stronger relationships with people you connect with more.
And when did you know that you wanted to stay on in Japan?
I originally thought I would stay for two or three years. The JET program renews contracts every year, but most people stay two to three. If you really like your situation and they really like you, you can extend upto five years, but I thought I would only stay for two years. After the two years, I was posted to teach at a discipline problem school, and I didn’t want to work there anymore. I asked to be transferred, but it didn’t work out. But by that time, I had met my future wife, made a lot of friends, felt comfortable enough with the language that I felt if I stayed a little bit longer, I would have more opportunities than just English teaching. One of the reasons why people only stay with the JET program for two to three years, is that there’s no real room for advancement. People can get really good at Japanese, and they can join the JET program as an administrative member, but there are very few positions and they’re very competitive. A lot of people come for the teaching experience, and if you’re really interested in being a teacher in Japan, then it might be a good way to get in, but there’s really no ladder to climb.
We see you on local TV, hear you on the radio, your YouTube channel has million of views… how did this all come about?
I knew I wanted to see if I could make it. I think a lot of foreigners might have in the back of their mind an idea that if you go to Japan you can get on TV easily.
So after I’d been here for awhile, I felt comfortable with the language, and I wanted to try different kinds of things. I like to have new experiences, and one way to do that is to be a TV reporter. Because if you watch Japanese TV, they send you to eat all kinds of great things, they send you on trips, they do all kinds of cool stuff, and that’s something I wanted to try.
I was also doing a lot of cooking at the time and I thought that would be a good angle. So I started the blog and the YouTube channel, and from there it started growing – slowly but surely. I think the first job I ever did was the one Fukuoka Now connected me – it was a TV commercial shot at Huis Ten Bosch… So that’s where I made friends with the guy who was the production manager. And he introduced me to a modeling agency, and I got in. From there, I did a lot of bridal fashion work and commercials, but not the work I wanted to do. I think agencies in Japan they look at foreign talent and see it as – like when someone calls and says “we specifically want a foreigner” then they say, “oh we’ve got this guy.” But they won’t really try to push a foreigner for roles that aren’t specifically designed for foreigners. So I had to push them a little bit. I told them “these are the things I can do, and these are the things I want to do – can you help me find work?” I got them to propose a cooking column to Fukuoka Walker magazine, and Fukuoka Walker let me have a column that ran for about eight months, and in the column it said I was from Saga. Then, someone in Saga TV saw that and contacted me directly, inviting me to be a guest chef on their show for one episode. Luckily that went well, and they liked me, and they asked me to come back regularly to be a reporter for a few different things. Then I proposed an idea for a corner, like a travel cooking show, where we will take our kitchen out somewhere and see different ingredients that were grown locally, and use them to produce recipes on the spot on the show. They liked it, and I’ve been doing that for four years now. From there, other TV shows and other TV channels took notice – and kinda just expanded.
Where do you get your inspiration for your blog posts and YouTube videos?
I don’t do as much cooking anymore. Now I do a lot more international exchange topics, and the inspiration for those come mostly from daily life. I’ve noticed that foreigners in Japan tend to go through certain stages: the honeymoon stage where everything is great and you love everything. Then you start to go into withdrawal, culture shock, homesickness phase – and then a lot of people will respond to that aggressively. They will take their feeling of homesickness and culture shock and turn it around on the country they’re in and say, “why isn’t this country doing this better?” and be aggressive about it. And if you get through that stage, you realize that your own country has strong points and weak points, and this country you’re in has positives and negatives, and you kind of just learn to live your life as it is. Not as a Japanese experience, but as your life in Japan. And I think someone who’s gone through those stages can look back and say – “well when I was having this problem, why was I feeling this way, and how did the Japanese people react – how can we communicate about it better?” Not just from my own life – like one of my recent videos was about how it might be better to approach a foreigner with “konnichiwa” than “hello.” I don’t have any problem if anyone says hello to me because I’m an English speaker from America. I’m the epitome of what Japanese people imagine when they imagine a foreigner – English-speaking, white and American – but for people who are from non-English speaking countries, a lot of my friends have a daily experience of dealing with the assumption that you’re from America, or you speak English. Those daily life experiences can grate on people. If you get it all the time it can wear on you – like ahh, that’s not who I am but they see me that way. And those are very small things – but they can add up and be culturally abrasive. And hearing those stories and sharing those kind of experiences with my foreign and Japanese friends is always good inspiration for cultural exchange topics.
