Where Do The English-Speaking Actors In Japan Come From?

by Justin Sevakis,

Matthew asks:

I recently watched Terror in Resonance, and was surprised to hear the American characters (as well as--occasionally--Five) speaking English. I imagine this is relatively rare, so I was wondering--what are the logistics for casting English-speaking voice actors in a Japanese animation production?

Terror in Resonance had some pretty awful English scenes in its original Japanese version, but it's far from alone. For decades, anime -- from Beck to Robot Carnival to Patlabor 2 -- have had scenes in English, and most of them are chillingly awful. I suppose that's not a big shock when the director and most of the creative staff doesn't speak the language they're working in. That still doesn't make it any better for those of us who can actually understand them.

While some Japanese voice actors list English speaking skills on their resumé (a questionable claim in most cases), often a show producer will seek out native English speakers for bit parts. Like any other time a casting call for minor roles goes out, a producer sends an email to a handful of trusted agencies with a list of roles and descriptions, and says, "send over whoever you think works for this." Those agencies then send whoever they have in their roster, and the ones the producer likes are called in for auditions.

The difference is that there are a handful of agencies that specialize in "gaijin talent". Companies across Tokyo such as GroupEcho, Frame In, IMO, K&M Pro and Avocado will accept foreigners off the street and, depending on their look, their portfolio, their talents and their Japanese language ability, will match them up to job offers as they come in. These jobs can range from modeling, to participating in silly foreigner-themed game shows, to small roles in film and television. Anime voice acting is among these jobs.

Unfortunately, very few actual professional-quality actors from other countries are going to abandon their careers and move to Japan, so the level of talent that these agencies attract are usually pretty amateur. This suits the Japanese entertainment industry just fine: most Japanese people will never understand what they're saying anyway, so it doesn't matter if their acting is awful. And since there's always a steady stream of under-employed foreigners coming to Japan for extended stays, competition is high enough that they don't have to pay any of them very much!

This explains why, when native English speakers pop up in anime, the performances are often so terrible that it might even ruin the scene they're in. The Japanese creative staff usually doesn't know English very well at all, so chances are you are hearing a rank amateur actor, being given next to no direction for their role. They run a few takes, the staff look at each other and shrug, and they move on.

When foreigners pop up in live action movies and TV shows, I assure you, the performances usually aren't much better. I was once invited to a screening of Sushi Oji! In New York, a movie installment of a popular TV comedy wherein a prodigal young sushi chef goes to New York City, and is horrified by how Americans consume sushi. (Things like adding sugar to green tea, dumping soy sauce on rice, etc.) But despite some local exteriors, it was pretty obvious that the film was shot mostly in Japan, with these amateur American actors popping up prominently. Despite having heavy speaking roles, they had clearly never taken diction or acting classes. It was pretty awful.

A few foreigners living in Japan have written blog entries about their experiences being "gaijin talent", so if you're living there and want to try and get some acting gigs, there are resources available. That said, don't expect to make a ton of money at it. But if you're there anyway and bored, and you have a work visa, there are definitely worse ways to earn some pocket money.

UPDATE 13 November 2015: There is, as it turns out, a small community of actual, professional multi-lingual TV hosts, voice-over artists and actors working in Japan. (And yes, they DID tweet at me to let me know they were not happy with this article.) Glancing over a few of their reels, they do a lot of commercial work, as well as industrials intended for promotion overseas. Very, very little of what they do is anime, so it's hard to tell if the truly rough English performances we hear in anime (the actual subject of this column) are the result of these actors not getting the direction they need, or if anime producers really are asking unqualified talent to do the handful of English lines that come up in anime. Neither one would surprise me.

Got questions for me? Send them in! The e-mail address, as always, is answerman (at!)

Justin Sevakis is the founder of Anime News Network, and owner of the video production company MediaOCD. You can follow him on Twitter at @worldofcrap.

discuss this in the forum (98 posts) |
bookmark/share with:

this article has been modified since it was originally posted; see change history

Answerman homepage / archives