There is something very Andy Kaufman-esque about Ken Tanaka. Maybe it’s just that he gets more mysterious the more you get to know him? That is, if you can get to know Ken Tanaka. After having done an email interview with him, I don’t know what to believe. Is he really a simple, wide-eyed wanderer seeking out his birth parents? Is his name really Ken Tanaka? Has he even ever been to Japan? Such is the ride you take when you tune in to HelpMeFindParents, Ken’s YouTube-based plea for answers to his lineage. If you believe his initial video, he was adopted as a baby by a Japanese couple who loved him and raised him as one of their own in Japan. Now as a grown man, he has come to the United States to reconnect with his birth parents, Jonathan and Linda Smith.
Part of me wants to help him in his search, the other half simply wants to laugh and learn a very eccentric lesson about America through a loveable Japanese Caucasian man’s eyes. It helps that he has over 200 videos, because there is an awful lot to learn.
Frequently teaming up with other Japanese culturfied YouTubers, Ken has made an art out of the gentle act of tolerance, and his frequently viral videos spread a wonderment about the possibility of a better world. For instance, check out his extremely viral “What Kind of Asian Are You?” video that we recently covered.
Even if it is all a ruse and Ken turns out to be an oddball actor named David Ury with credits on “Breaking Bad,” “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia” and “National Treasure: Book of Secrets,” so what? The message of Ken Tanaka, oft-repeated at the end of his videos — “Ken Tanaka loves you” — is all that really matters. So check out my interview with him, and see if, at the end, you don’t love Ken Tanaka a little bit too.
You started your channel with the intent of finding your birth parents — why use YouTube over, say, a private detective agency?
Ken Tanaka: I didn’t really know much about private detectives. I had seen some in American movies and tv. They seem to smoke a lot and sometimes cigarette smoke can make me feel dizzy. The first friend i made in America told me about YouTube. He videotaped my first videos and helped me put them up to spread the word about my search for Jonathan and Linda Smith.
What have you found to be the biggest differences between the American and Japanese cultures?
In Japan there are public bathhouses in every city where you can go sit and soak in a giant tub. American people seem to think that the idea of going in a big public bath with a lot of other naked people is very strange. I noticed that you seemed a little uncomfortable when I suggested we conduct this interview while soaking naked in a bath in one of L.A.’s Korea Town spas (it’s okay that we are just doing it over email, but I do think a bath would have been nicer). Americans are more open about many things, but not when it comes to sitting in a hot bath with a lot of other naked men (or women if you are on the women’s side). But Last week I stayed at an American motel and they had a sign saying “No Sex In Pool.” So I guess some Americans are comfortable with being naked in the water. Baths and food are the biggest things I miss.
Another big cultural difference. American public garbage cans are much more polite. They always say thank you. Japanese garbage cans don’t say anything. They are much more reserved (here is a rights free pic of a polite american trash can).