Based in Japan: Norm Nakamura

Based in Japan: Norm Nakamura

On exploring new opportunities and celebrating a life of movement


Host of the popular YouTube channel Tokyo Lens, Norm Nakamura is also famous for being the first non-Japanese shamisen student of the renowned Yoshida Brothers. But beyond his passion for Japanese music, Nakamura is dedicated to curiosity. His online vlogging adventures document and explore hidden sides of Japan, ranging from tiny homes to rural train stations. Nakamura took time to chat with Metropolis and in the process, revealed his secrets to finding your own Japan.

You first visited Japan in 2007, I believe. What originally drew you here?

The biggest appeal was a new set of challenges. After graduating college, many people I knew were already buying cars and homes and settling into that sort of life. I was hungry to try new things and with its language, writing system, culture and so on, Japan was about as new as it gets.

Credit: gyro

One of the challenges you took on was to become a student of the Yoshida Brothers. It takes some gumption to follow through on a dream to learn shamisen directly from the best…

Well… I love the shamisen. It’s beautiful.

Now, this might surprise readers, but you have a history of Japanese drift racing. Did you ever feel a connection between this sport and shamisen?

I guess you could find some nuanced similarities, but drifting cars in Japan for me was more of a hobby that I fell into when one of my neighbors invited me out to go drifting with him one day. It was never a huge aspiration, more like a bonus and it was fun while it lasted, but shamisen was very much my main focus.

Your experiences with both drift racing and shamisen must have revealed something to you about Japan, no?

I think so. Along with so many other experiences, they’ve both shown me the depth and dedication that Japanese people go into in any given subculture. The communities that are formed and the bonds that are made have always left an impression on me. It’s something worth celebrating.

That might not be so different from other countries.

You’re right and in reality, it may actually be the same everywhere. But as you know, it can be hard in Japan to meet new people without having some form of kikkake or ‘trigger’ like this. So sharing deep interests with people and joining in really helped me do this in Japan and I’m grateful for that.

You’ve branched out into vlogging, and have introduced not only the shamisen, but also a side of Japan unknown to most people. What enticed you to do that?

Credit: Tokyo Lens

I started Tokyo Lens basically as an excuse for me to share the life I had working with shamisen players. I was trying to introduce the beauty of the shamisen and show everyone that you can be a normal person in Japan, but also that if you’re willing to go deep in your interests, you can meet and bond with people which leads to new friendships and experiences.

And then Covid-19 hit.

It certainly did! During the pandemic, when it was no longer possible to survive through shamisen performances, I shifted 100% to vlogging. To avoid crowds I’d travel at night, shooting videos in the early morning in remote locations. I saw more of the country than I ever imagined, and fell in love with Japan all over again while igniting a new fire of curiosity.

Drift racer, shamisen artist, photographer, explorer, video producer … and add to that a boating license and soon an aircraft one… Is there anything you don’t want to do in Japan?

Credit: Tokyo Lens

Years ago I heard the phrase “It’s later than you think,” and it’s stuck with me. There are so many things I’ve always wanted to try or do, and they’ve all come about by asking questions, meeting people, trying things, gaining experiences, you know, living. I spent years working salaryman-like in Japan, and I realized that I hadn’t lived at all. So now, I feel like I’m playing catch-up. And my work now shows anyone that you can do more than just have a life in Japan working and ‘recovering’ on the weekends. Doing and experiencing things are possible. You don’t have to be someone special to do it.

Do you ever wonder what your life might have been like if you had remained in Canada?

In 2007, I didn’t even know what a shamisen was, and drifting to me was a scene from a movie to me. As for being a vlogger, or getting my boating license… I never imagined any of it. I can’t begin to imagine what my life would have looked like with different choices. There’s always something more to be interested in, another day of challenges.

What advice do you have for someone looking to set themselves up in Japan?

Japan’s really no different from any other country in that it’s filled with a variety of people. Like anywhere, there’ll be people who accept you, like you, or even love you and the opposite is also true. Remember high school? Moving to a new country is like that, you’re starting from zero. If you arrive expecting everything to be beautiful with minimal struggle, well, it’s just not going to happen. There’ll be language barriers, cultural differences and so on, so I think it’s important to take your time and be patient. Try things. Meet people and explore your interests deeply. It’s a cliche, but take risks and fail. Fail again. And then fail 200 times more if you need to! There’s a lot here to enjoy so choose what flavor of enjoyment you want and just go with it. You’ll eventually find your Japan.