By Emma Regan
A certain breed of celebrities in Japan, or tarento (タレント), are media personalities appearing as guests on variety TV shows who often craft unique public personas to cater to certain demographics. They differentiate from mainstream celebrities and actors. An actor would feature on a variety TV show in order to present their latest venture, whereas a tarento would regularly appear on a variety TV show, sometimes with no promotional agenda at all.
However, that is not to say tarento are not influential in their own way. Many have captured domestic and even global audiences, helping products sell out due to their immense familiarity and impact.
Here, we give an insight into the exceptional world of tarento and why they are so popular in Japan.
What are tarento?
Tarento is an umbrella term for mass media personalities that regularly appear on Japanese reality TV shows, yet there are a wide range of different types of tarento in Japan available for hire. They are picked up by talent agencies across the country for reasons that can vary from the way they look, who they are related to, gimmicks and impressions, and their past careers. Notoriously, a tarento career usually spans 1-2 years, but a successful career can be their launchpad to become something more, such as a movie actor, model, or even a political figure.
Tarento are known to enhance and create more appeal on low-budget variety shows and generally make their livelihoods on TV commercials, yet the talent agencies they are signed with take a majority share of their earnings, with cuts up to 90%. Some say tarento don’t possess many talents at all, however, their work achieves social prominence which still gives them tangible value among Japanese audiences.
“There is an art to looking camera-ready, being composed on a live broadcast, having your ear to the zeitgeist, and being able to charm an audience.”
Charles St. Anthony, Gaijin Tarento
What are the different types of tarento celebrities in Japan?
Owarai (お笑い) meaning laughter, relates to the comic talents and comedians that appear on variety TV shows. Owarai tarento are often former comedians that perform a popular form of stand-up comedy known as manzai (漫才), however, they can gain fame as owarai tarento as well.
Some of the most popular owarai tarento in Japan include comedy duos Downtown from Downtown Now, Bananaman from Why Did You Come to Japan?, and Ryota Yamasato from reality show Terrace House. Currently, the most popular owarai tarento is Naomi Watanabe, who first gained attention with her celebrity lip-sync impressions and regular appearance on the Japanese variety show Waratte Iitomo!. Since then, she has featured in a multitude of films, TV dramas, and supplied voice acting for animations.
Naomi’s popularity is incomparable to other tarento in Japan – with 9.4 million followers on Instagram, she is the most-followed celebrity on the platform. She has also managed to expand her prowess globally, having featured in Netflix’s Queer Eye: We’re In Japan, she has caught the gaze of the Western world and recently became a global ambassador for the brand Kate Spade. Back in 2014, she created a plus-sized clothing line, something the fashion industry in Japan is severely lacking, and during the global pandemic in 2020, she continued to engage with her audience by starting her own YouTube channel.
Multi-tarento are celebrities who originally established their career in another field and have transitioned into becoming TV personalities. They come from various backgrounds such as; modelling, directing, acting, music, voice acting, etc. Prominent examples of multi-tarento include; Shinobu Sakagami, who made his acting debut aged 3, Rola, a Bangladeshi-Japanese model, and Reina Triendl, another tarento who appears as part of the commentary panel on Terrace House.
Another well-known multi-tarento in Japan is IKKO, a transwoman make-up artist, who became a tarento in 2008 and regularly appeared on shows such as Onē Mans (おネエ★MANS), and Mentai Wide (めんたいワイド) when they were being broadcast. During the 2000s, she was one of the most famous celebrities in Japan’s beauty industry, becoming a trendsetter among the Japanese youth by showing her enchanting hair and make-up styles on television, magazines, stages, with beauty products she recommended selling out instantaneously. In 2009, IKKO became an ambassador for promoting South Korean tourism and beauty, after publishing a travel guidebook on the country. IKKO has featured in many Japanese commercials and this year became the face of laundry brand Lenor Reset (レノアリセット).
Idols are one of the most popular types of tarento you will see in Japanese media. They can be male or female, solo or group acts, and appeal to various demographics. They are primarily selected to become idols due to their physical attributes above all else. Idol tarento in Japan are not specifically ‘talented’ in any particular arena such as singing, dancing, or acting, yet are affiliates with Japan’s ideals of consumer capitalism and are considered to be the currency of exchange in the promotion of advertising of other products and services.
Many male idol tarento originate from the talent agency Johnny & Associates such as Arashi, a Japanese boy band which has had several TV shows, and SMAP whose members have enjoyed successful tarento careers spanning 25 years. SMAP hosted Fuji TV’s SMAPxSMAP, which saw them interview several Western celebrities, including Lady Gaga, David Beckham, and Michael Jackson. The SMAP members appeared as singers, comedians, actors, and even chefs on the show and made a significant impact in the world of tarento in Japan. When they announced their disbandment, the SMAPxSMAP series finale was one of the most-watched shows in Japan in 2016.
Gaijin tarento (外人タレント) meaning ‘foreign talent’ refers to foreign celebrities that are almost exclusive in Japan. Gaijin tarento often exploit stereotypes, playing into the role of foreigners not understanding the language or changing their looks to appear more ‘dumb’ and ‘rugged’ than they actually are.
Often enough, gaijin tarento are scouted in city streets by talent agencies that are ready to help the fresh-off-the-plane foreigner dazzle Japanese audiences. Recent examples of largely include professional athletes, such as Bob ‘The Beast’ Slapp, a professional wrestler, and Konishiki, a Hawaiian sumo wrestler. One of the first and biggest gaijin tarento in Japan is Dave Spector, an American who started as a producer on the American show Ripley’s Believe It or Not! and has now spent over 35 years regularly appearing on Japanese variety TV shows and commercials, including Waratte Iitomo! and Tokudane!
“I’m doing things like the lowest bozo, circus kind of stuff. But it doesn’t bother me at all. A lot of the time the foreigners and models are compared to pandas. They use that term because they’re cuddly, you can go and have fun with them, and throw a marshmallow at them and that’s about it. And you don’t get involved any deeper than that.”
Dave Spector, Gaijin Tarento
What’s Next for Celebrities in Japan?
While tarento in Japan are still incredibly popular on TV, there’s a new way to commercialise and globalise Japan and its products: social-media influencers. Social media influencers are rapidly becoming recognised as celebrities in Japan and their influence across platforms such as YouTube, Twitter, and Instagram is similar to that of tarento, with the likes of Hikakin earning recognition through their proprietary channels.
GeeXPlus, a Japanese publisher whose main goal is to connect Japanese brands with global influencers, invited three English-speaking anime YouTubers to live and create content in Japan, promoting the country to a different audience.
With tarento in Japan adapting to using these same social media platforms in response to COVID-19 measures, will their work and marketing continue to expand digitally as well as on a more global scale?
Alternatively, feel free to get in touch and see how we can help you effectively work with key influencers in the Japanese market.