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Tuesday, Nov. 17, 2009
Showbiz means to an end, not goal
Blunt 'Judo Japanese' on TV boosts profile, prospects for foreign fitness pro
Chuck Wilson, 63, is a fitness trainer. But he was — and arguably still is — far more famous as a funny foreigner who speaks in a defiantly casual and blunt manner to TV personality bigwigs.
Costarring with Beat Takeshi, now better known as movie director Takeshi Kitano, and Kyosen Ohashi and Koji Ishizaka in the TV quiz show "Sekai Marugoto How Much" ("Guess How Much the Entire World Is") from 1983 to 1990, Wilson earned a name for himself with his bluntness toward the show's moderator, Ohashi, a veteran of the entertainment business.
"I didn't care about show business. I knew I wasn't going to have a career in showbiz," Wilson, who has spent two-thirds of his life in Japan, said in fluent Japanese. "I agreed to be on TV because they agreed to put a subtitle introducing my gym in Azabu (in Minato Ward, Tokyo) every time I was on the show."
His use of casual, or even somewhat violent, Japanese comes from his judo buddies, said Wilson, who hails from Boston.
"I learned Japanese used by the police because I practiced judo at a police station. So I learned 'Kora, omaera' ('Hey, you') type of language," he said.
The first phase of Wilson's life in Japan was filled with judo. He showed up in January 1970 at the age of 23 for the sole purpose of learning judo, he said, and has never lived anywhere else since.
He first studied judo at Doshisha University in Kyoto while earning a living by teaching English at companies, including Panasonic Corp.
"I was practicing judo nine hours every day then," he said.
He moved to Tokyo in 1973 to work for a gym. He was practicing judo in his free time at Keishicho (Metropolitan Police Department) Budokan, where Olympic 'judoka' work out.
It was his use of judo lingo that got him invited on the TV show, he recalls.
An employee of the Dentsu Inc. advertising agency who was in charge of commercials for the show was a frequent visitor to the Azabu gym where Wilson was working.
Wilson said the Dentsu man thought he was a "funny foreigner" who spoke odd Japanese and would be a good contrast to Kent Gilbert, an American lawyer who speaks refined Japanese and was also featured in the show.
"Viewers thought my interaction with Kyosen was funny. He was frightened by me," Wilson said.
His TV appearances helped draw people to his gym, but people sometimes did not take him seriously because he was funny on TV, even when he was speaking seriously, he said. He received ¥130,000 or ¥140,000 per show, which involved two to three hours of work, he said.
Wilson never went out with Takeshi Kitano and other people on the show after work because he was never invited, he said, though he probably wouldn't have accepted an invitation even if he had gotten one.
"Celebrities distance themselves from ordinary people. I am no celebrity and had no intention to pursue a career in showbiz. They go to parties with TV producers and others, otherwise they will not get their next jobs. I don't want to do that," he said. "Takeshi was all right. He and I were on good terms."
Thanks to the popularity he gained on the quiz show, he appeared in a number of TV dramas and two movies, and wrote six books. He enjoyed acting but never watched himself on TV or videos because it's embarrassing, he said.
"If I watched myself on TV, I would think to myself, 'My acting stinks' or 'I was in a rubbish show.' "
While being a foreigner made him unique and gave him a chance to appear on TV, nowadays many foreigners can speak very good Japanese, making it tougher for foreign "tarento" (talent) to get that kind of opportunity.
Comedian Patrick Harlan, better known as Pakkun, and commentator Dave Spector are exceptions as they are very successful, Wilson said.
"They want to be professional tarento, try very hard and are doing well," he said. "I hope they succeed. I did it as a way to help my main job."
While he doesn't deny he enjoyed the fame he garnered on TV, he likes his job as a trainer more, he said.
When he was still young, he knew his main passion was for work. That led him and his American wife not to have children.
Wilson, who is now a permanent resident of Japan, has been married for 36 years. He had a vasectomy a year after getting married.
"I couldn't raise a child because I worked all the time. My wife also said it is difficult to raise a child alone," he said. "My wish (to have the surgery) was stronger than hers. But she and I have never regretted the decision."
He has taken only five days off in the past 10 years, he said.
In 1987, he set up Chuck Wilson Enterprise Inc. The company does not own a gym, but instead uses other people's facilities to offer conditioning classes to his clients.
During the company's heyday in the late 1980s, it had about 20 employees and contracts with about 20 gyms, he said.
Though the focus still remains on physical training, Wilson now also works with hospitals to offer counseling in preventive medicine for chronic conditions such as obesity and hypertension.
As a longtime resident, he advises non-Japanese not to try too hard to change this country. Instead, they should learn to adjust to the culture.
"For foreigners living in Japan, Japan is their country. Especially if they have permanent resident status, it is natural that they want to make their country a good country. That would frustrate them," he said.
"It's not how much you can improve your country, but how much you can adjust yourselves to your country. You cannot change the fact that Japanese are raised differently."
He also said he has never felt handicapped by being a foreigner. Rather, it has always been a benefit.
"Foreigners are treated special in a way. That is an opportunity as well as discrimination. I would be an ordinary guy in the United States."