What it's Like to be an American Dancer in Japan's Capital

October 26, 2008

While the only way you can truly experience a country is to go there, reading about others’ experiences can inspire your travels. There are many companies in Japan that recruit dancers from the U.S. for long- and short-term engagements. To know if it’s something that interests you, do the research and talk with as many people who have lived and worked in Japan as you can. Here’s a brief history of dance in the Land of the Rising Sun, followed by snapshots of the hip-hop and musical theater scenes, to get you started.


Dance in Japan: A History

Japanese society is known for its strict code of social order and obedience. It’s a 2,000-year-old civilization, which offers an exciting blend of the old and the new. Approximately 127 million people call Japan their home, and one of the country’s mottos is “live to work.” Yet Japanese people relish the chance to escape into the world of entertainment and acknowledge the benefits of fine arts and both contemporary Western and Japanese productions as well as traditional theater styles such as noh, kabuki and bunraku, are encouraged.


Between 1895 and 1905, as Japan began to open its doors to industrial influences from the West, such as the steam engine and the lightning conductor, the Japanese people began taking notice of Western culture, from clothing to music to ballroom dancing. By the 1960s, Japan’s economy was booming. At the same time, Western-style entertainment—cabarets, jazz music and revues—began to spring up. Eventually, big stage productions, namely musicals (which are supertitled, meaning the translations are projected on a screen above the actors), were produced in Japan. Hair was one of the first musicals performed there.

Star Treatment

Theater performers are often treated as celebrities in many parts of Japan, and even if you’re “third girl from the left” in an ensemble, scores of fans will likely ask for an autograph and photo with you at the stage door. When the Japanese public adores a star, the country’s corporate merchandising geniuses help the public show its appreciation. All-female theater groups, for instance, have such a big following that special jackets can be purchased with each star’s name embroidered on them.


Gathering on the pavement outside the theater, fans wait patiently in two orderly lines for organized meet-and-greets. An official, employed by the theater, tells them which side of the street the chauffeur-driven car will pull up on. When the time comes, the first line kneels down so the fans behind them can get a better view. The star walks past the crowd graciously, and after nodding profusely, she gives a final goodbye wave. The fan club disperses happily as the next group, on the opposite side of the road, stands up and repeats the process.


Japan also has pop schools designed to manufacture pop stars and help to launch their careers. Like mini-music factories, these schools offer courses in vocals, dance, the ins and outs of recording, how to promote and styling know-how.

Musical Theater in Tokyo, The Experiences of Two Dancers

Anthony Harkin
is a professional actor and musical theater performer. He was recently in Tokyo performing the role of Bobby in the touring cast of Cabaret. It was his first time in Japan. “Friends told me that the size of the city would blow me away,” he says. “They were right. You can’t imagine how massive it is, and what amazed me the most was how clean it was, how efficiently it seems to run.”


Although Anthony didn’t speak Japanese, he doesn’t think that the language barrier interfered with him getting to know the real Japan. Everyday he took excursions off the beaten track, and advises other dancers to be as fearless. “Tokyo is a very safe city,” he explains. “The most important thing to do is to throw yourself into it. That way, you end up meeting a range of people who all give you a different perspective.”


Anthony says that performing to a Japanese audience was different from U.S. audiences. “The whole show was supertitled, but that meant the audience missed a lot of the visual gags, which was a shame,” he explains. “They were very enthusiastic about the dance numbers, though. The audience went crazy about the movement and choreography. They were so appreciative.”


Julia Tobey
, who graduated from the University of Northern Colorado in 2001 with a bachelor of music in voice performance and a minor in theater, has had three long-term performance contracts with Disney Entertainment, including a nine-month stint at Tokyo Disney.


Unlike Anthony, Julia was in Japan on and off for two years and was able to learn the language within a few months, becoming proficient with katakana and hiragana (two forms of writing) plus conversational Japanese. She says that just trying to communicate in Japanese shows people that you’re willing to experience everything Japan has to offer, including friendship. “The Japanese people are kind and enthralled with the details of the life of a gaijin (foreigner).”


Julia did find some things about Japanese life frustrating. “Women are treated very differently from what I’ve experienced in the U.S., not quite as equals, so that was hard,” she explains. “Also, I found it difficult to negotiate with Japanese employer[s], because they are not used to changing [contracts] quickly.”


These frustrations haven’t deterred her from returning to Japan. Her advice to newcomers is, “Go! Be patient. Be respectful and enjoy: Take advantage of every chance to travel and experience the culture. Go to a kabuki performance; see a Sumo match. Be brave with the food. Try each thing three times and then decide whether or not you like it.”