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Japan’s foreign-talent guru shares her worldly wisdoms

Putting foreigners on screens in Japan has given Motoko Inagawa insights aplenty to share

by Edan Corkill

In need of a couple of Portuguese missionaries? How about a boatload of Dutch traders — or a platoon of World War II U.S. grunts?

Meet Motoko Inagawa. It’s not that the sprightly 75-year-old’s network of foreign acquaintances metaphysically extends to the long dead, but it’s just that she’s very dedicated to her chosen profession — which is supplying Japanese television and film companies with foreign extras and actors.

For 24 years, her company, known as Inagawa Motoko Office, has been the dominant force in the foreign-talent business in Japan. When the TV broadcaster TBS struck gold with their late 1990s prime-time show “Koko ga Hen da yo Nihonjin” (“This Is What’s Strange About Japanese People”), which featured foreign residents debating the quirky minutiae of life in Japan, it was Inagawa who was supplying the controversial casts.

Such populist stuff apart, though, Inagawa’s bread-and-butter was always TV dramas. To meet their unending demand for foreigners to act as missionaries, 19th-century traders, U.S. servicemen and other archetypal visitors to these shores, she would often spend her evenings lurking observantly in foreigner haunts such as discos in the Roppongi district of Tokyo.

Inagawa says her interest in things foreign was instilled at a young age. Her well-traveled father worked at the General Headquarters (GHQ) of the Supreme Commander of the Allied Powers, U.S. General Douglas MacArthur, and she tells how it was an encounter with MacArthur himself that contributed to her own recovery from a life-threatening illness.

That early awakening to her own mortality continues to inspire Inagawa, who is astoundingly energetic for her age. It wasn’t until she was 51, in 1985, that she started her company after an earlier chance encounter had transformed the then-housewife into talent scout. At 70 she finally graduated from university — which illness had prevented her from doing in her youth — and at 72 she embarked on a postgraduate degree in social and international studies at the University of Tokyo.

Inagawa is still in command of her company’s day-to-day affairs, though changes in production budgets, technology and public tastes mean the market for foreign talent these days is a mere shadow of what it was during the mid-’80s bubble economy when she started out in the business. Even so, she currently represents around 5,000 gaijin (foreigners) from 142 countries.

You were 51 when you started your company. Why did you get into this business?

My daughter, who is a pianist and now lives in the United States, used to live with me in Japan. She played big concerts. One day she was asked to play a concert scene on stage for a TV drama. I went along as her mother. After the shoot the director said he was also making a film, and he urgently needed a middle-aged Frenchman who could play piano. I thought, I have a French friend, so in a small voice I said: “I might know someone.”

It turned out that the person I was thinking of had already returned to France. But the director had been so happy when I told him I might know someone that I couldn’t bear the thought of letting him down. So I ended up calling the Institut Franco-Japonais, and it just so happened that a great concert pianist was touring Japan. In my really bad French I managed to persuade him to take the part.

After that, word started getting around that I could help finding foreign talent. It continued like that for about two years, with me working on a voluntary basis. I just used my own personal network of foreign acquaintances.

Eventually, I was told by an executive at TBS that if I wanted to continue doing this work, then I had to make it official and get the proper authorization from the Labor Ministry. So, I did.

Before I ask more about your work, tell me a little about your life before then. What kind of a mother were you?

When I was a child I used to love playing the piano. But when I was a high school student I developed a type of hemiplegia [a condition whereby half of the body becomes paralyzed], so I couldn’t play properly any more.

It’s not like I wanted to live out my own dream of being a pianist through my daughter, but I just loved classical music and wanted her to play. I started her in piano lessons when she was 2 years ten months old. From then on I was an education fanatic. It was all piano. I couldn’t see anything else but the piano.

Was it just after the war that you became sick?

Yes, I was a high school student then. In the immediate postwar period there was a serious problem of malnutrition. Everybody’s blood was thin and many people’s fingernails were completely white.

I was in and out of hospital — the Tokyo University hospital — with hemiplegia. It was so bad that one day my doctor told me that I probably had only four months to live.

How did you recover?

When I wasn’t in hospital I would go to a church on Sundays. I was a member of the choir at the Chapel Center, which was just in front of today’s Diet building. (U.S. Gen.) Douglas MacArthur (Supreme Commander of the Allied Powers) would come sometimes.

One day, MacArthur suddenly pointed at me and said, “Come over here.” He took my hand and led me out to the back of the church. In Japan at that time MacArthur was above the Emperor. I was terrified.

Behind the center there was a garden with a table, and he said “sit down here.” I waited. Then, after a little while a person came out carrying a plate. It was full of bacon and eggs!

MacArthur said, “Eat a lot! If you don’t eat up you are going to die.”

