It has become one of the most common questions I’m asked after talks at anime conventions in the United States: How can I get a job in the Japanese pop culture industry — not here, but in Japan?
I wish the answer was easier.
Seven years ago I profiled Felipe Smith, an American artist who moved to Tokyo from Los Angeles in his late 20s and created a Japanese-language manga serialized by Japan’s largest publisher, Kodansha — a first for a Western artist.
When I met him, Smith was hopeful, even sanguine about his future prospects in Japan. But that didn’t last long. He moved back to the U.S. a couple of years later and has since found success with American media giants Nickelodeon and Marvel Comics.
At the time, veteran manga editor Masakazu Kubo of Shogakukan expressed his frustration at the lack of opportunities for non-Japanese. “We have nothing to offer foreign artists here,” he said. “That’s shameful.”
Some of the obstacles are inevitable. Language, for one, makes Japan’s creative industries nearly impossible to navigate for those who can’t speak with full or near fluency, let alone read or write well enough to handle contracts and negotiations. (This would also apply in America, of course, to those who can’t speak English.) But harsh working conditions and pay scales for creators in Japan are also often appalling by any standards.
Animators have it especially bad. A recent survey by the Japan Animation Creators Association pegged the average annual income at roughly $10,000, with a few higher paying studios offering up to $14,000. The hours are notoriously brutal.
Still, foreigners seeking opportunities in Japan’s pop culture business may benefit from current economic and demographic conditions. Vince Shortino, former founder and CEO of Crunchyroll Japan, sees a perfect storm of trends “reshaping the market and the skill sets needed to capitalize.”
Domestic revenues are shrinking just as overseas investments grow, he says, so that “producers who once created content focused on Japan must now consider overseas tastes.” Owing to the insularity of their industries, most of those producers know very little about artists and audiences outside of Japan, so they have begun welcoming non-Japanese people and resources to join them in shaping domestically produced content.
Last month, I was introduced to 29-year-old American singer and seiyū (voice actor) Diana Garnet at a private anime industry party. Garnet performs exclusively in Japanese. In 2013, after winning an episode of NTV’s singing competition, “Nodo Jiman The World,” which features international contestants singing Japanese hits, she got a contract with Sony Music Entertainment. Two years later she recorded the theme song to one of the world’s most popular anime series, “Naruto Shippuden.”
After exchange-student and university stays in her teens and early 20s, Garnet moved to Japan for good six years ago during the post-earthquake and tsunami turmoil of March 2011, despite her parents’ misgivings. Now she says she can’t imagine living anywhere else.
“Japan is really my only home. I’ve spent my whole adult life here, and it’s the only place where I feel comfortable.”
Garnet grew up in Silver Springs, Maryland, a suburb of Washington, D.C., without a trace of Japanese ancestry and no contact with Japanese people. Her portal to the culture came strictly through anime via her father — an early-era American otaku who raised her from the age of 7 on the works of Leiji Matsumoto (“Star Blazers,” “Galaxy Express 999”) and other first-wave anime imports.
The theme songs to those shows, and the style of singing specific to Japanese pop, shaped her future. Through them she learned the language and adopted the country as her homeland.
Sitting across from me at a cafe in Yoyogi, Garnet forms a triangle with her index fingers and thumbs, with the apex at her forehead and the baseline running under her nose.
“My style of singing is very distinctly J-pop,” she says. “This is where you project if you’re singing in J-pop style.” She points to the front and back of her throat. “But English singing comes from down here. Depending on the style and the language, you have to build up the right muscle structure so you don’t damage your vocal chords.”
A strong voice, perfect pitch and innate musicality distinguish Garnet’s talent, according to musician and event producer Nobuki Ueda, who has worked with her for five years. “But she also has a certain flair,” he adds. “When I hear her voice, I stop doing everything and just want to listen. She loves and knows more about Japan than most Japanese.”
Garnet’s story is unique: Her adaptations to a life and career in Japan are cultural, linguistic, aesthetic — and cosmetic. A natural brunette in her music videos for Sony, she meets me sporting dyed blond hair and sparkling blue eyes. After learning the language, customs and entertainment modes, she has recast even her looks to better fit the Japanese image of the typical American.
Roland Kelts is the author of “Japanamerica: How Japanese Pop Culture has Invaded the U.S.” He is a 2017 Nieman fellow in journalism at Harvard University.