Unlike other Asian countries (e.g., Korea), there are no restrictions on using foreign models in Japan, and the job market is wide to open to as many foreigners as companies want to use. For Japan, that can be a lot of foreigners.
Since the end of World War II when Japan was pulling itself out of the rubble, Japanese have been fascinated by Western culture and affluence starting with the images of middle class America broadcast into their homes in the 1950s. Even though Japan has remarkably built up its own society to levels equaling and in some ways surpassing the West, Japanese still have a love affair with foreign culture, particularly Western culture.
Thus, there is an abundance of work for foreign models. Marketers often fall back on the proven method of selling their products with a
foreign look, and there are many foreign people who either earn a portion or all of their income doing this kind of work. As with acting, models are registered with different agencies, and for most people the work is erratic, perhaps only one job one month and then very busy the next month.
When I first moved to Tokyo in 1987 one of my neighbors was working as a model. When I met Alex, the first thing that struck me was wow this guy looked like a model. He was from Sweden, good looking, young and had an aura of confidence about him. Alex was carefree and seemed to take life one day at a time, not worrying so much about things like paying the rent or what he would be doing next year.
After getting to know him better, I learned that Alex sometimes earned Y800,000 to Y1 million in a good month. In other months he might only earn Y50,000 to Y100,000. It did not really seem to matter as Alex enjoyed the free time hanging out around Tokyo. To hear him explain it, it all depended on how much visibility your pictures got. If you get on a bulletin board, then you get so much for that; if you get on TV you get more; you get so much for a magazine shot and so on.
Alex was very proud of his coffee shot, a large photo of him drinking coffee which appeared on bulletin boards all over Tokyo. I never actually saw it, but to hear him talk about it so much I am sure many Japanese knew him to be the guy drinking the coffee. Alex also appeared regularly in some of the young men's fashion magazines like Hot Dog and Fine Boys. Of course I would have never noticed this, but he always had a magazine nearby to show his latest work. It was also interesting that he got fan mail from ladies through these magazines.
I kind of envied this celebrity status, and Alex often encouraged me to do some modeling work as well, saying it was easy; you just have to register. Even if you are not a naturally talented model, there is work for people with all kinds of different looks. In fact he was right, but you have to be available and unless you are cut out for that kind of work, there will not be so many assignments to go to.
It should be noted that there are actually two layers of modeling work in Japan. The top layer is really a professional scene with professional models from other countries coming to Tokyo on modeling visas to work for various agencies. As Alex described it, Tokyo is kind of the minor leagues or B level of the modeling world. Thus, it is a good place for an up and coming model to get some experience and learn the trade. Then, the bottom layer is basically extra work or occasional unique cases where a special look is needed.
This extra work is available for anyone who registers and has the free time to show up when called. It generally pays about 15,000-20,000 a day. This work day may not be a full day and usually amounts to waiting around on call, which is free time to read or Web surf, and then the actual photo shoot may only be 30-60 minutes.
I lost contact with Alex, but upon returning to Japan in 1992, I saw his smiling picture on a train poster for underwear. Since that time I have met quite a few people who have appeared in various print media. A few years ago an African American friend mine, who is over 50 with a waistline that looks like Santa and beard to match, thrust a fashion magazine in front of me. He appeared across four or five pages in a whole assortment of clothing in fashion model-type poses. Not all modeling work is for the tall, young anorexically beautiful. This particular clothing line wanted to promote a mature fatherly look.
I asked my friend how he managed to score that gig. The answer was what Alex had told me 25 years before, "You just have to register and wait and be available when they call." With a steady demand for foreign faces, and a continual turnover of foreigners leaving Japan, work is always available for those who take the time to register.
This same friend had also appeared in a Japanese TV drama. The story was about a young Japanese woman who was marrying an American. His father (played by my friend) had been in Japan decades before in the military. When he returned to Japan for his son's wedding he visited some of his old haunts and reconnected with some people he had known before. It was a thoroughly enjoyable drama to watch.
If you are interested in acting, entertaining or modeling work, be sure to register with several agencies. Most places like to have a large registry with pictures of available people, and with the high turnover (people constantly returning home) most places welcome walk-ins. In some cases there will be a small fee to register, maybe a couple thousand yen. Of course registering and actually getting called for assignments are two different things. You may want to consider some teaching work to tide you over until the other job offers start coming in.