At the time, eggs were so scarce in Japan that you didn’t even see them. And then bacon! It was the first time I’d eaten it in my life. And the bread! What can I say? It was just . . .

Tasty?

Oh, it was so tasty! I mean, it was . . .

Little by little, little by little, my tendency to collapse improved. Eventually I entered Keio University’s faculty of arts, but then I developed the hemiplegia again and had to quit. That time I managed to get a lot of streptomycin and penicillin and antibiotics from GHQ.

You had some connection to GHQ?

My father worked there. Before getting married he had lived in Europe for 20 years, so he was called up for interpreting and consulting work.

It was thanks to MacArthur that I survived.

So, you established your office. Was there a great need for foreigners in the Japanese entertainment business in the 1980s?

There was a massive need. Now it’s contracted so much. I think it’s probably one tenth of what it used to be.

What was it like when you started?

I worked 24 hours a day. I was just working flat out to deal with all the phone calls we received.

What kind of TV programs were common?

I did programs like “Koko ga Hen da yo Nihonjin” (“This is what’s strange about Japanese people”); I provided all the people on that. But dramas and dramatic reenactments were the most common.

Were you mostly providing extras for the dramas?

Extras, minor parts, small speaking parts, speaking parts — usually for period dramas like the regular NHK Sunday-evening drama. There was always a need for Portuguese missionaries or Dutch people — the ones who were among the first Westerners who came to Japan. Or, if it was a contemporary drama, they would need foreign extras walking around Yokohama or dancing at the Rokumeikan disco [in Meguro].

How did you find people?

What I did was, every night, for basically the whole night, I would stand on the street in Roppongi, looking for people. There was also a disco called Lexington Queen. It was the peak of the disco boom at the time, and there were podiums for dancing on in the middle of its massive dance floors. I used to get up on those podiums and dance.

At over 50 years of age?

Yes. They started calling my favorite perch the “Inagawa podium.” Standing there, I could spot people who looked good and go and talk to them. Of course, you couldn’t hear anything in the disco, so I’d take them outside and say, “Please, please appear in this or that shoot tomorrow.”

Did they need to have acting experience?

If you wanted people with experience you had to go to America to look for them, to Hollywood and places. Almost no one had experience.

But I had a very good eye for spotting people who looked the part. Like, once, I needed to find someone to play the role of a company president. I stood at the Roppongi intersection for such a long time looking and looking, going, “No, this person looks like a section chief,” or “That one’s a bit young for a president.” Then I caught a glimpse of someone who looked like a company president. I went straight up and asked him to take the role. You know what? He was the president of Olivetti, visiting from Italy or somewhere.

I always say that a person’s face is their resume.

So are the people you scout basically just doing the acting as part-time work?

We have two systems here. One is for people who are represented full-time by us, and the other is for those who are just registered with us. The registered people have their own normal jobs, so they might work on weekends or evenings. Those we represent full-time are professional actors who make a living out of their acting.

Are there any of your acting clients you are particularly proud of?

The Philippine actress Ruby Moreno is one of them — she received a whole lot or prizes for her acting in the early 1990s. But then she had some problems in her private life, although she is still working as an actress. There are so many Westerners too. I have been doing this for so long that there are so many who have gone home now.

Does it upset you when they go home?

No, it’s not upsetting at all if they go home. What’s upsetting is when they jump to a different agency the moment they start getting regular work.

But, if you got upset every time that happened then you couldn’t survive in this business. My husband passed away three years ago. He would have been 86 if we was alive now. He always used to say that in Japan there is this saying: “Don’t chase after people who leave; welcome those who come to your door.”

What kind of foreigners succeed at acting in Japan?

The entertainment industry here might look very exciting, but there are still a lot of people who maintain a really conservative top-down view. You know, the director is emperor.

For a foreigner to succeed in that world, there are a number of things that are crucial. Firstly, you need to be diligent.

There is a two-man group of entertainers by the name of Pakkun Makkun — Patrick Harlan is American and Makkun, his partner, is Japanese. Patrick was in my office for a long time, when he still hadn’t made it big. His really strong point was that when there was an audition or something and you gave him a script he arrived having memorized it perfectly. Just because of that he won a lot of auditions!

Even these days when I meet him he always comes up and says, “Hey, shacho (president)!” He understands what we did for him, and that’s why he still calls me “shacho” and treats me well.

Patience — that is another quality that is absolutely essential for succeeding in Japan.

The other one is modesty — not being conceited.

What happens to the people who aren’t like that — who can’t adapt to Japanese ways?

There are lots of those. One area where there are often problems is the hours.

Foreign clients will always ask me what time a job will end. I often just have to say, “I can’t tell you!” You know, if the lead Japanese actor hasn’t remembered his lines properly, then there may be many retakes. The more retakes they shoot, the more time it takes.

