Japanese Actors Face Limited Opportunities in New York City

By Mina Hiraiwa

The dearth of good roles for Asian-American actors was recently highlighted in a New York Times op-ed piece written by actor Aziz Ansari, whose new television series, “Master of None,” starring himself, was shown on Netflix.

In his article, Aziz, an Indian-American, wrote: “Whatever progress toward diversity we are making, the percentage of minorities playing lead roles is still painfully low.”

This casting issue is not just in television, but it is also evident in theater. According to the Asian American Performers Action Coalition, the percentage of Asian Americans getting roles in all Broadway theaters and not-for-profit theater companies in New York City during the 2011-2012 season was only 3 percent; Latinos also stood at 3 percent, while African Americans were 14 percent, and whites 79 percent.

Despite the fast growing Asian population in New York City, whites remain the racial group that dominates the entertainment industry.

Here are the stories of two Japanese actors who are seeking fame in New York City.

Yuki Kawahisa

yuki 6
Yuki Kawahisa is a Japanese actor/performing artist in New York City. (Photo by Mina Hiraiwa)

Yuki Kawahisa, who has a soft voice and very long black hair, is a Japanese actor and a performing artist. In the historical building of Park Avenue Armory, a cultural institution where performing and visual artists work on unconventional art, she changes into training clothes to rehearse her upcoming cabaret-type show while checking emails on her mobile phone placed on a long, rectangular oak chair. She is in the residence room of Andrew Ondrejcak, the director of the play “Elijah Green,” whom she has been collaborating with for some years.

She came to New York City to perform in theater in 2006; she never intended to live here, but a visa issue in Canada while she was an English language student and a performing artist brought her to New York City to continue acting.

While Yuki was in Canada, she was not a good speaker of English, but one day she enrolled in theater classes with Maureen Robinson, whom Yuki now calls her dear friend, and this led her to perform and write scripts in English.

“I was very frustrated for a while that my communication skills in English were not so good, but playing with certain emotions was really interesting and the emotional up and down excited me a lot, so I decided to continue theater performance,” Yuki says.

After she studied at Lee Strasberg Theatre and Film Institute in New York City for a two-year certificate program, she held solo performances incorporating Butoh an avant-garde Japanese dance, martial arts, and Nihon Buyoh, a classical Japanese dance. She performed collaborative works with other artists internationally and finally got her green card for artists this year.

Though Yuki loves performing, she says that working as an Asian actor is a challenge because she gets stereotypical casting and limited opportunities.

The biggest challenge is her Japanese accent in English. “Because of my accent, people would believe that I think probably like a child. My vocabulary and accent make them think either I am not well educated or like as I said, a child.”

Yuki has been improving her accent so that the audience will understand her, but she thinks that even if she speaks perfect English, her roles would still be limited because she is Asian.

“Sometimes for Japanese characters with Japanese accent, they (producers) use other Asians and make them speak funny Japanese,” she says.

However, Yuki is not hopeless; instead, she thinks she is fortunate because most of her work opportunities come from the people who are interested in working with her or whom she trusts.

For example, she went to an audition for a play, but there was no place for her to fit in. However, the director liked what she did on the audition, and he wrote a play called “Americana Kamikaze” just for her, and the New York Times wrote a critique of her role in 2009. “That has been the biggest success of my career,” she says.

Yuki loves performing just because she gets this kind of collaborative opportunities in New York City and keeps working with video artists, musicians, and photographers without limiting her abilities to stereotypical Asian roles.

Brian Walters

Brian Walters is a half-Japanese / half-American actor in New York City. (Photo by Mina Hiraiwa)
Brian Walters is a half-Japanese, half-American actor in New York City. (Photo by Mina Hiraiwa)

Unlike Yuki, Brian Walters is a half Japanese and half German-American actor. Since his father worked for the US military in Japan, Brian was brought up there until he was 19 years old and received American education inside the military bases.

Since he came to New York City in 2009 to pursue an acting career, he has been working for a wide variety of television shows, movies, and commercials.

Before coming to New York City, Brian appeared in “Tensai Terebi Kun,” a variety show on Japanese television for two years from 12 to 14. “I just had the acting bug and wanted to keep doing it,” he smiles at JeBon restaurant in Lower East Side before Batsu! (punishment in Japanese), a Japanese live game show, starts. He has been hosting this show more than 300 times since 2012.

“A challenge being half Japanese in New York City is that I don’t have a specific category that I fit into,” Brian says. Casting directors call him in for auditioning of a Japanese role, but he doesn’t land the role because he doesn’t look Japanese even though he speaks fluent Japanese and feels Japanese inside.

The same thing happens for a Caucasian role. Casting people think he is ethnically ambiguous, so he doesn’t get the role.

Brian is not pessimistic, though. While he keeps going to auditions for television and film, he enjoys hosting “Batsu!” three days a week, Thursdays, Fridays, and Saturdays, in the basement of JeBon restaurant.

In the show, when the improv comedians are not funny, they are given physically painful punishments, such as shooting them with paintball guns or putting their hands in mousetraps.

Audience participation is a must, so sometimes the participants have to take embarrassing punishments like eating sushi off a hairy guy’s bare chest.

“It is a drinking show, and we encourage drinking, but of course you know some audience members can go a little overboard with drinking and get a little excited,” Brian chuckles.

In addition, Brian hosts Movie Mondays at the same venue, in which people play drinking games while watching a movie every Monday.

Brian thinks these MC gigs would definitely help him land an MC job at the Tokyo 2020 Olympics. He is also optimistic for his future and has been writing some shorts inspired by “The Twilight Zone.”

He says “I think the tide will change in 10, 20, or 30 years, when any race can go for lead roles. And I will be in my prime then.”

Even though Yuki and Brian face difficult casting situations and have limited opportunities, they have positive outlooks for their future.