How to Become a Foreign Actor in Japan

Hanako to An 3Ever wondered what it would be like to be a foreign actor in Japan? You occasionally will see some foreign talent in J-dramas and movies. How did they get that chance to act in Japan? What does it take?

Recently, I had the honor of interviewing aspiring Japan actress Sarah MacDonald, who recently landed the role of Phillips-Sensei on the NHK morning drama 花子とアン (Hanako to An). I know her personally as my camp counselor back in 2008 when I went to Mori no Ike, a Japanese language camp. What was her journey like to becoming an actress in Japan? (Interview in Japanese to follow)

1. Why did you want to become an actor in Japan?

For a while during my college career, I wanted to be an actor in the US. But I’ve always been so drawn to Japan. I knew that I couldn’t give that up, even if it meant that I couldn’t act. At my first job over here (a daycare/preschool), we had a lot of celebrity clients. One day I just did some soul searching, thought “why not?” and took that leap of faith.


2. If you could of asked yourself a question after getting this role on an NHK morning drama back when you were an aspiring actress just arriving in Japan, what question would you have asked?

I guess I would’ve asked how to prepare myself. For someone with no experience in TV, it was like I had entered a completely different world.

3. I heard about your opportunity to voice act as well. What kind of character(s) do you voice?

Basically I take whatever auditions come my way, and this one voice acting job came up (unfortunately I’m not allowed to reveal specifics). I had great fun voicing various warrior women through history (in English). I’m working on getting a proper demo done now, so hopefully I’ll have the chance to try other characters and some narration.

4. When you came to Japan, what kind of visa did you have? What visa do you have now?

Oh what a long adventure that was! I actually started on a tourist visa. I had submitted an application for a work/internship visa before coming over, but it was denied about a week before I got on my flight. I spent my first few months over here just going to interviews. I was lucky that my parents were there to support me. When I got my first job, I changed to a Specialist in Humanities visa. Then, when I landed my NHK gig, my agency helped me apply for my current Entertainer visa.


5. Have you seen any of the cast of “Hanako to An” in other dramas or movies? What is it like to meet them in person?

I knew quite a few members of the cast actually. It was really surreal sitting next to some as we were getting make-up done. You get star-struck at first, but then you share a cup of coffee or see them bundling up in the cold, and suddenly they are ordinary – albeit extraordinarily talented – people. Everyone was so humble and treated me with the utmost kindness and respect.

6. When did “Hanako to An” premiere? From what episode do you make your debut?

It just premiered on 3/31 of this year. I made my first appearance on the second episode.


7. What kind of Japanese ability is needed in order to become an actor in Japan?

Honestly, no Japanese ability is necessary. Unless you look like a Japanese national, you will be cast to play foreign characters 99% of the time. And the TV groups will provide an interpreter if necessary. In my case, I actually have to pretend that I don’t understand what the Japanese characters are saying in the drama.


8.  When do you think your Japanese reached the level in which you could become an actor in Japan?

As I mentioned before, language ability is a non-issue. But I was able to read the Japanese script as a whole, not just my own few English lines, and that was very helpful for me. I think it’s only in recent months that I reached that level of fluency.

9. What was your method of studying Japanese to be good enough to get a role in a Japanese drama?

Immersion language learning has been vital to me. I started at a language immersion camp in the US, the Concordia Language Villages. I highly recommend the experience to students interested in foreign language/foreign culture study. After 2 years as a student, I became a dance/song teacher at the villages, so I was really motivated to study for the sake of my students. I then took classes at college, followed by a year abroad at Waseda University in Tokyo. That time abroad was probably the most beneficial in terms of language ability, and also for building the foundation of my life here.

Sarah at first thought she had to give up acting for living in Japan. Do any of your pursuits conflict with your desire to live in Japan? Do you have dreams of acting in Japan? What insights have you gained from interviews with other foreign actors in Japan?

Now let’s read my interview with Sarah in Japanese! (She answered in Japanese herself! These are not translated answers.)








なんと長くて辛い旅でした! 実は観光ビザで来ました。アメリカに居るうちに、就労ビザの申し込みは出したけど、出発一週間前にそれが却下されてしまい、仕方なくそのまま日本に来ました。最初の数ヶ月は就活にかけて、毎日のようにインタビューに行ってました。この間、両親がこんな夢見るバカな私を支えてくれたことを心の底から感謝しています。仕事が決まった時、人文知識ビザになりました。そして、NHKの仕事が決まったら、事務所とNHKの皆さんのお陰で、無事で興行ビザに変更しました。








先言ったように、 日本語能力は有っても無くても仕事はできます。それでも、私は日本語の台本を読めたから、自分の台詞だけではなく、ドラマを全体的に理解出来て、そのお陰でより有意義な経験だったし、周りの外国人タレントとちょっと差をつけられたと思います。台本を読めるレベルになったのは本当に最近のことですね。


アメリカにある「Concordia Language Villages」というイマージョン・プログラム(没入法)で勉強し始めました。外国語と異文化に興味ある学生にオススメです!私は夏に行われる短期集中プログラムを二年間繰り返して、生徒を卒業したら次の夏はダンスと歌の先生として戻りました。その時の私の日本語はまだ初級レベルでしたので、私を信じてくれていた生徒達のために毎日必死に勉強し続けました。その後は大学に入って、普通のクラスに通って、三年生になったら早稲田大学に留学しました。やっぱり、その頃は上達が一番早い時期でしたね。日本での人間関係を築き始めましたし、掛替えの無い経験でした。

Related posts:

The following two tabs change content below.

Rachel M.

Writer and Educator. Learning Japanese using immersion, currently soaking up as many novels and manga as possible in hopes of one day writing her own novel in Japanese. Also because she loves Japanese books.


How to Become a Foreign Actor in Japan — 6 Comments

  1. Ah wow. I watched a few episodes of 花子とアン recently as well. That was quite an interesting read.

  2. What a great read.
    I have my spousal VISA now and is teaching. I’m trying to find an agency or place I can audition.
    I live near Fukuoka with my own car but it’s hard ey.

    Have fun!

  3. A worth interview, thank you for posting this interview. I always wanted to be an actor in Japan. I want to be a Tokusatsu Actor.:)

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *