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Sunday, January 16, 2011

Question: How Do You Get Famous in Japan?

Answer: I dunno.

A handful of people have been asking me, both on YouTube and on the Yoji, about how I got into the TV and publicity work I'm doing now.

I'm happy to tell you all about it, but please, keep in mind a few things:

I'm not famous, nor likely to get famous. The TV station I'm working with is Saga TV. I do short segments about either restaurants, food, or things that they'd like a foreigner's or English speaker's perspective on (stories about Japanese cultural events, foreigners/foreign events, or stories about English education in Japan). They broadcast an evening 番組 that can be seen in Saga Prefecture and in some places in Fukuoka, and I go on to present those segments and talk about them live. So basically, it's the equivalent of being a reporter on the local news, without the journalistic bit. At the most, I do work for them two times a week. At the least, two times a month.

Also, if I wasn't a foreigner I wouldn't be doing the job. I don't have the personality or the talent to pull it off without some kind of a hook.

So I have three hooks:

1: I have a foreign face.
2: I'm a young male who cooks well, which is not THAT rare, but rare enough to count for something.
3: I speak not only Japanese, but the regional dialect with a high level of proficiency.

Of these three, I'd say that the last one is the most important. No matter how interesting they are, you don't see foreigners really "make it" as public figures in Japan unless they speak Japanese well. And the benefits of speaking a local dialect go beyond just the local area. It helps you stand out among everyone else.

Why Try to Make It Big in Japan?

I think every young foreigner who comes over to Japan has heard the rumors about how much love you'll get just for being a foreigner. Before I came, I heard about restaurants that would offer free meals to blondes, and seat them by the windows just to draw the attention of Japanese passersby. Never heard that that's actually happened though.

I'll go a little bit further and say that I think most young foreigners who come to Japan entertain, even if only in the innermost recesses of their heart, fantasies of achieving celebrity here. It definitely crossed my mind, and from some of the messages and comments I get, I know there's no shortage of people who expect to arrive and LIVE those fantasies.

Once I got here, those fantasies disappeared, and I fell into working, living, and studying the language. It wasn't until I was on the ground here for over two and a half years that I started to develop a sense of what I wanted to do and, more importantly, what I could realistically expect to be able to do.

What I decided was this:

I want to open my own restaurant in Japan and have a cookbook published here.

To those ends, I started to strategize. Just compiling all of my recipes and documenting them takes a lot of work, and once it's done, submitting them to a publishing company would more than likely elicit a reaction of "And who the fuck are you?" So the original plan was to keep working my regular jobs (teaching and waiting tables) and save money, while taking small steps towards getting myself and my cooking "known."

I thought that if I could somehow draw attention to myself and have proof of my abilities, that would be easiest. Sending query letters to cooking magazines and things like that fall flat if you don't have a portfolio.

How I Actually Went About It:

I started posting cooking, gourmet, and Japanese language videos on YouTube, and when I documented a recipe, I'd put it on my blog.

This is my earliest attempt at a video (of the ones I haven't erased):

I'm kind of embarrassed watching it now.

This is my earliest Japanese recipe post, from way back before I moved to Ameblo.

I hope there's been progress on a Japanese level, but there have definitely been changes.

Once I had established a little bit of a following, I started applying to modeling and talent agencies. I was hoping that they'd be able to help introduce me to magazines that would want recipes, or cooking shows that would want guests.

My first attempt, at a Tokyo agency called BESIDE, with a branch in Fukuoka, did not go well at all. I applied online with a couple of facebook pictures, and got an appointment. I brought my whole cooking portfolio, and that was all I wanted to talk about. They had me audition for runway walking.

I did not receive a call back.

But I learned a lot from it. They DID have the connections I wanted, but they weren't interested in helping me (see "An Aside About Modeling Agencies" below).

About this time, I was lucky to come across an audition notice for foreign extras for a commercial. I applied and along with 16 other people or so, got the job. Filming took 2 days, we were put up in hotels, and we ate breakfast, lunch, and dinner with the crew. At every chance, I tried to talk to all of the Japanese staff members, and got a whole lot of business cards. One of the project managers and I became VERY good friends and we still hang out together all the time. Another one of the project managers knew someone who managed a modeling agency and introduced me.

When I went to talk to the agency this time, I brought no food pictures, and didn't even mention cooking, except as a hobby. They signed me up right away.

An Aside About Modeling Agencies:

One of the most common misconceptions I've come across is that if you're foreign, it's easy to make a career as a model in Japan, no matter what you look like.

