I’m a Survivor : Japanese American Tony Sano talks about hosting ‘I Survived a Japanese Game Show’

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The latest reincarnation of a Japanese game show on American soil is in reality not a reincarnation at all. Rather, it’s a combination of reality TV and a zany Japanese game show.

In I Survived a Japanese Game Show, which debuts June 24 at 9 p.m. on ABC, 10 Americans will travel to Japan and compete in hilarious obstacle courses and antics to win $250,000. The trials of these Americans, many of whom have never left the country before, create the bulk of the slapstick so familiar to Japanese humor.

Guiding and translating the contestants is Tony Sano, a Japanese American actor of mixed race descent, along with his Japanese counterparts (the famed comedian Rome Kanda and Mamasan, a maternal figure for the show).

Sano said in a recent interview that he was excited to bring a part of his home country and his story to the American public.

“The show has brought me back to my Japanese roots, because it has a lot to do with my background and my language ability in Japanese,” said Sano, a Bay Area native.

His mother, a modern dancer who still operates a dance studio, Mary Sano Studio, in SoMa, and his grandmother played a large role in his decision to go into entertainment. “My grandmother is a huge hero and mentor of mine,” said Sano, who previously worked on an American remake of the extremely popular Japanese show Kamen Rider, one of the longest running TV shows in Japan.

Sano’s position as a multiracial Japanese American gave him a unique perspective on the interaction between the American and Japanese crew. “It was great to see people from different cultures coming together,” Sano said.

Sano said there was both overlap and difference in the two cultures’ humor. “The Japanese crew didn’t always understand the type of comedy that the American producers were going for, but they went along with it. I think it kind of melded together.” Sano added that Americans are also getting more into the Japanese style of slapstick comedy, and the show should please both American and Asian senses of humor.

Many Japanese game shows have found great success on American TV, either translated or as American remakes. This may be proof that the type of humor on I Survived a Japanese Game Show, such as a blindfolded teammate operating a moving crane with another teammate precariously dangling and trying to collect stuffed animals, can find audiences both in America and Japan.

For anyone concerned that the show would offend or Orientalize modern Japanese culture, Sano offered comfort. “ABC made it a priority to highlight Japanese culture, which is why we have the cultural awards and punishments on the show,” Sano said, referring to the rewards or penalties contestants receive (in the form of various physical cultural exercises) for wining or losing challenges. Some cultural punishments involve older traditions of Japanese culture, such as mochi pounding or pulling rickshaws.

“I hope that no one’s offended by it,” Sano said. “I’m sure there’ll be some overdone, dramatic stuff for comedic effect, but Japanese people like over-the-top comedy as well. I think it will be a much better representation of Japanese culture.”

Sano said he is proud to be representing a new generation of Japanese American. “One of my short-term goals in the Hollywood community is to make it hot to be an Asian American male,” Sano said. “I’m very proud to represent Japan and Asia. I think Asia and Asian Americans are on the rise and doing great things.”

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