Kimimaro Puts a Smile on Japan’s Aging Faces
AT 61 years old, Yoshihiro Kariya displays the energy and flamboyance of someone half his age, delivering rapid-fire jokes as he paces the stage in a red tailcoat, his hair pulled back in a ponytail. Mr. Kariya’s hourlong stand-up routine is a relentless barrage of humorous, often off-color barbs aimed at his audience, mostly women in their 60s and 70s.
“Forty years ago, when you were first married, your husband swept you up in his arms and carried you into the bedroom,” he said during a recent show.
“When was the last time that happened? 1962?” he continued, pointing at individual audience members. “For you, 1960? 1956? And over there, 1910?
“Now it is you who takes him by the hand into the bedroom. And what for? To change his adult diapers!”
The women, who have paid more than $300 a seat for this dinner show, wince at the punch lines, even as they cheer and clap.
Japan is well established as a global center of youth culture, the creator of Uniqlo and Pokémon. But this is also one of the world’s most rapidly aging societies, and there is a growing need for something or someone to entertain its growing ranks of retirees.
No one does it better right now than Mr. Kariya, better known by his stage name, Kimimaro Ayanokoji, or just Kimimaro. His books and CDs have sold a million copies, and he routinely fills places like this 500-seat theater at the stylish Hotel Okura in the western city of Kobe.
To hear his fans tell it, Mr. Kariya is that rare breed of entertainer who fully understands the anxieties of growing old, and is able to find the humor in it. Despite their large numbers, older Japanese say they often feel ignored by mainstream popular culture, with its girlish idols and slick boy bands whose members are young enough to be their grandchildren.
“Kimimaro-san is a comedian for an aging society,” said Fukako Shimamura, 63, a homemaker, who watched the Kobe show. “He is from our generation, so he understands our problems. He knows how to make us laugh, but he also gives us insight into our problems, and teaches us something.”
Mr. Kariya says he is one of the few comedians who can accomplish a difficult task: cracking a smile on the faces of tough, wizened customers who have seen it all, and don’t have a lot to laugh about anymore. He says he does it with what he calls “poison-tongued comedy,” biting, often dark humor that bluntly exposes the aches and pains, and also the fears, of growing old.
In one slapstick routine, he tells his audience that doctors have predicted that one in four Japanese will soon be senile.
“Ladies, take a look around you,” he said, before starting to count members of the first row. “One, two, three, senile! One, two, three, Alzheimer’s! One, two, three, dementia!”
“They laugh because they are afraid,” Mr. Kariya said in an interview before the show. “I soften the blow of aging by talking to them not individually, but as an audience. That way, everyone can think that I am not really talking about them, but the person next to them. But they also know in their hearts that it is only a matter of time before their teeth and hair fall out.”