But, when you’re dealing with people who have always lived in a “contract society” like the United States, then problems occur.

For the foreigners, three questions are always important: How much labor is involved? What is the actual content? And how much will I get paid?

But in Japan, no one gives direct answers to those questions. The only answers you get in Japan are that they don’t know the answer until they start.

I have heard that the reputation of foreign actors in Japan’s entertainment industry is not good — precisely because of the problems you’ve mentioned: money and time.

Well, yes. Part of the problem is that for many of them this is not their be-all-and-end-all. It’s just a casual job.

But I guess the main problem comes down to the difference in values. Japanese society is not based on independence. It is a heteronomous society, so before doing anything you are supposed to think about other people. You know, wherever Japanese go their immediate natural inclination is to be careful not to do anything that might offend those around them.

Meanwhile, Americans say that if you believe something to be right, you should act on it. Like, if a thief is running through the town, an American is likely to jump up and try to do something. Japanese will look the other way.

I remember one incident that illustrates this difference. It was during the making of a film, and the director was apparently being really violent toward his assistant director — punching him and kicking him.

There were four foreign extras, who we had arranged. They had come from one of the U.S. military bases, so they were big, strong guys. They were standing there watching this director beat his assistant director for about five days — the length of their gig. Anyway, on their last day, after their work was finished, the four of -them walked up to the director, grabbed him by the lapels and said, “Do you know how painful it is to be punched and kicked like that?” And bang! They punched him.

My! What a commotion that caused! They thought they were doing the right thing — to make the director understand what it feels like to be punched — but what a commotion! We had to go to the hospital day in and day out. All the Americans had wives, all Japanese, and we went with them to the hospital. I tell you, we just barely managed to contain the situation.

That was a difference of values between the two nationalities. The Americans couldn’t stand back and do nothing. The Japanese looked the other way.

Tell me how the foreign acting business has changed over the years.

You know, in Japan’s economic bubble period [from the late '70s to the early '90s] it was normal for production companies to ask for 300 or 400 extras.

These days, there isn’t nearly so much work. For example, if they need to shoot a scene at a baseball game, in the past they would ask us to supply several hundred people. And we would.

Nowadays, you can make the same shot with just 30 people. They use a computer and can just copy the 30 people to make the crowd.

Another trick is to change an extra’s clothes and use them in the next scene from behind. All of those techniques are attempts to bring down production costs. That is the chief concern these days.

You’ve been making use of your experience of cross-cultural relations at university, too. Tell me about your current postgraduate studies.

I’m in the department of advanced social and international studies. My teacher even said to me, “What are you doing studying this? You know more than 5,000 foreigners yourself.”

He said I should try to use the knowledge I have gained from my work in my doctoral thesis. So I decided to focus on immigration policy.

What do you think of Japan’s immigration policy?

I think this problem of the declining birth rate is inescapable as it just keeps getting lower and lower. If they don’t let more foreigners in, the population will become smaller and smaller, and the country’s productivity will become smaller and smaller, too. If that is what Japan wants, then sure, it could choose to exist as a “minor country.”

Or, Japan could decide to try to maintain its position as a major economic power. And in order to do that, it will have no choice but to let in more foreigners. It can’t do it without them.

Before Japan has time to make this decision, however, I think its hand might be forced. There are already a lot of people entering Japan, from Eastern Europe, for example. I think at the moment probably 80 percent of the people who are now coming to be registered at our agency are Russian or from Latvia, Belarus or Estonia. Those people are marrying Japanese, settling down and having children.

Is there anything in particular the government should do?

With an increase in the foreign population, a number of new things become necessary, such as improved welfare arrangements, for example, to guarantee their peace of mind and security. At the moment they have no voting rights, for example. In areas like that, the Japanese need to start working on improvements immediately because the number of foreigners is increasing and they are staying for longer. This issue is not going away. I think the government should, as soon as possible, make some mid- and long-term policies, as opposed to just adopting piecemeal initiatives every now and again.

The Japanese people need to change too. Generally speaking they are not used to living together with people of different nationalities. As I have mentioned, there are all those differences in values and ways of thinking.

As a result, if the government is not careful, I believe there is the potential for conflict to develop.

With your foreigner-savvy office, and your business, you seem well positioned for that future.

Yes, we have been dealing with these issues for longer than I would care to remember. With my upbringing, I’ve never had any preconceptions or discomfort when dealing with non-Japanese. I had always been interested in things beyond Japan’s borders.

I love speaking foreign languages, and really wish I could read more foreign literature in the original. Unfortunately my skills aren’t that great — but I can say “thank you” in about 50 languages.

Motoko Inagawa hosts an interview- based program, “Ichiisenshin — Inagawa Motoko no Sugao de Toku,” which airs from 11 p.m. each Tuesday on BS NTV