Japanese comedian in Vancouver
tackles taboos with laughter


Yumi Nagashima — who simply uses the stage name “Yumi” — is the first Japanese female stand-up comedian to really take off in Canada. The Vancouver-based performer has been enter­taining crowds since she got her start in 2015, but her comedy career was a long time in the making.

Born in Tokyo, Nagashima graduated from Bunkyo University with a degree in English literature and became an English teacher. While working at a conversation school, she became romantically involved with a colleague from Canada. When his visa was about to expire, she decided to get a working holiday visa and, in 2008, moved with him to Vancouver, where they married.

Through her time in Canada, Nagashima has been exposed to different cultures and perspectives, which have opened her eyes and led to her current career. Splitting up with her husband in 2015, she took to the stage for the first time later that year.

It didn’t take her long to find her style: speaking heavily Japanese-accented English and touching on topics ranging from ethnic stereotypes to hidden aspects of Japanese culture. And she’s finding plenty of fans: her YouTube channel, Yumi Tube, has amassed nearly 170,000 subscribers and a few of her performance videos have racked up one million views.

We caught up with her earlier this year via Skype to find out more about how she got her start, her biggest influences and how comedy can help bridge cultural divides.

Can you tell us what launched your career as a comedian?


The very first point was when I had a role in a comedy play — How Much Are Those Feelings in the Window? — in 2015. I unexpectedly realized I liked being a comedian after hearing people’s laughter at my first line: “I’ve been married for three years, and it sucks.”

Then, everything happened right on time. Around then, I started dating my boyfriend who was a stand-up comedian, and he took me out to his stand-up comedy show where he played as a headliner. It was there I got an offer to be a stand-up comedian from a producer of the show. After two weeks, on October 20, 2015, I did my first stand-up comedy gig and became the first Japanese female stand-up comedian in Vancouver.

It took a little bit of time to overcome my nervousness. I was very nervous, and I thought that it wasn’t healthy at all. So, I practiced plenty of times in front of my friends and my co-workers until I could believe in myself fully and felt that I was ready.”

How do you like doing stand-up in Canada?

I feel very comfortable doing stand-up here in Vancouver and talking about racism or sexism. Anywhere I do live performances, I feel very welcome on stage in Canada. People in Vancouver tend to be educated about multi­culturalism, and they are interested in listening to related topics.

I was curious about sexism, and I did some research about the global gender gap. Canada was better than the United States, but Japan was far worse. So, when I talk about Japanese sexism, the audience often pays attention.

Do stereotypes feature in your show?

Yes. I believe there are still stereotypes about Asian girls in Canada. I think, in general, Canadians believe that Asian girls are easy to manipulate and don’t argue much when people speak loudly or strongly. So, I try to bring up this stereotype in my show and I let them know that Asian girls can stand up for themselves.

What are some of the things that you find most interesting about Canada from a Japanese perspective?

Canadians are interested in other people, generally. I think this is related to the size of the country. Canada is a huge country with a small population compared with a country such as Japan. So, people are more likely to pay attention to others and be more welcoming to strangers. I feel it’s that way in Okinawa — I suppose they are likely to be interested in others because there are fewer people living there. In Tokyo, there are too many people within a small space, and its harder for people to be interested in others.

“I let them know that Asian girls can stand up for themselves.”

Have any comedians influenced you?

Dave Chappelle, Bo Burnham and Wanda Sykes. I am always impressed by Dave Chappelle’s shows. He performs as if he is talking with his friends on stage. And Bo Burnham inspired me to use music in stand-up — that influenced me a lot. I figured out that I didn’t need to stick with the traditional style at all. Also, I think Wanda Sykes is a naturally talented comedian: her funny voice and weird sounds are amazing.

What led you to record your first song, “My Name is Yumi”?

I belong to 604 Records, which is also the production company for Nickelback and their lead singer and guitarist Chad Kroeger. The company is great at recording songs and they have an excellent recording studio. The production company has worked with comedians for about three years now. One day, I got an offer to record my first album, and I thought it would be fun, so we did it.

Still from “My Name is Yumi” music video

Do you have any strong connections to other Japanese expats in Canada, or the Japanese–Canadian community?

I do have Japanese friends here whom I met at a Japanese restaurant where I used to work. They allowed me to practice over and over and supported me so much. Other than that, I don’t have strong connections to other Japanese expats or members of the Japanese community.

Do you think that your work as a comedian helps Japanese and Canadians understand each other a little better?

Yes, definitely. In terms of national stereotypes, I do point out differences in my show.

I think Japanese people often prioritize harmony, and that it is the national character of the Japanese. They would rather hide their emotions than insist on what they want. I feel that caring about others and sacrificing yourself are regarded as a virtue in Japan. I also think it is beautiful, but it is dangerous, too, because people often forgo their own desires. Then, I guess Canadians tend to be more concerned about their own feelings than about others: your happiness is your responsibility. Sometimes the Canadian perspective gets me realizing how important that is.

What is your next goal?

I recently got my own monthly show in Vancouver. I collaborate with one of my friends, the drag queen Dust Cwaine, in the show. My main goal is to have my own “Yumi Nagashima Show” like Oprah Winfrey and Ellen DeGeneres do.

My management team went to Los Angeles recently and got an offer from APA [Agency for the Performing Arts, a leading talent agency], which represents comedians Jimmy Carr and Ronny Chieng. Hopefully, I can perform in Los Angeles and in New York in the future.

Also, I really want to perform on Saturday Night Live. To achieve these goals, I will continue to work hard. I will go step by step to fulfill a successful career.

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