Despite Hollywood's growing interest in Japan, as seen by recent movies such as "Letters from Iwo Jima" and "Babel," one thing often missing in these films is Japanese actors and actresses.
Films about the country often feature Chinese and South Korean actors playing Japanese characters because of a shortage of Japanese actors and those of Japanese descent in Hollywood. Such substitutes can cause cultural misunderstandings, so calls are growing for more Japanese actors to make their way into the U.S. film industry.
For example, "The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift," which was released last year, was shot in Tokyo, but many Japanese moviegoers were disappointed with the film because Chinese and South Korean actors played Japanese roles. Similarly, the 2005 film "Memoirs of a Geisha," which portrays the geisha world in Japan, starred leading Chinese movie star Zhang Ziyi. But her performance was panned in Japan as her dancing was more along the style of kabuki than geisha.
In the past four years, Hollywood made about 10 films about Japan. However, the U.S. Screen Actors Guild said it had 20 Chinese union members, but only 11 Japanese members, including those of Japanese descent.
China's movie industry is growing by leaps and bounds on the strength of the Hong Kong movie industry, whose international stars, such as Jackie Chan, have already become household names.
Japanese actors, on the other hand, have to start from scratch. Only a handful, such as Ken Watanabe and Yuki Kudo, have made their presence felt on the international scene.
As such, Chinese and South Korean actors and actresses who resemble Japanese are often used. But they cannot convey the true essence of Japan as they are not familiar with the culture.
Keisuke Kitano, a professor specializing in film theory at Ritsumeikan University's College of Image Arts and Science, said the Chinese and South Korean film industries have mapped out strategies to export their movies to overseas markets.
"The Japanese film industry isn't as eager," he said.
With demand for Japanese actors and actresses increasing, a company called Hollywood Comets was established to help give Japanese a better shot at passing auditions.
According to Hollywood Comets, in the past, most filmmakers simply sought out Asian actors and actresses, but there have recently been specific requests every week for Japanese actors and those of Japanese descent.
However, few Japanese actors and actresses have sought help from the company. Instead, Chinese and South Koreans have contacted them the most, a Hollywood Comets employee said.
Mika Kuroda, a San Francisco resident who hopes to star in Hollywood films, said she has seen Chinese and South Korean actors play Japanese roles in Hollywood movies. After passing an audition for "Memoirs of a Geisha," Kuroda played a dancer in the film.
She said many American directors think all Asian people have similar facial features "so they don't see any difference if Chinese and South Korean actors play Japanese in their films."
However, calls for Japanese actors to play Japanese roles in Hollywood movies are growing. Hollywood Comets President Tim Goldberg said many Japanese actors have great potential and could appear in more Hollywood films.
Hollywood Comets, located in Los Angeles, opened an office in Japan in 2005 to help aspiring actors and actresses find success on the big screen in Hollywood.
Goldberg said he hoped Japanese actors and actresses would make a splash as interest in Japan grows with the globalization of the economy and culture, just as Japanese automobile and appliance makers have.