Jobs in Japan - Acting Jobs

By James Gibbs.

There are many opportunities for actors/actresses in Japan. Aside from special work for established talent (not relevant to the average person reading this book), it is very easy for amateurs and even beginners with some talent to get into this field.

Japanese society is very cosmopolitan in its interests with many shows, commercials and promotions utilizing foreign performers. Admittedly these are minor roles, but this work either pays the bills or supplements the bills for many foreign people in Japan. It can also be a lot of fun.

A common characteristic in this profession like any other in Japan is the shortage of people to do the work. In any big city in America, an audition for actors would likely produce 50 or more people lined up to try out for the part, but in Japan there might only be 10 or 20. You will still have to be active in your search, but the percentages are much better in your favor.

Immigration is hard at work doing its best to make it difficult for extra labor to come in—Thanks guys! In addition, there is constant turnover with so many foreigners returning to their home countries every year. Therefore, there is a viscous situation where someone with only high school drama experience could be doing commercials, particularly if you are available at the required times.

A good friend of mine, Bob, came to Japan in 1988 at the insistence of his brother who was working for an English school at the time. When I first met Bob, I asked him, "How long will you be staying?" He replied, "Oh, just a couple of months. I just want to visit and see what Japan is like. It's great. I'm having a good time." I went on to ask him what he did, and Bob explained that he was a writer and did some acting as well. In fact he was a drama major in college and had done some part-time acting work in New York, although not such an extensive professional background.

Ten years later Bob is still here and his main job is teaching English. During this time, however, he has been on Japanese TV about fifteen times, acted in plays (even directing one of his own), was the main character in a music video, and has done some modeling work as well.

In one of the funniest shows I have seen him in, a well-known Japanese "talent" (as they are referred to) was cruising Narita airport and randomly interviewing foreigners on what they thought about Japanese food. After talking to three or four people, the talent approaches Bob (a plant) who innocently seems to be just getting out of customs pushing his luggage cart.

After a few questions about food, the talent grabs Bob by the arm and says, "Let's go. Come on!" He drags Bob to a very expensive and famous traditional Japanese restaurant where there is a lot of slimy, disgusting-looking things twitching around on a plate, most of it alive until seconds ago. The talent then tries to force feed these delicacies to Bob whose face shows a repugnant expression. In this case, I do not think he was acting. The scene climaxes when they bring out a live red snapper that had been sliced up and pinned down on a plate, all of the organs intact so that Bob could watch the fish flop around as he ate it. With the situation hopeless Bob relents and consumes these morsels managing not to throw up, to the great delight of millions of Japanese viewers.

By the way, if you are concerned that you will have to eat these things if you come to Japan, rest assured as long as you stay out of the $300-a-plate restaurants, you should be okay. A Big Mac goes for about $2.00 and can be found just about anywhere.

Perhaps Bob's most unusual acting assignment was the job he did not take. He got a call from an acting agency that he was registered with. The manager said that one of the leading Japanese TV shows needed a foreigner to go on the show and vividly talk about the UFO he or she had seen floating over Tsudanuma the week before.

Although I will leave the detailed analysis to someone's Ph.D. thesis paper, it seems that sometimes Japanese pay more attention to what is said by foreigners. Thus, having foreigners in your ads, shows or presentations can add credibility. After all, people are used to the nonstop parade of domestic nutcases who have seen UFOs or other weird stuff. However, if foreigners are seeing them too, then maybe there is something to it.

I was surprised that Bob had turned down this opportunity to perform in front of millions of Japanese viewers across the entire country, and I asked him, "Why not? That would've been a riot! You could've taped it and shown the video to all of your friends." Bob explained, "Who knows. I may want to run for political office some day, and the last thing in the world I want is to have something like that coming back on me."

This scenario is very common in Japanese TV, i.e., staging events or yarase in Japanese. In fact, the broadcasters are downright tabloid in the shows they put on. Even the supposedly highly esteemed NHK (Japan's mega-well-financed public broadcasting network, to which everyone in the country with a TV is supposed to make monthly payments to) was caught in the act red-handed.

They aired a "documentary" on the Himalayas, showing their crew as it trekked through this "dangerous" mountain range. In the process, they had to scramble to escape a rock slide, although I did not know why they were so terrified of this because it was a pretty lame rock slide. Then they had to resuscitate one of their crew who nearly died, passing out short of breath from lack of oxygen. Later word leaked out that these and other scenes had been staged, although it seemed obvious anyway, and the company president publicly apologized for abusing the public's trust.

Shortly afterwards, I saw a cartoon in the newspaper I thought was very funny. There was an award's ceremony podium with an Oscar-like trophy sitting there. The caption read, "Now the award for Best Dramatic Acting in a Documentary..." A figure with hands out and NHK written on the suit reached for the trophy.

In another case, this time in which I took offense to, TV Asahi did a series of "documentaries" on the promiscuity of Japanese women with foreigners. In one of the more outrageous segments, a young black man was dressed up like some kind of gigolo with gaudy jewelry in front of a flashy car. The man boasted of the many Japanese women he had bedded. He went on to explain how he found these women, how easy it was, and how he could freely sponge money and gifts off of them. The message of these "documentaries" that TV Asahi chose to broadcast in prime time was unmistakably clear, "The foreigners are screwing our women."

Fortunately, a real journalist, Dan Papio, happened to see the program, and he went out into the streets of Roppongi to do some real reporting. After visiting several bars, he found out who the "gigolo" was and interviewed him. The man turned out to just be someone who had just registered with an acting agency. He admitted that it was all a hoax and that he had just taken an acting job and recited the script they gave him.

Papio broke the story in the September 24, 1992 issue of Tokyo Journal, and nearly all Japanese broadcasters and newspapers as well as some foreign media ran with it, turning the incident into a major embarrassment for TV Asahi in the international community.

Only once pretending to be a tourist, fortunately Bob has not had to participate in any hoaxes leading to an international incident. However, he did come close to abetting a possible intergalactic incident with the UFO job he turned down.

It is funny to watch people I know like Bob on TV in Japan, and Bob does indeed have some talent. I asked him why he was not pursuing his acting work full time as opposed to teaching English. His response was that it is very easy to get the acting work and overall the pay is as good as a good paying teaching job, but it is irregular and in order to get steady work you have to be available on many days, free time that he had when he first arrived.

Previously, Bob had been keeping days open for acting jobs, but he said he just grew tired of it, and preferred to take a stable teaching job with a guaranteed regular monthly salary. He had had enough excitement being on TV and preferred to have a more ordinary daily routine.

He went on to explain that the visa was also a problem with the entertainment visa being short-term and a nuisance to have to constantly renew if you want to stay in the country long-term. Of course the tourist visa was also an option for which Bob had used for several years, but again, this was a nuisance and Bob did not like the extra anxiety that came with this.

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