We first came across David Ury and his alleged twin brother, Ken Tanaka, after seeing their video titled “Ken Tanaka and David Ury Japanese accent training.” The video features two men of similar physical characteristics having a conversation in Japanese with very different accents. Intrigued, I found myself combing the internet for any information regarding the pair and learned that David Ury is an American actor and Ken Tanaka is his long-lost twin brother who was adopted by a family in Japan. Various videos on Ken’s helpmefindparents YouTube channel seemed to verify this information, showing Ken and David speaking to each other in the same room.
But whispers of controversy surround the brothers despite the online existence of two completely distinct people. Is Ken Tanaka actually just David Ury showing off his acting skills? We set up an interview with David hoping to find out more about the talented actor behind the perfect Japanese accent.
What we landed up with was some of the best Japanese study advice we’ve ever heard, some anecdotes about crazy adventures in Japan and an introduction to a comedic book about death.
First off, a little background information:
RN24: Thank you for taking the time to talk with us, David. After watching many of your videos, we realized that you speak Japanese at an impressively high level. How did you get so good at it?
David: In 1993 I went to Japan for two years as a university exchange student. I’d taken one semester of Japanese the year before and could say a few words like “bifuteki wa oishii desu.” When I arrived, I quickly realized that I couldn’t really communicate or understand even the most basic spoken Japanese. I quickly became obsessed with learning the language out of necessity. It can be very lonesome when you are 19 years old and nobody can understand what you are saying. And so, I devoted nearly every moment of my day to studying Japanese in some way.
RN24: A lot of our readers are currently studying Japanese, do you have any study advice for them?
David: Here are some of the techniques I used:
1) I went to my University’s English language library and checked out every Japanese textbook they had. I read them all, from cover to cover, and kept notes of new words, phrases and grammar. I’d read them on the train.
2) I carried an electronic translator everywhere I went. I would read signs on my walk from the train station to my home, and look up any kanji I didn’t know. I would use any excuse to talk to strangers. I would ask for directions multiple times from the same area. That way I could hear similar responses over and over and learn new words like “tsukiatari”. I would ask every train station worker I saw how to get to such and such station. I did that kind of stuff every day.
3) In the first months, it was hard to make friends and find people patient enough to speak with me. I joined my school’s international club and tried to make a lunch date with a different Japanese student each day to guarantee that I would have some conversation practice. In the first four months, conversation practice was the most challenging aspect of my study. Who wants to spend an hour talking to someone who can only say, “It is cold today. Beefsteak is delicious. Flowers are pretty”? The answer to that question is…Japanese tourists in foreign countries. You see, my Japanese ability turned a corner when, after four months of struggling to practice Japanese at university in Japan, I spent a month vacationing in Cairns, Australia. There were tons of young Japanese tourists who spoke no English. When I approached them in Japanese, they were generally really happy to get to talk to someone in their native tongue. So I learned conversational Japanese when I left Japan and went to Australia. That means if you live in Cairns, you already have a huge leg up. When I returned to Japan, the Japanese friends from my international group were shocked that I could suddenly have a normal conversation. From that point on things got much easier.
4) While studying there, I made the decision to limit my English speaking in Japan to 10% of total conversation. That meant I could only hang out with other foreign students for 10% of the time. Of course there is a huge temptation to stay with the pack of familiar countrymen when you’re living abroad, but if you’re looking to learn the language, that’s a real trap. Don’t get me wrong, I had friends I’d hang out with from my exchange program, one of whom is still one of my best friends, but I focused on mixing with Japanese people. The American friends I had were similarly minded, so much of our conversation revolved around new words we’d learned or observations about language and culture.
RN24: Those are some great study tips. I wish I had thought to ask multiple people the same question just for the practice while I was studying in Japan. It seems like you were really committed to becoming fluent in Japanese, did you ever do anything really extreme in the name of language study?
David: In those days it was 80 yen to the dollar. I didn’t work and didn’t have much money. On weekends, or week long vacations I would hitch hike. I’ve hitched from Hokkaido to Kyuushuu. Sometimes getting 5 or 6 hour rides with nothing to do but talk. I’d hear a new phrase in one car and then try to use it in the next car I got into. I met all kinds of people who I’d never have met within the confines of my university. I used to leave my apartment with a small backpack, sleeping bag, tent and a magic marker. I could get dropped off anywhere and just find some woods and pitch my tent. Once I got stuck in a snow storm and stayed the night with a bunch of freeway construction guys in their little office next to the interstate in Tottori. Another time an elderly woman saw my tent and came and woke me up at 5am with a can of hot coffee and some pastries. Sometimes I think back on it and am a little hazukashii, but at the time I was in heaven.
RN24: Wow, what an adventure! So David, you’ve seen immense success with your “What kind of Asian are you?” video. What inspired you to create this video addressing common Asian stereotypes?
