Performer Faye Butler’s top tips for anyone looking to work as an actor in Tokyo.
Working as a British actor in Tokyo, Japan, comes with its trials and tribulations, but boy does it give you the satisfaction of feeling challenged! On one hand, you’re working with less competition, as there are a limited number of other non-Japanese actors in the pool. On the other hand, there are far less roles for foreign talent – especially substantial or leading roles. Here are a few first-hand tips to get you started:
1. Joining an Agency
Agencies work differently here, so it’s handy to do research before signing the dotted line. In Tokyo, specialised foreign-talent agencies are non-exclusive, so you’re allowed to sign up to more than one. There are a bunch of reputable agencies you can easily find by searching online.
The agencies usually allow you to register online, but only once you live here and have a valid working visa, such as the Working Holiday Visa. Often, the agencies will ask you to meet at their offices to sign the contract, as well as fill out measurement forms, detail past experience, and take polaroid snaps. Remember to ask if you should take your shoes off at the door before entering the office (as per Japanese culture).
Once you’re all signed up and ready to work, agents will email you with details of potential jobs. They will ask for your availability in terms of 1st keep, 2nd keep or NG.
- 1st keep means you’re available for the job, no questions asked. If you receive an offer, you might be contractually obliged to fulfil the job (even if you’re ill!). It’s important to read the details of your contract before you sign. Japanese agencies can include clauses, such as you having to pay out 150% of the job fee if you become unavailable to shoot.
- 2nd keep means you’re not yet sure if you’re available on those dates. You can change to 1st keep at a later date if your schedule clears up.
- NG (No Good) means that the date does not work for you, and the agent will not submit you for that job.
Google Calendar has become my best friend since working as an actress in Tokyo. Every time I reply with my availability, I input the details into my diary to ensure that I never give 1st keep for more than one job on any given date.
2. Learn Your Lines
Since arriving in Tokyo and connecting with other people in the industry, I’ve discovered that Japanese actors are notoriously brilliant for knowing their lines. You won’t catch them on set scrambling to stuff lines in at the last minute. Having lines learnt is synonymous with any hard working actor in the industry, but I’ve found it’s especially prevalent here in Tokyo.
It’s good to be aware that sometimes lines written in English have been translated from Japanese and can read unnaturally. Don’t be afraid to re-write your own English version if that makes more sense. If you feel comfortable to do so, you can ask the director which version they’d prefer, just be ready to roll with either. I’ve done this a few times and generally they’re more than happy for you to naturalise the text.
3. Japanese Audition Etiquette
Auditions here are a little daunting if you aren’t confident with the Japanese language (like me!), but generally they follow the same format as an audition in the UK. They may ask you to do an ident or slate, turn on the spot to show all angles or show both sides of your hands. If it’s a commercial, you may have to perform a simple action or line. If it’s a TV show or film, you will perform the scene. If it’s a modelling job, they’ll ask you to do some poses.
If you’re signed to a foreign talent agency, there’s a good chance a multilingual agent will join you at the audition to translate for you, which is beyond helpful. Perhaps just brace for a couple of brief, awkward “sorry, I don’t understand” moments.
4. Be Prepared To Cover Any Tattoos
Tattoos are a little taboo in Japan due to their historical criminal connection. I knew I’d be one of the few here with tattoos (albeit small ones) and I’m under the impression that it’s more culturally acceptable for foreigners to have tattoos, but that doesn’t mean it’s always a comfortable experience having them on show.
It’s a great idea to be prepared and find a way to comfortably cover your tattoos for auditions. This is so the casting team can focus on your performance first and foremost. I have a trusty thin, long-sleeved t-shirt which I can happily wear in summer (it gets BOILING) for most castings. I also have my own plasters and foundation stick at the ready, just in case I feel it’s the best option for that particular casting.
5. Learn The Basic Japanese Phrases
Working as an English-speaking actor in a foreign environment is no small feat. Here are a couple of useful terms to help you in the beginning:
Gaikokujin/Gaijin (pronounced gai-koku-jin/gai-jin) – This word simply means foreigner. It literally translates to ‘outside country person’. ‘Gai-jin’ is the shorter form of the phrase. From my understanding, ‘gaikokujin’ is a little more polite.
Yoroshikuonegaishimasu (pronounced yorosh-ku-onagai-shi-masu) – A useful term to know, which you’ll hear almost on a daily basis. In an audition setting, it will be said as you meet the casting team. It’s a mixture of ‘nice to meet you’ and ‘I’m looking forward to working with you’. If someone says it to you, along with a small bow, it’s polite to say it in return.
Otsukaresamadesu (pronounced otskare-sama-desu) – This is often said at the end of a job, a shot, or a working day, etc. It means “good work” or “thank you for your hard work”.
You might hear it in different forms, such as “otsukare” (informal) or “otsukaresamadeshita” (past tense), but it’s easiest and most polite to stick to ‘otsukaresamadesu’.
Jyoyu or Haiyu – This translates to actress or actor.
Yoi and Start – In place of “rolling… action!” we have “yoi… start-o!”. ‘Yoi’ literally translates to ‘preparation’, followed by a Japanese way of pronouncing ‘start’.
Faye Butler is an actress living in Japan. Originally from St Anne’s on Sea in Lancashire, Faye traded one seaside town for another to attend the Arts University Bournemouth to study Acting. Since living in Tokyo, she has worked mostly in TV, Commercial and Motion Capture.
Headshot by Alishia Love
Main image by Jezael Melgoza on Unsplash