Gaijin or Gaikoku-jin? Which word is better?
I think it depends on the way it’s said. I’m Jewish, and Jew is a word which can be anti-semitic or perfectly normal depending on who says it, and how it’s said. And I think it works similarly for gaijin. I’ve had times where people have said gaijin and it hasn’t bothered me, and times that it has. Personally I think if you’re going to be offended by gaijin, you’re going to waste a lot of time being offended in Japan. But, my advice for Japanese people is that gaikokujin is the safer bet.
Do you think its an advantage to be a foreigner here in Japan?
Absolutely. It opens a lot of doors for you that it wouldn’t otherwise. I don’t think I would be popular on YouTube or even be on TV in the States. You definitely have opportunities for experiences, for work that come your way that wouldn’t come otherwise. And that can be a positive and a negative. I think it is easy to a certain extent, for people with a foreign face to get on TV. But just because you got in the door because you’re a foreigner, it doesn’t mean you’re going to be successful. They don’t take you as seriously. I’ve had a lot of trouble in Fukuoka, because when they’re looking for a foreigner to do a job, the assumption is that there are tons of foreigners out there that would do it for free. And when you’re trying to do it as a career, that’s your competition. So you really have to be good enough at it, to be worth getting paid. So that’s something that I’ve struggled with. But in saying that, I’m well aware that it is foreignness that got me in the door.
How do you feel about the way foreigners are used in Japanese media?
I am ambiguous about it. I think there are definite problems with it. I’m happy to have a career in media, and I’m lucky that I started on a smaller scale. Because there’s less pressure to conform to the expectation of foreigners if you’re working in local media, as to doing something national. On a local level, I have more freedom to be myself and not be the foreign character. I think the reactions to that have been positive so far.
But overall, if you look at the national media, the use of foreigners tends to be in one of two ways. First one, ‘the foreigner reacts to Japan.’ And that reaction can be “Japan is amazing and I love it!” or “Japan is weird and this is why.” That’s the first pattern that they use foreigners in. The second is the ‘foreigner who is more Japanese than the Japanese’ – and those are really the only shapes, or uses for foreigners they have on TV right now. And I think as you get more kinds of foreigners on TV, who are more familiar with Japan, it will become more natural for them to be there as themselves, and not as foreigners.
Which of the foreign talent do you most respect and why?
Dave Spector. He’s outlived and outlasted everyone, being his own character and not a caricature. He’s on TV because he’s good, and not because he’s a gaijin. His Japanese is amazing. He owns the fact that he can make these terrible puns and terrible jokes that people will respond to well, because it shows his mastery of the language, and not necessarily because they’re funny. He’s got the results and the level of success.
You’ve been involved in both digital/online media and traditional broadcasting. Which do you prefer and why?
I prefer traditional broadcast. Digital/online media entails a lot of responsibility. You’re the one who has to produce it, and it can be very tiring and very demanding. Whereas for broadcast, with the work that I’ve done so far, I’m an on-screen talent, not a director or producer. So it’s the camera crew and the sound crew that’s doing all the work. Its a lot easier.
A big difference between traditional media and online media is that your online viewership – your followers or your fans – expect a lot more from you. They expect that you have a personal relationship with them. With TV and radio, you have a wall that separates you. If its on YouTube, they get access to your Facebook, your Twitter, and people will send you messages and get upset that you won’t respond. They think its more of a two-way street. Because online media is so much like you’re inviting them into your personal life.
Doesn’t Japan already have enough food programs?
(Laughs) Ah, Japan is mostly food programs. It’s the most common criticism of Japanese TV. It’s definitely a saturated market. You could say that they have enough.
Ah, there’s no but. (Laughs)
You posted a number of videos on cross-cultural topics. Is that something you’re deeply interested in, or simply to generate a reaction?