David: I co-wrote and co-produced “What Kind of Asian are You?” along with Ken Tanaka. Ken and I are both close friends with the actress in the video, Stella Choe. I was at a party once and overheard a guy asking Stella “what kind of Asian” she was. When he heard “Korean ” he began to name off every Korean person and foodstuff he could think of. The conversation was pretty close to what’s in the video. Stella is such a great actor and has such sharp comedic timing that it was easy to write for her. Her co-star, Scott Beehner, was a friend of mine from a class at Groundlings theater years ago and I knew he’d be great too. I had a feeling that the video would be well received but we were all surprised that it reached such a wide audience. It turns out people all over the world can relate to this situation. In fact, because of that video Stella Choe got a role in a Korean blockbuster film called International Market, where she is playing opposite Lost’s Yunjin Kim.
RN24: You are a very talented actor and have been on many American shows, including Breaking Bad, The Mentalist, and CSI. Do you have any plans to work as an actor in Japan?
David: When I was in college I did a tv show appearance with comedian Akashiya Sanma and did another six or seven episodes of various TV in Japan. However, those were more comedic variety type shows where I was a “personality” or presenter and not really an actor. I would love to do some work in Japanese film or TV, but I don’t really know how to get into the market. The entertainment industry is completely different from how things work in Hollywood.
RN24: We’d love to see you on our television screens over here! Ganbatte kudasai! Is it alright if I ask you a few questions about your alter-ego, Ken Tanaka?
David: Well, as you may know from this video, Ken Tanaka is my long lost, very good looking, identical twin. Though I know him well, I can’t answer questions for him.
RN24 : Oh, of course not, I’m sorry for asking.
David: No problem. If you have specific questions for Ken, I would suggest you email him, but I can try to answer anything to the best of my ability.
RN24: Sure, David, no problem. We just have one last question for you: Do you have any other upcoming projects you can tell us about?
David: As far as other projects, Ken’s book (which I helped out on and am credited as co-author) Everybody Dies: A Children’s Book for Grown Ups is being released in 2014 by HarperDesign (A division of Harper Collins). It’s a hardcover, 48 page comedic look at death, with full color illustrations by Ken.
We continued to chat with David and upon concluding our interview, we took his advice and promptly emailed Ken Tanaka to hear his side of things and received a reply a few hours later.
RN24: During our recent interview, your brother mentioned your upcoming book Everybody Dies which you provided all of the illustrations for. How did you get started as an artist?
Ken: I drew a lot when I was young, but I started drawing again around 2008, because two of my friends Gary Musgrave, and James Jean were artists and they would take me along to figure drawing groups sometimes. In 2009 I was offered an art show at a big gallery in Los Angeles so I decided I should get more serious. I went out to buy the large crayola 64 count box with the built-in sharpener (I only had the one with 10 colors before that) and started practicing. I drew a donkey airplane, and giraffe, and then I just kept on going. In Everybody Dies: A Children’s Book for Grown Ups I painted and wrote along with co-author and twin David Ury…he did some shading too. And I also put up new drawings and cartoons on my blog.
RN24: We read that you were adopted by a family in Shimane Prefecture. Did you enjoy growing up in Japan?
Ken: Shimane is the most rural area of Japan, and I lived in a village that was in the mountains about 75 minutes away from the city of Matsue. It was a nice place to grow up. It’s quiet and cold and it looks like a Mizuki Shigeru manga. Also there were many friendly mountain animals like the Yamasemi (Kingfisher bird).
RN24: Since meeting your twin brother, David Ury, what have you learned about him? Do you two often talk?
Ken: David and I didn’t talk too much after we first met in 2007. He was very busy then. We did go to El Salvador together in 2009 and in 2008 he took me to his hometown. This year we have been connecting more and David has been working with me on producing videos and on our new book. I’m not sure why he suddenly started spending more time with me. I think he must have had a very lonely life. It is sad. I try to be a good brother and friend to him.
RN24: Are you two any closer to finding your parents?
Ken: I am still searching for Jonathan and Linda Smith [our parents], but I think I will find them very soon.
Are Ken and David one in the same? Is their story of being long lost brothers true? After having contacted both David Ury and Ken Tanaka, we can’t say for certain one way or the other. We can tell you that Ken concluded his email reply to us with this statement: “The one thing I would like your readers to know is that I love them all, and I will always love them forever and ever until there are no more evers left….and probably even then.” So remember folks, Ken Tanaka loves you. David Ury probably does too, but he’s not telling.
RocketNews24 would like to thank David Ury and Ken Tanaka for taking the time to talk with us. If you’d like to find out more about David Ury, you can visit his official site. If you’re interested in his brother, Ken Tanaka, you can find him on Youtube at helpmefindparents or on his blog. You can preorder Ken and David’s book, Everybody Dies, on Amazon.