That's just not true.

If someone tells you they model professionally in Japan, it'd be rude to ask them how often they work, or how much money they've actually made modeling, but in most cases, they're probably just registered with an agency.

Because what is true, is that it's easy to register, especially since there are usually modeling agencies in big cities that cater exclusively to foreigners. Sometimes they're Japanese run, sometimes foreign run, but my overall take is that modeling agencies in general are scams.

They make more money off of the models that they represent, than in bringing in outside work.

A modeling agency will ask you to pay for headshots, and to have a composite printed that they can use to advertise you. Most of them also function as modeling schools, and they offer lessons, which they'll recommend you take, and usually charge for.

A good rule of thumb is that if a modeling or talent agency GENUINELY believes that they can get you work, and that you can be a profitable model, they won't charge you for those classes. They might not charge you for the headshots either, but even if they do, they won't take cash from you. If they think they can get you work, they'll just recoup it out of the modeling fees you'll eventually earn.

Foreign modeling agencies are worse than regular modeling agencies. They WILL sign you up now matter what you look like. They WILL take your cash. And then you're registered with a ton of other people just like you, and when a company comes looking for a foreign model (which doesn't happen all that much) your picture is lumped in with a whole agency full of people that are essentially your competition.

Both foreign agencies and Japanese agencies have the same downside in that they don't really care how much money the individual model is making. They have their "stars" and they have their hopefuls, who will never make anything but keep paying for lessons. And then if the other models that they have working for them each make a little bit of money a month, they get to add up EVERYONE'S totals, and take 30% or so from each. Yes, if I make more money, they make more money, but they deal in so much volume, that when I first started they had no real motivation to sell me.

It was just like, they had a male foreign model on their list, and if someone happened to be looking, they'd go, "Oh, yeah, we've got this guy. Check him out." But they weren't pounding the pavement with my headshots.

So the first 4 months I was there, I did a handful of jobs: fashion shows, bridal advertisements, and a coffee maker commercial. After I had established the fact that I could DO what work they could find me, I started pushing them a little bit.

Making Connections:

I talked to them about my YouTube channel, and had them link my blog on their website, and suggested approaching magazines about doing a cooking project. One of the magazines went for it, and I got a cooking column.

The cooking column in the magazine ran with my blog address at the bottom, and the information that I lived in Saga. Some TV people in Saga saw the magazine, followed it to the blog, and sent me an email.

From there, we set up a meeting and talked about what we could do. They liked me, but again, more importantly, they liked my Japanese. Being a foreigner and cooking were enough to get me on one time to guest host a cooking segment. But they made it clear that if I proved that I could handle the language on TV, that they had more ideas in mind for me.

The relationship has grown from there to the point where I don't have to rely on teaching to pay my bills anymore, and since I no longer need it for a visa either, I said my goodbyes.

To get to where I am right now, it's taken me about a year and four months of pro-actively working on it.

This year, I'm still hoping to branch out, so I'm pushing the agency again to start showing some of my clips to TV channels in Fukuoka.

The overall plan remains the same though. Rather than shooting for big fame, I'm just trying to put together money and connections as quickly as possible and if I can make a living by cooking, I'll be happy.

The General Plan for the Future:

The more my Japanese blog grows, the closer I get (I think) to the possibility of a book. But the market for cookbooks these days is so over-saturated that you need some kind of theme or gimmick. One potential gimmick I'm exploring on the blog is "国際結婚キッチン" as that seems most likely to resonate.

Another possible one involves traveling around the world. My wife and I are putting together our money and planning to take off early 2012. I'm hoping to continue YouTube-ing and blogging food and recipes in Japanese during the trip.

When we get back, the idea is to spend some time trying to focus my efforts on the cookbook, and getting it sold.

I'll keep posting about what I'm learning and what new opportunities come my way.

As of tomorrow, I'm starting a new part-time job cooking at a local restaurant, so hopefully that will yield some good experience.

If you have any other questions, please leave them in the comments!


Defendership said...

Even I didn't know a bunch of this stuff. Pretty awesome! I like the idea for your book's hook.

If you do travel everywhere, you can have dibs on an idea I had: chronicling what and how people drink around the world. There's probably already something exactly like it, but "researching" how people approach liquor and why around the world seems like it would be rewarding even if you never wrote word one about it.

Serazahr said...

Very nice read, thanks!

