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Sunday, July 5, 2009
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 . . .
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."