Wally Green’s first experience in Japan was a bit cramped. In Tokyo for the first time as a member of the US table tennis team, Green was participating in one of his first pro tours in Asia. Lost and confused and not knowing a word of Japanese, Green resorted to staying in a capsule hotel, the smallest possible space a person can squeeze himself into for a night.
Green, who was born and raised in the Coney Island projects, had no clue about the customs or protocol in such a hotel. “You’re out of your mind. I’m not wearing a skirt,” Green exclaimed to the capsule hotel clerk when he was asked to change into a yukata.
On his next visit, however, Green was a celebrity, feted for a week as a guest of Rockstar Games. The video game maker responsible for Grand Theft Auto was in Tokyo promoting the release of Rockstar Games presents Table Tennis. The game made a star out of Green, who did the motion capture for one of the characters.
While at a table tennis tournament in New York’s Chinatown, Green was particularly animated while playing his young opponent from China, trash talking the child and catching the eye of a Rockstar Games scout. “She told me she really liked my style,” Green says of the scout, “and she asked me if I know the company Rockstar. I said, ‘Of course, I love Grand Theft Auto.’” Thus, a deal was struck.
To promote the game, Rockstar organized events at major department stores in Tokyo, inviting fans to play against each other for prizes that were awarded to them by Green. Even though Green’s character on the video game is Swedish, fans associated the character with the orange-haired African American and were captivated by him.
The nation was also captivated by the game, dispatching media to attend the events. In addition to the video game demonstrations, Wally appeared as a guest on a hip-hop TV show. “This event opened a lot of doors for a lot of other things,” says Green.[callout title=Wally’s Top 3 in NYC]Although Green likes sushi, he doesn’t consider it the defining factor of Japanese cuisine and eschews it while in New York. “If you’ve ever been to Tsukiji [the world’s largest wholesale fish market, located in Tokyo], you can’t eat sushi anywhere else. It doesn’t make sense,” says Green. Here are Green’s Top 3 Japanese restaurants in New York City.
- Hagi – 152 W. 49th Street (between 7th Avenue and Avenue of the Americas) “It’s always packed, but not too expensive,” says Green.
- Momokawa – 157 E. 28th Street (between Lexington and 3rd Avenues) Green says, “It’s a little bit expensive, but it’s amazing.”
- Hiroko’s Place – 75 Thompson Street (between Broome and Spring Streets) Green praises this teahouse because “it’s like home. They have stuff like omu-rice [a thin layer of egg draped over rice], and you can’t find that in most Japanese restaurants [in New York City]. It’s like home style,” he says.[/callout]During that week of in-store events, parties, and TV appearances Green developed a deeper understanding of and appreciation for Japan. Green’s fame with video games and ping-pong led to success in Japan with rapping, something Green was doing long before being bitten by the table tennis bug. “That’s how I met people in the music industry because every night we had a different party with a different genre,” says Green. “One night would be b-boy night, one night would be the manga writers night.”
On the night with the rappers, Green was introduced to Japan’s hip-hop community, making contacts and forging relationships that have led to recording sessions in New York.
Green recently produced a song and a video with his girlfriend, Japanese singer Sayaka Makino. “Don’t Give Up” is the couple’s tribute to the victims of the March 11 earthquake and tsunami that devastated the northeastern region of Japan, an event that occurred while Green was in Tokyo. “I never experienced an earthquake before, so I just started to panic. I just can’t explain it,” Green says. “We were in Tokyo, so we didn’t know about the tsunami until we could get to a TV.”
Refusing to label himself as a ping-pong player or a rapper, Green says he’s an entertainer. This entertainer is in high demand, especially in China, where he frequently receives requests to play ping-pong at various clubs.
When he’s not in some far corner of Asia, the 31-year-old Green calls Harlem home and is a member of SPiN New York, a beautifully designed and well appointed ping-pong social club owned in part by Susan Sarandon, the Oscar-winning actress and huge table tennis fan. Together Sarandon and Green promote the sport of table tennis around the world. When Sarandon was honored with a lifetime achievement award at the Shanghai Film Festival in June, Green accompanied her on the red carpet. The two are also involved in a ping-pong reality show produced by BBC America.
From the Coney Island projects to super-stardom in Asia and a TV series with Susan Sarandon is a life that is hard for even Green to understand. “To get paid for playing ping-pong is ridiculous,” Green says, three weeks before leaving for Suzhou to represent the US in the China Open.
To keep up with Green’s adventures, check out his website at http://www.whoiswallygreen.com/