Why you should care

Instagram star Naomi Watanabe discusses how self-esteem is at the heart of her brand.

I arrive early at Sakura because I had been warned in advance that Naomi Watanabe, Japan’s busiest female comedian, might turn up early for our 4 p.m. meeting. The venue was abruptly changed the night before, from a Taiwanese restaurant to an izakaya pub in Tokyo’s Nishi-Azabu bar district, where the entertainment industry meets. Sure enough, at 3:30 p.m., Watanabe, the plus-size celebrity who is also Japan’s most-followed person on Instagram, appears alone with her hair in her trademark twin buns and wearing bright red lipstick, blue sandals, pink tracksuit bottoms and a black sweatshirt from her label Punyus (playing on the Japanese word for “pudgy”). The empty pub comes to life as her face breaks into a smile.

We climb to the second floor, choosing a spacious but rather dingy private room, with echoes of Japan’s 1980s economic bubble — a karaoke set, fading purple curtains and a shining mirror ball attached to the ceiling. As Watanabe seats herself at the head of a large, six-person table, she takes out her iPhone and puts it on a stand for full view. My eyes settle on a big Fendi shopping tote bag that is sitting across from me on the gray couch. Her face lights up when I ask about it, and she excitedly takes out a brown leather mini-bag and a light green wallet, both recent Fendi purchases, from the tote bag. The three items add up to at least $5,400.

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.

Naomi Watanabe

Her undisguised penchant for luxury brands and cars — which she says are “motivation boosters for work” — is somewhat unexpected. The 30-year-old entertainer is after all a fashion icon and social media star for Japan’s millennials — the generation that supposedly spends on experiences rather than possessions. But then Watanabe is a woman who has become a fixture in Japanese households precisely by breaking the mold.

In a world dominated by mostly male comedy duos, Watanabe, born to a Taiwanese mother and a Japanese father, is one of the few who performs solo. She rose to fame in 2008 lip-syncing with wild dance moves to Beyoncé’s “Crazy in Love” and, later, to Lady Gaga’s “Poker Face.” Since then, she has become huge, both physically and in the entertainment world. At 227 pounds, Watanabe is twice the size of an average Japanese woman her age.

Outspoken and determined, she has pushed her boundaries as a comedian by going into acting, launching her own casual clothing brand and performing in New York. Her Instagram account is followed by 7.9 million people — a visual showcase for her sharp sense of humor.

A mild panic is starting to set in as I wonder whether we have been forgotten. The pub remains eerily silent, so I return to the topic of how she spends her money. After getting her driver’s license last year, Watanabe immediately bought a Lexus LX 570, a gigantic sport utility vehicle that cost at least $90,380 (she appears in an ad for Toyota’s much-smaller Vitz/Yaris subcompact). “I saved for three years to buy this car,” she says. She is also fond of new wallets: “I try to set a new challenge for myself every year. Once I accomplish it, I buy a luxury brand as a reward.” But her thought process is very much as a Japanese millennial who has grown up with the economy in a broad state of deflation. “I have a policy for buying brands. I don’t buy on impulse but I consider whether the item can last until my grandchildren’s generation. Like this bag, you can use for a very long time,” she says, pointing to the Fendi tote. I’m skeptical the bag would last that long, but I stay quiet as she continues: “The economic bubble burst after I was born [in 1987] so my generation has been all about saving and not using money. Maybe we don’t even know how to use money since we’re uncertain about when the cash will be gone.”

For Japan’s millennials, the natural instinct has been to think small and avoid risks. Five full years of the world’s most aggressive program of monetary easing under Prime Minister Shinzo Abe have yet to generate inflation. Wage increases are depressed, and social welfare costs are set to soar as an ever-increasing portion of the population grows old.

Still, Watanabe insists her act of saving is a proactive one to invest in her future. She points to four years ago when she used her savings to take three months off to study entertainment in New York. “I was putting 120 percent of my energy into work at the time, and I felt like a dried-up sponge, so I decided to go overseas to absorb things from scratch,” Watanabe says. She also wanted to test her chances abroad because she feared she would hit a dead end if she stayed in Japan. “There are too many comedians in Japan’s entertainment industry, so I knew it would be impossible to reach the top if I was on the same rail as everyone else. That’s why I decided to build my own tracks.”

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 favorite 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, Watanabe 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,” she 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 appetizer 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, northeast of Tokyo, Watanabe was young when her parents divorced. She was raised by her Taiwanese mother, who spoke to her in “broken Japanese,” resulting in what she calls 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,” says Watanabe.

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.”

A plate of chicken wings has arrived, unordered, but before I can say anything, Watanabe has already started eating them. “I have never been bullied in Japan for the reason that I’m Taiwanese. But I get more of that now as an adult,” she says, revealing that she has increasingly become an online target for racism. But that has not stopped her from reconnecting with her Taiwanese roots. During her “world tour” in 2016 to celebrate her 10th anniversary as an entertainer, her last show was in Taipei. Her international ambitions, Watanabe says, were first driven by a desire to be famous in Taiwan to show off her success to her skeptical relatives.

The maître d’ brings in a huge pot of chicken rice with enough for about six people. Again, we had not ordered this dish, but Watanabe starts eating it slowly. Meanwhile, I struggle with the deep-fried fish sausage as the fermented beans gush out, so I try the octopus salad, which is far more refreshing.

My eyes turn to Watanabe’s $60 Punyus sweatshirt, emblazoned with an illustration of three male bodybuilders. Envisioned as a plus-size brand when it was launched in 2014, Punyus’ current collection includes sizes from extra-small to a 6X-large. “My concept is not to have a concept. I don’t want customers of my brand to be limited by a stereotype that people who are fat should wear this type of clothes or that,” Watanabe says. Sales have increased steadily and she plans to open her first shop outside of Japan in Taipei soon. “I’m thrilled to be seen as a fashion icon, an artist or an actress, but I can do all of these things because I’m a comedian,” she says.

I nervously stare at my watch as my hour with Watanabe is almost up and the shabu-shabu has not arrived yet. But shortly afterward, the maître d’ enters with two large plates of pork and beef. “You have to try this soy milk broth. It’s delicious,” Watanabe says to me with a big smile. “Isn’t it great to have both sides [of the hot pot] with meat? Meat, meat, meat, that’s Naomi-chan!” the maître d’ says gleefully, calling Watanabe with the affectionate suffix that Japanese people use to speak to younger people. Watanabe says she loves meat because “it never betrays.” She prods me to eat, so I take a slice of pork that does in fact go amazingly well with the soy milk dip mixed with ponzu sauce.

It is well past 5 p.m. and it is time for Watanabe to go to her five-hour dance lesson. But before she leaves, I ask her how she manages to do Instagram when her entire schedule is already filled for the rest of the year. “I started Instagram because I wanted to do things that I can’t do on TV. I want to do things that comedians haven’t done in the past and create something new. It is tiring,” she admits.

Before she heads out, Watanabe whispers to me that the maître d’ always brings dishes she hasn’t ordered and the bill turns out to be shockingly expensive. I reassure her it will be OK and send her off. Feeling uneasy, I immediately ask for the bill, which turns out to be nearly $600, including a $200 charge for the karaoke room. Should I have asked Japan’s Beyoncé to sing?

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By Kana Inagaki

OZY partners with the U.K.'s Financial Times to bring you premium analysis and features. © The Financial Times Limited 2018.

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