It all sounds really nice ^^
Used to have a flatmate on my first trip to Japan, who worked part time as a model, but he'd never talk about it, like a dark secret -.-

btw any idea how likely it is to get a part time as a university student? I'm going on an exchange and I'd like to try something like that.

archipelagic said...

You should come to Minneapolis in 2012 and eat Juicy Lucys and Lefse and whatever disgusting fish they ate on Man vs. Food!

And Tyra says the same thing about modeling agencies, that if it's the real deal they won't take any money from you.

the_greatest_pip said...

Wow, I've been out of the loop. I didn't have a clue that you'd been up to anything other than the YouTube videos. Congrats! I've actually had a little bit of success with this stuff myself lately. You can catch me on the big screen all cross Japan this November in a movie titled "WAYA!" Hopefully it won't turn out to be an embarrassment, but we'll see. I've got a commercial for 中部観光PR coming up next week, too. Hopefully, these kinds of jobs will keep coming. I love my teaching job (can't beat full-time university gigs), but acting/modeling is so much more fun.

Bobby Judo said...


With your student visa, you ought to be able to work a few hours a week. And in a big city, I think it should be pretty easy for you to get a part time job!

@greatest pip,

That's awesome! I checked out your profile and couldn't remember, have we met in person? Our friend Nick Delgrego used to teach at Nagoya U. of F.S.

the_greatest_pip said...

We haven't met before, but you know Nick? It really is a small world we live in, especially as foreigners in Japan. Do you make your way up to Nagoya or Tokyo often? We should get together some time if we get the chance. Feel free to email me at emptylott@gmail.com if you want to exchange contact info or something.

Amanda said...

Thank you for writing about what you're doing and how you're doing it, it's really interesting. :)

I totally agree with focussing on what makes you happy and gives you a good quality of life.

Good luck with your book! I'm sure you'll get it published. :) I think I would like to write a book one day too or design a new product... put my mark on the world somehow haha

What countries are you thinking of traveling to in 2012? Do think about coming to Australia! I looove "Modern Australian" cuisine. ^_<

archipelagic said...

So I got an idea of how you could incorporate a visit to Minneapolis into Brett's drinking around the world project!

Three reasons why Minneapolis drinking might be interesting to a Japanese audience:

1) Minneapolis actually has a really good local beer scene, like award-winning on the national micro-brew level. One of the beers, Surly, only comes on tap or in cans that are supposed to be kept cold at all times because the hops are raw or something? I don't know, but it could be interesting to a Japanese audience that isn't familiar with much variety in beer, since there's a ton here. Also, it's very difficult to get Surly outside of the area because of the raw hops issue or whatever that is. It's a fairly new brewery, but I think it's been named best brewery in the country by some really good sources.

2) We have weird liquor laws. You can only purchase alcohol in designated liquor stores before ten PM and not at all on Sundays. There's some other stuff too, but Japanese people at least wouldn't be too accustomed to that.

3) We have the only sake brewery outside of Japan. It's an otsumami restaurant and brewery call Izakaya. They watch sumo at happy hour and have an interesting interpretation of izakaya food.

Defendership said...

All good reasons, Cassie! But you missed one of the GREATEST ONES OF ALL.


Special K said...

i'm really impressed with your tenacity and drive. keep going at it!

i'm a 28yr old in Fukuoka hoping to make my mark in a different way. Id be keen for a coffee when you're up here next time

Tony said...

Fantastic story of dedication and commitment to a goal! At the time the video was made that is posted here how long had you been studying Japanese?

Eternal Sonata said...

This was such an interesting read. Seeing your perspective of Japan when you first entered and the things you had to do make a pathway towards your dream of cooking and becoming someone in Japan. The oreo cheesecake vid was great - i tried it and it was soo good! I think I would like to follow your journey to becoming a cook. It's such a simple plan and yet it draws my attention in such a way where its like reading a novel. Good luck and keep up the posts!! I'm rooting for ya.

Anonymous said...
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Anonymous said...

So what modelling agency do you recommend then?
I've heard height doesn't matter in Japan. Do you think it may actually be a disadvantage? I'm 176cm - same height as Miranda Kerr and almost the exact same measurements too... so that's my body type. I don't have a Miranda face but I'm reasonably pretty. Do you think I could get signed up? I was in Japan in December for a week and I wore green contacts and within one hour of walking around the city I'd already had two talent agencies approach me but I couldn't speak Japanese. But I'm really interested in modelling there one day :)

Yoneko said...

Man, your blog has inspired me work even harder for what I want, keep up the good, man! You're amazing!

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