Recently a friend of a friend contacted me with questions regarding my experiences in the Japanese entertainment industry. Below is my reply.
How hard has it been for you to break in?
The biggest advantage with my comedy has been simply being a foreigner. This obviously really helps in getting me noticed. People remember me, and I stand out at auditions. I've never met another foreigner doing comedy in Japanese, and I'm always the only non-Japanese at comedy auditions or live shows. There are a few I've seen on TV, but almost never consistently. The biggest one I can think of is "Bobby"--an African guy that speaks fluently.
But there have been major challenges with breaking in. I certainly don't fit "the pattern" often seen on mainstream Japanese media. I sing funny songs in Japanese, and sometimes they're about taboo topics. Japanese comedians rarely reference politics, but I dabble in political satire as it provides a well of comedic sources (How could you NOT make fun of the drunk Japanese finance minister!?). The one time I got on a major Japanese variety show, I had to read a script and could not do my own material.
Another long-winded example of a challenge:
I auditioned for a "step" comedy show at Watanabe Production (one of the bigger talent agencies [known as "jimushos"]). A step comedy show is one where the audience votes for the best comedians, and the top ones move on to the next, bigger live show. It's basically a contest a la "American Idol."
I made it in the show the first time. I think being the only foreigner in the audition room helped a lot. I heard people whispering stuff like "whoa... there's a foreigner...what's he gonna do..." I love that kind of stuff as it keeps me motivated to continue.
The crappy part was that I was branded a "special guest" and excluded from the contest. My friends attending the show said my name wasn't even on the ballot. To the defense of the Japanese, I don't think it was 100% racism. I was told that students at the Watanabe Production Comedy School are given preferential treatment (that's the Japanese jimusho system), and I can't expect to be in the contest the first time.
I auditioned again and made it in again. After the audition I asked if I would be in the contest, and they said I was a "special guest" again. I turned it down and gave up on that avenue.
Have you been auditioning for commercials out there?
I have a good job in IT that I like, so I haven't deeply explored the "working actor" avenue. I did try being an extra for a day, but left because I knew it was a waste of my time. I also signed up at a small talent agency that specializes in foreigners. These agencies place foreigners in the typical foreigner gigs--commercials or evening shows that re-enact top foreign news stories (e.g. OJ Simpson, Jean Benet Ramsey, etc).
The guys at the agency took my picture and made a profile for me, but they frowned when I told them I had a full-time job. Not surprisingly, I never heard anything from them. Comedy is all I want to do, so I didn't really care.
Have YouTube videos opened any doors for you?
Yes, YouTube has been pretty good to me. It's mostly helped with social networking. For example, people see my videos and decide to check out my live stuff. One guy that found me was starting a talent agency for foreigners. Unfortunately, he was only in touch with the music world and wanted to work the music industry angle. He wanted less funny, more music; while I wanted the exact opposite.
It seems to me, though, that Japan is a little behind on becoming mainstream YouTubers (like Americans). Look at the top comedians on YouTube Japan and you'll see plenty of videos in English. The other big users are otakus. YouTube Japan is full of manga/anime/Akiba otaku culture. One extremely famous YouTuber is a cute half-Japanese American girl youtubing under the name "Magibon." She takes full advantage of her Akiba "moe" look and has a ton of Japanese subscribers (mostly otakus and hentais, I'm sure). She was even flown to Japan for a TV appearance. It helps to be a cute girl!
I think lots of the people watching me on YouTube are Japanese-speaking expats, foreign-living/born Japanese, or cosmopolitan Japanese (e.g. they've lived/studied abroad and/or like foreign cultures). Just about everyone I meet via YouTube fits into one of these categories. Supposedly I'm huge in Spain.
If you're thinking about YouTube Japan, you could also look at Nico Video (a popular Japanese video sharing site). I have to warn you, though. Thick skin is an absolute requirement because 99% of the Nico users are hard-core otakus with little to no patience for male foreigners. The few videos I have posted up there get horribly bashed. It would be a different story if I had breasts, mini skirt, and chipmunk voice. Those compile most of Nico's top videos.
Would it be impossible to try and get an agent from America and be up for doing commercials in Japan? I read that agents are not the same as in the US, but I know they film a lot of commercials in America.
I think it's possible, but I don't know much about it since I live in Japan. I have heard success stories with this avenue, however. The African-American guy on the Softbank commercials was discovered in America, I believe. Brian Link is a Japanese-speaking white guy in Los Angeles that does announcer/commentator work for Japanese TV.
The lack of a Japanese visa may be an issue, though. To legally work in Japan, the company that wants you has to sponsor your visa. However, entertainment visas aren't that difficult to obtain, so I doubt this would be a deal-breaker.
And you're right in saying that agents in Japan are much different from those in the USA. Japan is more about the agency as opposed to the agent. To make it big, you have to apply for and enter a major talent agency's trade school. Upon successfully completing their expensive training program, you will be placed into paying gigs on television. My understanding is that there is a lot of old boy's network deal-making and hand-shaking going on behind the scenes. The actual performer probably doesn't get nearly as much money as the agency does.
When I perform my comedy at live shows, other performers often ask me if I'm in a talent agency. I say no. They advise me to apply assuring me that I would make it in--often mentioning the biggest comedy agency Yoshimoto as the one to shoot for. I have considered applying as it would be the most logical step to take my comedy career (if you could call it that) to the next level. However, I believe I'll be surrendering a lot of myself to do that. I would be trained on the proper way to make Japanese people laugh, and I would no longer own my own comedy. Who knows if I'll even keep a hand in the creation process. The biggest motivator for applying to talent agencies is so that I can create more of my own comedy making fun of the entire talent agency system here.
After a live show, I once asked a talented young Japanese comedian if I could quickly interview him on camera for a YouTube video. He politely refused stating that his talent agency doesn't allow him to do such things without permission. Yeah, I don't think I'd be happy in a "jimusho."