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It may come as a surprise but Japan’s film industry is among the oldest in the world. And while it takes a lot of hard work and luck, this article provides as much information for new and aspiring foreign actors who are looking to start a career in Japan.
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Becoming famous is a dream for many. And for people who like Japan, they begin to wonder if they could pursue a successful acting career in the country that they love.
So can a foreigner (an ethnically non-Japanese person) become an actor in Japan? The answer is complex.
There are no restrictions per se for foreigners to become an actor in Japan - there is a need for foreign representation on screen after all - but with any job, you need the right visa (more on that below). Also, it will be extremely hard to find a steady acting job if you don’t speak Japanese as there are limited roles for English-only speaking roles. And even if you do speak Japanese, the job will most likely not be steady anyway.
Acting of course involves not just acting in films but also in theatre, commercials and television shows, as well as modelling as a part of promotions. Actors in Japan often do all of the above and thus you would be expected to as well - if you plan to make it big and your career.
Also, you might be doing work as a 外国人タレント rather than an actor - which means being on variety shows on TV as the “foreigner” voice on a show. This may mean embracing that you are not Japanese and exaggerating how much you love Japan - which may be difficult and tiring to do if that’s not what you want but can be successful if you completely embrace it as part of the job - see Dave Spector.
Getting a big break as an actor will be a long process because of the competition and limitations in acting positions. Therefore, many actors work multiple jobs simultaneously. You may not be able to support yourself as just an actor, especially at first. After all, while foreign representation is needed in Japanese media, those roles are hardly the main character. Thus it’s important to set realistic expectations.
An aspirant actor must emphasise networking with other actors, producers and directors. They can build their social profile and maintain a personal website where they can upload their resume, performance reels, photos and biography. Other ways which will help are mentioned below.
Though there are no formal education requirements for going into acting as a career, a degree in theatre arts, drama, acting and performing will be most helpful in learning technical skills. And you can be immersed in space using Japanese to train to become a better actor. And these schools may lead directly to opportunities in the future.
There are various universities and drama schools in Japan. Here is a list of just three of the great options offering classes and programs in acting and performance in Japan (Please note that you have to have a high level of Japanese language ability in most cases to be considered eligible).
Japan Entertainment Academy’s parent company is Japan Music Entertainment, which manages a large number of top actors and actresses. You can take dance, acting or music courses, or a blend of courses. You could also enroll full-time for a year and take acting courses, voice training, action stunt training and dance courses, culminating in a final production with your fellow classmates.
Established in 1964, Toho Gakuen College of Drama and Music has a two-year drama course. Students will choose to focus on plays or musicals. For the especially talented, upon completion of the course, they can continue on to the diploma course for an additional two years for extra professional training.
Founded in 1935, Tama Art University is known to be one of the top private art universities in Japan. The Department of Scenography Design, Drama, and Dance offers a 4-year program, focusing on various aspects of skill, knowledge and expertise needed in an acting career and the industry.
The majority of actors find work via an agency or are working for an agency. Some even sign up for several as it increases their chances of getting auditions and being hired. While it is not necessary to have an agent, having one will make the task easier for new actors and actresses. These agents will be responsible for completing most of the business-related tasks such as resume sharing, scheduling auditions, contract reading and negotiating etc. They will also have your headshot on their website for potential clients to browse when trying to hire and actor or actress with a certain look. Also, an advantage of having an agent is they usually have a good network with casting directors and people in the industry.
A piece of caution: Before submitting your details and portfolio to any agent, please do research on your selected agent to make sure that they’re not only your best fit but also that they treat their talents right.
We have listed a few reputed agencies in Japan below:
An international talent agency operating out of Tokyo. They manage a variety of people working in the entertainment industry, including actors, models, musicians, from adults to children.
They manage foreign models and actors. The people listed in their agency have been used in music videos, tv shows, tv ads and so on.
If you check out their information page, you can see that they manage jobs for their actors and actresses across various media types, including commercials and drama and film roles.
Another agency with models, actors and such. The works page includes work with Uniqlo, popular singer Aimer, commercials for Slack, Toranomon Hills, etc.
With the current variety of social media platforms, people become famous in a variety of ways. For example, the reality show Terrace House has launched the careers of several young people. YouTubers and Tiktokers have landed cameos and acting jobs. While it’s hard to say that this is a sure-fire way to become an actor or actress, being active and pursuing visibility on several platforms is a great way to become more recognizable, gain more fans, and perhaps catch the eye of the right people.
A work visa is required for foreigners to work in Japan. In most cases, it requires a Japanese company, school, etc to sponsor your visa, depending on what you will be doing in Japan. Thus, if you are looking into an agency, see if they will sponsor your visa. If not, you will need to have your own working visa. What many people do is that they will come to Japan, be a student or do other types of work before registering at a talent agency. Once they have steady enough acting work, they will then apply for the Entertainer Visa, which actors of foreign nationalities would fall under, but will be required to prove that their acting gig is something that will consistently earn a steady income.
Please note that:
Students must apply for work permits and can only work for 28 hours a week. This may be hard to schedule as acting work can be quite irregular.
Many foreign talents have been living in Japan for a while and can speak quite a bit of Japanese. While it’s not always required to get started, you will definitely be better off learning the language so you can get better roles in the future.
According to Economic Research Institute, the average annual salary range for an actor is between around 8 million yen and 13 million yen, which calculates to about 5,000 yen or so an hour in Tokyo, Japan.
※Economic Research Institute, ”Actor Salary in Tokyo Japan”
However, this takes into account all actors in Japan and not just foreign ones. As a foreign actor, the average pay one will make a year is usually much lower as there are close to none that have made it big in Japan or have a steady acting job. And roles for foreign actors are limited and often smaller than their Japanese counterparts, especially in major productions.
Excelling in the field of acting requires as much hard work and dedication as required in any other career option. At the end of the day, it all depends on the skillsets and the interest of the individual, as well as how multi-talented one is as well as luck. All the best!
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