No, that’s a great question. I really am deeply interested in cultural exchange – having those conversations, having a think about different cultures, and different ways of perceiving and reacting to things. The problem is, in order to get views, you kind of have to sensationalize them. My latest video that got the most attention was that ‘hello’ video – It was about how you shouldn’t say hello to foreigners. But I don’t think you shouldn’t say hello to foreigners. But, putting that as the title gets the views. It also gets a lot of negative reactions, and you’d like to think that people would watch the video and take away the message. But a lot of times in order to get them there, you have to say something or do something to grabs their attention, and that can also work to alienate them or turn them against you at the outset. So that’s a really challenging part to navigate.
But I do it because I really enjoy it – and I think there’s going to be a lot more chances for foreigners and Japanese people to communicate, in Japan, in the future. The Olympics are coming, more and more tourists every year. There’s going to be a much more need to rely on foreign labor in Japan. There’s a lot more interracial children being born, so those opportunities in Japan are going to get bigger and bigger. The current state is that many Japanese people want to be friendly to foreigners, they have nothing but good intentions – but they tend to do or say things that can rub foreigners the wrong way. The simplest example is when Japanese people say to foreigners – “I want foreign friends” which is not something a foreigner is excited to hear, and Japanese people don’t have that perspective to understand why its not something we’re excited to hear. So, my videos, – and I’m hoping someday to be able to publish a book – is made with the idea not to tell Japanese people you have to change your behavior so you don’t make us feel bad, but to tell them, these are the ways of thinking and the feelings a foreigner might have, and if you were aware of them, then communication might go more smoothly. And of course its a two way street – I’m OK with speaking to the foreign experience, but I don’t feel qualified to speak to the Japanese side of it.
Your website says you’ve travelled to 30 countries. Was that on a few big trips or…?
When I moved to Japan, that was the first time I left the United States. Since then, I took short trips to one or two countries at a time, mostly to Asia, but the bulk of the thirty I did with my wife on a world trip. She loves to travel, and she travelled extensively before we met. From 2012 – 2013, we took a year and travelled through Asia, into India, up into Nepal, over to Turkey, to Europe, to Morocco, to Spain, to States to spend some time with my family… and to South America.
Any profound experiences along the way?
I think I expected to go out in the world to get some answers, and ended up with more questions! I think everywhere we went, I thought “I’d like to live here, I’d like to try this, do that…” and you get this long list of things you’d like to do, but you’ll never be able to do. But, you do learn a lot, see a lot and make a lot of friends. It definitely gave me confidence, that no matter where I was in the world, I would find a way to make a living and be okay.
OK – let’s try some rapid-fire questions. I’ll read two words and you choose one and comment. Ready?
Ramen or Noodles?
Noodles – as someone who cooks, they’re more versatile.
Shrines or Temples?
Temples – I like Zen Buddhism
Rola or Becky?
Rola – I love Rola. I love her expressions. If you watch her in a part of the show that has nothing to do with her, she is so bored, not having any of it. I think that’s awesome.
Sumo or Baseball?
Baseball – I’ve never actually watched sumo live. It never hit home for me – to use a baseball metaphor.
Jeans or Skirts?
Skirts… Since coming to Japan, you see a lot more of women’s legs… (laughs)
Mascots or Manga?
Mascots – doing TV you work with a lot of “yuru chara.”
Tokyo or Fukuoka?
Fukuoka, Fukuoka, Fukuoka… Fukuoka. I love Fukuoka. It’s got that international feel Tokyo has, but on a smaller scale and it’s more homey. And the people here are so friendly and welcoming of things from outside. In Tokyo its just so busy…
Sake or Shochu?
Sake – I really like nihonshu
Thumbs up or Comments?
Enka or J-Pop?
Ah… lesser of two evils there. Enka. It’s more soulful.
Few more questions. What’s your next goal?
I’d like to publish a book. I don’t have any plans on moving my base to Tokyo, but to take my career to the next level, and to be able to do it long-term to support a family, you do have to go national, or you stay at the same level forever.
How can people find or connect with you?
I have a homepage, bobbyjudo.com, my name… my fake name with no spaces. (Laughs) I post Japanese daily life blogs there, and updates on when I’m going to be on TV. Also my YouTube channel, and I’m on Facebook and Twitter. All the main stuff except Instagram.
Here are two of Bobby’s recent YouTube videos – enjoy!
And here are some photos of Bobby in action.