May 11, 2015 7:00 am JST
Yoko Narahashi interview

Use your ears, heart to communicate across culture gaps

TOKYO -- The daughter of a diplomat, Yoko Narahashi has made it her mission to connect Japan with the rest of the world. Rather than at embassies and international summits, she has sought to fulfill that goal through the entertainment business.

     As a casting director, Narahashi has ushered a number of Japanese actors to Hollywood. One was Ken Watanabe, who shot to global stardom with his role opposite Tom Cruise in "The Last Samurai."

     More recently, Narahashi helped to create a star in Japan by introducing Charlotte Kate Fox to NHK. Fox, an American, became the first non-Japanese actress to land a lead role in one of the public broadcaster's morning drama series. She played the Scottish wife of a Japanese whiskey maker.

     Narahashi spoke with the Nikkei Asian Review about her career and her thoughts on cross-cultural communication.

Q: "Massan" recently ended its yearlong run. Now that the series is over, could you reflect on it?

A: I thought it was an amazing project, because, first of all, it was the first time that there was a non-Japanese heroin in a national TV series. It took courage for NHK, and for producer [Ken] Sakurai, to attempt this. It was wonderful for NHK, which is an established and conservative station, to do this.

     So I really supported them for undertaking this project. I told them that I would support them any way I can.

     The Charlotte team, NHK and Charlotte herself all tried very hard to make it work. For Charlotte, it was a life-changing event.

Q: You have had an extremely diverse career -- not just in casting but also writing songs, running an English school, training actors, and directing and producing films and stage plays. Just about all your endeavors have had an international bent. What is the key to bridging cultural barriers and creating something with global appeal?

A: There is one common denominator, which is our ability to really listen. "Listen" is a very simple word, but it refers to the ability to be completely open and sensitive.

     We are so busy trying to push what we want to do, or to push our opinions, that we don't see or hear the other person. Then we don't understand their position or culture.

     As an actor, you can play many roles. You can play the murderer. You can play the bad guy. But you also understand his position. He has reasons to do what he does. We need this [same] understanding in order to develop cultural harmony.

Q: How do you choose the right actor for a particular role? Perhaps aspects of your approach could apply to business and human resources.

A: When I do casting, I have to imagine the role, because it is written on paper. There is no picture that I can go by. From what is written in the script, I use my imagination and try to understand the character. I put myself in his place. I have to do that in order to find the right person. Then, I look at actors and try to imagine if they have the ability to understand this role, or to become this role. When I see that a person is a great match, it's like Cinderella's glass slipper. Sometimes, there's a beautiful chemical reaction, where the role becomes better and the actor becomes better.

Q: You have made Masayuki Imai's play "The Winds of God" a major part of your life's work. It tells the story of two comedians who get in a traffic accident and find themselves back in their previous lives, when they were kamikaze pilots. You produced an English version and showed it at the United Nations, as well as New York's famed Actors Studio. You have said this is an international play. What makes it so?

A: It explains very well the Japanese point of view, in a way that people in other countries can understand. Suicidal kamikaze attacks are generally seen as incomprehensible by foreigners. But after seeing the play, some people in the U.S. said: "Oh my god. I'm seeing my own sons. I can relate."

     One thing that is very important is working on universal terms. Here, the common denominators are human qualities, human emotions, or what we think is important.

     Then, when things start to become a little different, [the key] again is that ability to listen, the ability to put ourselves in the other person's shoes.

     When [there are differences], it's fine. It makes life interesting. Why should everybody be the same? I think in Japan there is a tendency, in education, to teach everybody to be the same. You've got to sit this way. It's very good to be good soldiers, or to be good students, but it's not good for creativity, not good for discovery, not good for the individual pursuit of dreams. This is because, I think, the focus in this country is on how people think of me.

     I think the Western code is life. It's the value of life beyond just shame or honor. That's why it was hard for the United States to understand why kamikaze pilots would give their lives.

     To be international, you need the ability to be open, to value the differences, to appreciate the differences and to have the courage to jump into different things. Internationalism is about opening your door, the door inside you.

     You might get hurt, but it's a better price to pay than to keep closed and never understand life or humanity.

Q: Do you think there is much global interest in Japan?

A: Oh, yeah. Especially in the film industry. Many producers want to do something in Japan. Make a film, or a TV series. But Japan is so hard and expensive. Approval to use a building, to shoot a film, is very hard to obtain. It takes a long time. It's not film-friendly, but I think we should be film-friendly. Let's open it up.

Q: You cast a Japanese actor for the film "Unbroken," which recounts the experiences of an American airman and former Olympian who was held prisoner by Japanese forces during World War II. The film has not been released in Japan, and some say it is anti-Japanese. How do you respond to that?

A: I really wish Japan were not such a closed country. Sometimes the shame is so strong, so they don't want to see. But we have to. It's about time we grow up and see.

     If we [consider] Hiroshima, and if America were so ashamed about it and [didn't] want to look at it, in Japan, we would say, "Look, this is a fact." It's the same thing. There are certain things that Japan did -- Japan has to know that. You cannot just keep on being blind or denying it.

     Beyond that, the film is about forgiveness. Even though he was tortured, he came back to Japan and was a torch runner at the Nagano Olympics. It's a beautiful story. Why can't we show the film? It's ridiculous, isn't it? I will do what I can to help people see it. I think people should see it.

Q: Acting is about communicating -- thoughts, feelings, subtext. Do you have any advice for communicating more effectively?

A: Drama is all about communication, definitely. That's why drama, I think, is really good for businessmen. They really learn to be open, to accept, to be curious and interested in all the different nationalities and different ways.

     Communication is a moment of real, true interaction. And it can only happen if everybody has the ability to listen, to talk, to give and to receive. Many times, we think we are listening but we are not. We assume.

     For example, if I say to my son, "You didn't do your homework, did you?" Because I assume, I close the door. It's not an open question. I didn't say, "How was your day today? Do you have homework today?" He has no chance to communicate, because you are shutting the door on him.

Q: You've suggested that methods actors use can also help in learning languages. Could you elaborate on that?

A: To learn a language, it cannot be just through memory. You have to have the heart, the physical body and the head. It's got to be total.
     In teaching children, I made a word, "actionary." For example, to teach a child the word "courage" -- it's an abstract word, but they know [it means] you are strong, not afraid. So they do certain actions. They learn the word through the action.

Q: Still, linguistic and cultural barriers can be difficult to overcome.

A: I think the real basis of communication is love. If we have love, it can really help us to stop fighting.

     [With] language, we cannot understand everything. But you can understand passion, you can understand that the other businessman is trying hard to tell you something. You want to work with him, because he is very passionate, even though his English may not be so good. We have to be able to read what the person is trying to offer -- we shouldn't depend on just words.

     I think language is only a small part of international communication. Of course it is better to learn languages, but don't depend on [them]. Depend on your ability to understand, to listen, with your heart.

Interviewed by Kaoru Morishita, Nikkei senior deputy editor

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