Ten minutes into our conversation, a male waiter, dressed in casual black, at last brings our menu with an apologetic smile. As I ponder whether this is a late lunch or dinner, Watanabe is already ordering three of her favourite dishes — sautéed leeks, deep-fried fish sausage stuffed with fermented beans, and an octopus salad. She asks me what I would like to eat, and we decide to share shabu-shabu, ordering thin slices of both beef and pork. Despite selecting an izakaya, Watanabe orders an iced green tea, confessing that she does not drink alcohol. My post-pregnancy alcohol tolerance is low too, so I go for oolong tea.
Looking hungry, she starts fiddling with her iPhone so I guess incorrectly that she is checking her Instagram account. “I can’t live without my mobile,” she says, looking almost embarrassed. “The first thing I do when I wake up is to check Twitter trends. It’s a relief when I don’t see any major entertainment news.” She then takes out an IQOS, the “smokeless cigarette” produced by Philip Morris International, from her bag. “I can’t stop these either,” she says with a giggle.
To resolve whether this is a Lunch or Dinner with the FT, I ask her how many meals she had before our meeting. She laughs when I tell her that I read that she eats five to six times a day, saying that was only when she was young. Now, she eats only twice a day and ours will be her final meal so I assume this counts as her early dinner. “I don’t understand why I’m fat,” she says. Has your physique ever bothered you, I ask?
“When I was young, I used to be hurt when I was told I’m fat but now, I just think, you’re making fun of me but my life is so much more fulfilling than yours. Life is so much more fun if you can have pride in yourself,” she says. At this point, the maître d’, a middle-aged motherly figure, pops in to greet Watanabe, who cheerfully waves her hand before continuing. “People always say I’ll lose my job if I lost weight. I just happen to be fat now but I don’t have to be fat to be me. I want people to see me as a person, not for my physique. It also shouldn’t matter if I am a man or a woman,” Watanabe says, showing her rebellious streak. “Don’t you feel that way too?” she abruptly asks me as I quickly nod in consent.
Food finally begins to arrive at our table, starting with tiny appetiser plates that come with our drinks. Watanabe goes for the Japanese egg roulade while I choose cauliflower pickles. As we are on the topic of gender, I seek her thoughts on why the #MeToo movement has not affected the entertainment industry in Japan, where speaking of sexual harassment has long been considered taboo. Watanabe sees it differently. “Japanese men are starting to become more considerate too, and careful about making remarks that can be taken as sexual harassment.” I reckon that is still surely inadequate in tackling issues of sexual abuse, but she quietly withdraws from the topic.
Born in Taipei and raised in Ibaraki, north-east of Tokyo, Watanabe’s parents divorced when she was young. She was raised by her Taiwanese mother who spoke to her in “broken Japanese”, resulting in what she said was a “double-limited” challenge in which she could speak neither Japanese nor Taiwanese fluently. “There was a time when I was deeply bothered by the fact that I could not speak Japanese properly. I struggled a lot because of that.”
When she was 15, she told her shocked mother and relatives in Taiwan that she wanted to become a comedian. They urged her to go to university and get married. But she failed to enter a single Japanese high school, and joined a training school for comedians at the age of 18. I ask her why she wanted to become a comedian in the first place. “Because I coped with loneliness by watching comedians on TV,” Watanabe says, recalling how her mother used to work until midnight to raise her. “I loved making people laugh but I was always alone at home.”
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