It’s no surprise that in the field of entertainment many talented individuals have found work in Japan and many more have expressed an interest in Japanese culture. But beyond those who stop by Japan and utter a simple “oishi” in a beer commercial or create a music video wearing a cupcake skirt , are a select few who have learnt or are well on their way to learning the Japanese language. Here are a few of them representing the fields of film, sports, and music.
Japan has earned a reputation as a haven for film stars appearing in commercials that would otherwise be beneath them in their homelands. However, in most instances Leonardo Dicaprio, Cameron Diaz or Tommy Lee Jones remain silent as a catchy jingle plays in the background. These three stars, on the other hand have appeared in over 90 movies between them and can actually hold a conversation in Japanese on some level at least.
■ Steven Seagal
Long before he was flipping street thugs and mercs over by their arms on the silver screen, Steven Seagal already had a successful young adulthood in Japan. Studying the martial art of Aikido in earnest he reached the level of 7th dan (7th degree black belt) and ultimately became the first non-Japanese person to open an Aikido dojo in Japan.
Of course while accomplishing all of this, it’s a little hard not to learn some of the language along the way. Here he is giving a “special message” to promote the Japanese released of his series True Justice.
Although he seems so at-home with Japanese that he’s barely audible, keen ears may notice his Osaka dialect such as the word ookini, a version of “thanks” used in the area.
■ Edward Norton
And long before he was flipping himself over by the arm with an imaginary Brad Pitt, Edward Norton also spent some time in Osaka. Having studied Japanese at Yale University he later went to stay with his grandfather, James Rouse who at the time was working on the establishment of the famous Osaka Aquarium Kaiyukan near Japan’s then-shortest mountain Tenpozan.
After about four months in Osaka, Norton returned to America to pursue his acting career. However, he does come back when the opportunity arises, such as for the premier of The Incredible Hulk.
Word has it that his fluency has taken a dip since then, but as we saw he can still mix it up in Japanese every so often. Can’t knock him for that. We can, however, knock him for bailing on the Avengers movie.
■ Natalie Portman
In a few interviews Natalie Portman confessed to studying Japanese in school for a brief stint. She is said to have reached a level of light conversational ability. However, an internet search has revealed no video evidence to support this.
Even Japanese interviews seem to have been conducted entirely in English with almost no Japanese phrases uttered. The best I could find was a video taken by some poor schmoe who got their camera knocked away as the Star Wars star walked past.
I’ll give her the benefit of the doubt, but without any corroborating footage I’ll have to assume she’s not as good as Seagal or Norton. This would also prove my theory of the inverse relationship between Oscar success and Japanese proficiency.
UPDATE: As pointed out by Cameron Hilker, Jon Heder of Napoleon Dynamite fame picked up some of the language during his missionary work in Japan. Here he is doing a little improv at a Comic Con panel.
Certainly the world of sports has seen players cross international boundaries on numerous occasions. In some cases the athlete will embrace their new home and pick up the language as soon as possible, whereas others rely heavily on translators to help while they focus on the game. Here’s three players from the most international of sports, soccer, who have picked up the language well.
■ Diego Forlán Corazzo
Cerezo Osaka couldn’t have been happier having acquired the 2010 World Cup Golden Ball recipient earlier this year. As Forlán held a press conference shortly thereafter, he repaid that appreciation with a rather long-winded Japanese greeting.
Sure he’s no Steven Seagal, but hey, the guy just got here. At first, I only heard the audio of this speech and assumed he was reading it, but after watching the video he does seem to be reciting from memory. After only a couple months that’s not bad at all, and hopefully is a sign of a long and scoreful career with Cerezo.
■ Pierre Littbarski
If Forlan needed a Japanese-speaking football role-model, he’d probably do well to look towards Pierre Littbarski. This former member of the World Cup winning German national team has picked up the language remarkably well for only doing one to two year stints in the country as both a player and manager.
His competency with languages and winning personality have made him an unofficial ambassador of soccer between Japan and Germany, often providing commentary in either language.
■ Dragan Stojković
Going even further back in the history of Japanese soccer is Dragan Stojković. Considered one of, if not the greatest Serbian players of the game. Near the end of his career, he took a chance on a newly formed J-League soccer team and flourished as a member of the Nagoya Grampus Eight, which he would later manage.
Much like Natalie Portman, he’s another tricky one to catch speaking Japanese. Legend has it that he’s really quite fluent but refrains from using the language in public to keep from getting too attached to the players.
In most of his televised appearances, like when accepting his 2010 J-League Manager of the Year Award, he speaks English. However for a brief moment during this comedy bit he seemed to show just a hint of his language ability.
In addition to this mystery and having perhaps the most badass name a guy could have, Dragan is also probably the only manager to ever score a goal during a game.
Before moving on to the next section, it wouldn’t be right not to mention a Japanese speaker from another sport. So here’s Major League Baseball’s lovable drifter Bobby Valentine showing off the Japanese he learnt as manager of Chiba Lotte Marines.
They say that music is a universal language, but that didn’t stop some artists from going the extra mile and actually trying to grasp the grammar and vocabulary of Japanese. Whether to broaden their creative horizons or just pass the time between gigs, these three have taken a liking to the rigid syllables of the Japanese language.
■ Marty Friedman
Perhaps the most notorious cross-over success of English and Japanese music is Marty Friedman. As a part of one of the titans of thrash metal Megadeath during their heyday, Marty found himself also dabbling in the language as a hobby. Much like he did with guitar, he self-taught Japanese.
Then, when he felt there was no more room to grow in Megadeath he headed to Japan where his steadily developing language skills and musical notoriety led to several television appearances and hosting gigs. Fully embracing life in Japan, Friedman was able to experiment with countless collaborations from former Ramones to idol groups as well as my personal favorite Friedman TV appearance with Sayuri Ishikawa.
UPDATE: From a reader known only as “me” Paul Gilbert of Racer X and Mr. Big fame is also a frequent visitor to Japan. Although this video shows Marty with the superior language skills, it seems Gilbert won overall in guitar chops. This time at least…
■ Benji Madden
Although his heavily tatted body may frighten some folks in Japan, his steadily improving way with the Japanese word can win them back. Fans of his most popular unit Good Charlotte know that when Japanese words are sung, its Benji behind the mic. Here he is doing a little number for a contest on an Australian radio show.
From singing his skill grew into hosting. Japan’s fans of Good Charlotte reported that with every visit his fluency seems to have gradually gotten better to the point where he basically emceed entire live shows in Japanese.
UPDATE: Speaking of Australia, from Maia Martucci here’s Gotye giving a partial interview in Japanese and even mentioning the old Japanese slogan: “No music, no life.”
■ Rivers Cuomo
Ever since the Pinkerton album which had a ukiyo-e print by Hiroshige Utagawa as the cover, we could get a hint that the frontman for Weezer was into Japan. However, even after his marriage to Kyoko Ito of Kumamoto Prefecture (where Cuomo regularly visits) we couldn’t be quite sure if he knew the language.
Then in 2013, we were hit with a full Japanese album after Cuomo teamed up with Scott Murphy of ALLiSTER, a pop-punk band who found success in the land of the rising sun. The aptly named duo of Scott & Rivers instantly hit number one on iTunes Japan.
Surely there are many more talented people with a gift for the languages than these, but this should be enough to give you some inspiration if you choose to learn a new tongue. I know through many a dark time while studying Japanese I would pick myself up by saying, “If Steven Seagal can do it, so can I!”
Source: Naver Matome (Japanese)
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