I’ve survived as an Asian actor in Hollywood for 22 years, and for the past few, I’ve also helped them cast Japanese actors. And I watched up close how blatantly racist this casting process can be.
Hollywood firmly believes that “Japanese” is an ethnicity, and they insist that Japanese actors must look quintessentially “oriental”. The first thing producers want is that actors can “pass” as Japanese.
As some of you may know, modern Japan is quite diverse. Mixed-race Japanese are just as Japanese as I could ever be. But for Hollywood, they are absolutely not considered “Japanese”. And because Hollywood wants to contrast “diverse America” with “homogeneous Japan”, they go full-on racist.
You may consider me as a Japanese actor, but even I don’t look “oriental” enough for them. I cannot tell you how many times I was asked at auditions: “Are you Japanese? But you’re so tall.” Or: “Are both your parents Japanese?”
When I worked on Melissa and Joey In 2011, I was asked if my curly hair was real. I said “yes”, and they replied: “But all Japanese are straight-haired.” I explained to them that this isn’t the case, but nonetheless, they straightened my hair because they felt that I didn’t look “authentic” enough.
Hollywood needs to understand that it has created extremely offensive stereotypes by yellow-facing Japanese actors for many decades. Japan is a diverse country, and Japanese is not an ethnicity.
You cannot imagine how agonizing it is for me when I’m asked by young mixed Japanese actors for advice on how to make it in Hollywood. Because Hollywood has been shouting about the importance of “diversity”, they have been tricked into believing Hollywood is actually inclusive. It is not.
What should I tell them? Should I tell them the truth that Hollywood considers them “second class Japanese”? Or they would never ever be cast because “they’re born to the wrong parents”?
Hollywood would rather cast Asian American actors than mixed Japanese because they believe some of them look “more Japanese” than mixed Japanese. And the sad part is that because the Asian American community often isn’t aware of how mixed Japanese are treated, even when Asian Americans are cast for the wrong reasons, they praise Hollywood for advancing Asian American representation. I love the As-Am community, but this is not right.
Of course, the Japanese industry is to blame as well. Believe it or not, Japan has literally zero minority representation, and I’m not being hyperbolic. Though there have been hundreds of Japanese films where a gay man is a protagonist, not a single one of them has an openly gay man cast in that role.
Many mixed Japanese have experienced being treated as foreigners, even though they were born and raised in Japan. This is what happens when there’s absolutely no representation – it impacts how people view their society and what they believe it should look like.
And here is what hurts me the most. The vast majority of mixed Japanese actors are registered at “international talent agencies” in Japan, and if you go to their websites, they’re listed as “foreign talents”. They are not foreigners. They are Japanese.
For the past 50 years, Japan has been putting out a completely fictional version of “homogenous Japan”, and Hollywood has been telling the world what Japanese people should look like. In this echo chamber, we are tricked into believing that there are no mixed-race Japanese.
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This is 2022, not the 1960s or 70s. It’s been more than half a century since the Akira Kurosawa or Yasujirō Ozu era. Every time we “pay tribute” to Kurosawa/Ozu/Samurai/Kaiju/Yakuza films and call them “authentic”, we are subscribing to a false ideal of “homogenous Japan” which doesn’t exist in reality. This reinforces stereotyping and denies the existence of mixed Japanese.
I cannot stay silent anymore about one of the most blatantly racist practices I’ve ever seen. And this is coming from a guy who’s been in the US for two decades as a foreigner. Representation matters.
In order to fix this problem on both sides of the Pacific, we need to go big. It’s time to help Japanese filmmakers understand that diversity makes films better, and abolish the racist stereotypes that Hollywood have been regurgitating for more than half a century.
I’m getting the ball rolling with Mosaic Streeta Japanese/English crime drama set in a near-future Japan where diversity is already a norm, starring openly transgender actress Kota Ishijima, openly lesbian actress Ami Ide, and Afro-Japanese actress Ema Grace.
This is what Japan is supposed to look like – diverse and modern.
If you work in Hollywood, please consider casting a mixed Japanese actor for your next film. You don’t need a “reason” to cast them. Just cast them for any of your characters. If you feel that you need to justify the casting, then you’re doing it wrong. Together, let’s right this wrong once and for all. It’s long overdue.
Yuki Matsuzaki is a Japanese actor
George Holan is chief editor at Plainsmen Post and has articles published in many notable publications in the last decade.