The Japanese have long had an obsession with all things western. It’s not so much adoration as it is fetishism; when you’re an island country with a largely homogenous population, anything foreign is automatically deemed exotic and interesting. This leads to a great deal of unwarranted praise that much of the foreign population let go to their heads, and over time, many gaijin actually start to believe that they are indeed exotic and interesting. All you have to say is that you’re from New York (“Wow! So cool!”), Paris (“Waaaaah! Gentleman!”), or Ohio (“That sounds like good morning in Japanese!”). I don’t mean to come off as jaded, but I am, so fuck you.
I can’t tell you how many foreign “models” (blonde white people who haven’t gotten fat yet), “actors” (either thin and attractive or comically huge, but nothing in between), and “writers” (literate English speakers) I have met in Tokyo. I’m not saying you shouldn’t take advantage of the opportunities you are given; if someone offers you money just for looking or talking a certain way, by all means, take it. But the moment you let it sink into your psyche, as soon as you really start believing that you are rare and unique and special, you put yourself in grave danger of becoming a Class A, licensed and certified Piece of Shit. And most people who let this happen don’t realize it until they move back home with little to show for their time abroad except a beer belly and a wicked sense of entitlement that will soon be squashed the moment they try to get a real job.
Anyway, two months ago I got an offer to be in a commercial for a traditional high-end restaurant in Tokyo, which of course I accepted. The entire process took about 90 minutes and is now in the final stages of editing, which means that I’m basically an actor now, and henceforth demand to be acknowledged as such.
As an actor, I have always believed in due compensation; a well-fed actor is a happy actor. I refuse to work for free and do not accept “exposure” as a form of payment, which is why I was elated to find this message from a friend, Aaron, in my inbox one fine afternoon:
Hey, wanna do a wedding photoshoot on Sunday evening and make a hundred bucks? Transportation paid and free wedding food.
Aaron had been invited to be one of two foreign guests in a fake wedding, and I was fortunate enough to be offered the role of foreign guy #2. If this sounds bizarre to you, that’s because it is. Our duties and responsibilities were as follows: show up, wear a suit, eat a $400 lunch for free, look surprised when the food comes out, fake conversation, and don’t be Japanese – all tasks I can do with relative ease. And it wouldn’t be a photoshoot – we would be in an actual live-action commercial.
That Sunday afternoon I met Aaron at the train station and we made our way to the restaurant. We knew the moment we arrived this would not be an average Tokyo dining experience; the entrance had vines growing from top to bottom, there were koi ponds everywhere, and each dining room featured a view of a meticulously groomed bonsai garden. In fact, there was no common dining area – only private party rooms that branched off from the main corridor. To this day it is the most exclusive restaurant I have eaten at in Japan, and I do not expect that to change.
After taking off our shoes and doing the usual greeting, self-introduction and awkward gaijin-bowing, we were taken to the set and given instructions in Japanese: look happy, look excited, look surprised, look like you don’t secretly hate each other…as you can see, appearance is very important in Japan. Most importantly, we were expected to give a big, over-the-top reaction when trying each dish for the first time, which of course is no problem for a serious actor such as myself. Remember that scene in Lost in Translation when Bill Murray is filming a Suntory whiskey commercial? It was sort of like that, only amateurish and not quite as cool.
Here is where it gets awesome; while being filmed we were expected to make “real” conversation with each other, and since no one else in the room spoke English, we could say anything we wanted as long as we said it with a smile. The actual conversation would be muted for the commercial anyway, which means the only people who might be able to catch on to what we were saying are English-speaking lip readers. This is probably for the best, as my friend and I had agreed before the filming began that our entire conversation, which lasted about an hour in total, would focus entirely on one topic: boobies. I’m serious. We even shook on it before getting started.
So there we were, suited up and eating hundred-dollar plates of sashimi while carrying on a conversation that went something like this:
“Imagine if this nabe pot was really just one giant boob.”
“Japanese D or American C, but to be honest I’ll take anything.”
“Even the lights in here are round, kind of like boobies.” “Yeah, they remind me of your mom’s.”
“Is there such thing as too big?”
“What’s your favorite nipple shade?”
If you think this is crass, well, you’re not mistaken. But this is how it happened, and now you have a little insight into the mind of this 30-year old. When the shooting was over, we thanked the staff for the meal, bid farewell to the camera crew, and made our way back to the train station, stopping for a celebratory konbini beer on the way. Kanpai.
About a month later, $100 was deposited into my bank account. I couldn’t remember what it was for, but I certainly wasn’t going to complain about it because hey, free money. When you’ve been in the industry as long as I have, it can be easy to lose track of the small-time deals you made in your past. Just don’t forget where you come from, because for some people, it’s a long, long fall back to the bottom.