March 2009

Chuck Johnson – Expat, Martial Artist, Movie Star

by Reginald Smith

Having lived in Asia, I know first hand how stereotypes Westerners bring with them (including myself) often obtained through the media can clash with reality. It is the things, and people, that you do not expect and don’t fit our perfect mold that make life interesting. Like the six foot North Korean on the opposing basketball team that slammed all over me in pickup basketball. There were many other excellent Chinese street ballers I tried my mediocre skills against. After a game, a girl walked up to me and told me “I thought I was going to see you play like on the ‘AND1’ video but I’m kind of disappointed.”

chuck-headI am sure many people think of Chuck Johnson this way in Japan. An expert and national champion in the United States in Olympic taekwondo, Chuck’s swift kicks, skill, and discipline have shattered the normal stereotypes of Blacks being hip-hop gangsters or unruly soldiers in Okinawa. Chuck currently resides in Tokyo, Japan but has also lived in Seoul, South Korea and has visited 30 other countries as a volunteer. Not bad for someone who first started being an expat in 2004

Chuck originally hails from the home of Motown, Detroit, Michigan. After moving north to Okemos, Michigan with his family in his early teen years, he first started learning Olympic taekwondo at age 15 and began winning victory after victory in local tournaments. By age 20, he had won gold medals in the state junior championships and began traveling back and forth to Korea for more intensive training. “While I was in Korea, and I saw just how big the world really was… and how much opportunity there was out there for people who were willing to explore it,” he tells Black Expat about his first experience abroad.

In Korea, he lived for a time in Seoul and learned Korean. Though it was a culture shock living there, Chuck downplays the cultural differences and imagined antagonisms between Blacks and Koreans. As he stated in a Metropolis Tokyo interview, “culturally, the Koreans share a myriad of elements with African-Americans: they both have a strong Christian social base, community-first orientation, super-direct communication patterns, etc.” By age 23, he had won one national championship back in the US and was considering the Olympics but decided he wanted to continue his path in expat life and moved back to Asia, this time Japan.


Japan, through my informal conversations probably has the largest Black Expat concentration outside of the US or Western Europe. Being Black (a ‘kokujin’) in Japan is not unusual given the commercial and military connections. However, Chuck’s skills have given him a whole new view and perspective on Japan not gained by the simple tourist or expat businessman. His skills in martial arts (he is now training with the Japanese katana and capoeira in addition to his previous training) has gained him many admirers and often some awkward situations. For example, when he first started competing in local tournaments, he would be paired in kickboxing matches to lose where he said the crowd would cheer at seeing the ‘big bad foreigner’ get beat up by a local champion. And then they stiffed him on the payment for the fights! Overall, he thinks people in Japan and Korea are very kind and he has picked up several local cultural tips such as proper social etiquette in Japan: “learning to be polite, and careful about how I choose my words, conscious about my body posture, and how to deal with things that I don’t like without muttering a word of complaint.” or ‘Jung’, instant caring and compassion even for strangers, in Korea.

chuckfrontAt times the going can be rough. Japanese apartments are notoriously small, not built for a 6’2 person, and he tries to maintain his fitness by training for hours on end 4-5 days a week. Through it all though, Chuck is still optimistic and encourages others to seek their expat dreams. “Go for it. Even if it’s scary. The things that you will learn about yourself, your own culture, the new culture and life in general will far outweigh any hardships you may have. As a Buddhist expression I heard in Korea goes: ‘The harder mountain mountain path will always yield the greater view.’ ”

“I’ve come to realize just how similar we all really are. Even having been to 33 countries around the world, you can always see the same basic personality types, the same kind of success stories, and the same type of people with chips on their shoulders for the same kind of reasons. Culture and Language change how exactly behaviors manifest, but what it means to be human always seems to remain the same.”

Though Chuck is a new face on the scene, don’t expect this article to be the last you hear from him. He has recently entered the world of showbiz, appearing in a multitude of Japanese films, commercials and TV shows usually acting in Japanese. He has recently done a live action show with the Pass Guard Action Team as a ‘hip-hop samurai’ and this year has been cast as ‘Maegawa’ a major character in the upcoming Japanese action trilogy, ‘Yakuza Hunter’. He is also developing an American English phonetics coaching tool that blends hip-hop beats called Phat English (  He is definitely someone to keep your eye on. Follow his progress at his blog at:

chuckswordAll images of Chuck Johnson courtesy of Chuck Johnson.

Living & Spending in Tokyo

At the end of this section you will find a global Currency Converter to calculate costs.

tokyobridgeMonthly rent:

$600 to infinity

Cost for meals:

$5 – $300.

Transportation costs:

$200 a month.

Compared to your home country are most things cheap/same/expensive?

Expensive. Things in Michigan are cheap.

Recommended monthly living budget:

Minimum $2000 a month for anything remotely comfortable.

How modern are basic amenities/infrastructure?


Any legal hurdles all foreigners have to face to live there?

Transitioning out of English teaching into other fields can be difficult… especially because of visa issues and negative stereotypes about English teachers being irresponsible skirt chasers.

Top 3 things you would recommend someone to bring when they come:

DEODORANT – can’t find it anywhere and the local stuff is way way too weak,

SHOES – I’ve heard Japanese women’s shoes generally only come in a 5, 6 and 7, and the men’s range only goes to about a 10.

At least $3000 – In Tokyo, you generally get paid at the end of the NEXT month for the work you do. Which means even if you start immediately, you have to go about 2 months without a paycheck. Furthermore, it will take you a while to find all the ways to do things cheaply or cost-effectively.

Top 3 things you would recommend for someone visiting or living here to do:kurukurusushi

Watch Sumo Wrestling. It’s amazing.

Go to a natural hotspring,

Go to a Kaiten sushi shop – sushi brought out to you on an automated conveyor belt – See photo.

harjukuTop 3 hangout places:

Ageha – Biggest club in Asia
Harajuku – internationally known and the styles have to be seen to be believed! – See photo.
Yoyogi Park – Right next to Harajuku, always holds all kinds of events and festivals.

Photo credits: Above Wikipedia & Wikimedia Commons images: Rainbow Bridge Tokyo Bay & Teens standing on the Harjuku Bridge are from Wikipedia user Picturetokyo, Conveyor belt sushi restaurant photo by Robert La Ferla, courtesy of Wikipedia user Gedeon.

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5 Responses to “Chuck Johnson – Kickin’ Butt in Japan”

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