Why Paul Newman is on all those Tokyo billboards

In Japan, you see the advertisements everywhere. The products are Japanese . . . but the people pictured in the ads definitely are not.

For more than a decade, foreigners have directed Japanese attention to everything from coffee and cola to wristwatches. Many of these sales pitches have been made by big-name American celebrities - such as Brooke Shields, Farrah Fawcett, Diana Ross, Paul Newman, and Wolfman Jack.

But they are also made by the nameless. The foreign modeling business has grown so competitive that dewy imports fresh off the plane from the United States are often stranded in Tokyo without work.

It's all part of the strategy to sell products. Japanese advertisers maintain that, properly used, foreigners can attract the interest of the average Japanese.

''Foreigners look different,'' says Kazuo Yamamoto, international relations manager for Tokyo's Matsuya Department Stores.

Hideo Ishikawa, an advertising executive at Hakuhodo, the Japanese ad agency, adds, ''A foreigner can break the tranquility of the ad and make the audience wake up.''

This fascination with foreigners - and the attendant interest in whatever they eat, drink, and wear - strikes many Westerners here as odd. Indeed, the Japanese are often less than eager to associate with real-life foreigners.

According to a poll released by the prime minister's office, only 25 percent of the Japanese questioned wanted to have anything to do with foreigners. A sizable portion blanched at the notion that a relative might marry one.

Yet, like so much else here, this cultural ambivalence has a long history, with its roots planted firmly in the Meiji Restoration of 1868, when Japan was reopened to the West.

The foreigners who arrived at that time were bigger, more modern, and ''seemed to have all the goodies,'' as one Tokyo ad executive puts it. Repeatedly enjoined to become more like the West, the Japanese came to view anything Western - from faces to phonetics - as a powerful symbol of the progressive and new.

Despite Japan's recent economic and technological strides, this century-old notion has remained nearly intact. Japan still aligns itself culturally with Europe and America rather than Asia, and anything Western is accorded a special dose of glamour, quality, and prestige.

''Japan may excel in the auto industry, but you still don't see a car here called the Samurai,'' says Mr. Yamamoto. In other words, advertisers have discovered the mere appearance of Western words in certain situations can be highly evocative.

Holding up a cosmetics brochure emblazoned with the words ''Avon! Yes!'' Takeshi Nagamochi, corporate communications director for Avon in Tokyo, says: ''Only about half of our customers understand what this says. But it creates a certain idea in their minds. They associate it with Western culture, which for many has a better image than Japanese.''

Advertisers have also found foreigners especially effective plugging products the Japanese may still feel unsure of, particularly those that originated in the West.

Both the Nestle Company and archrival General Foods claim Western settings and Western models have enhanced sales of coffee, still a new and expensive beverage here.

This interest in seeing objects from the West displayed on real Westerners also explains why department stores and fashion magazines repeatedly drape their latest styles on long-limbed, fair-haired models who tower over the diminutive Japanese.

''Western dress is not part of our tradition,'' says Naomi Kizukuri, a staff member of more magazine, the Japanese fashion monthly for career women. But foreign models have an inborn fashion sense. Japanese women can still learn from looking at them.''

Kizukuri insists that most Japanese women aren't distressed that they're seeing garments worn by models with entirely different body dimensions. ''The idea is what's important, Japanese women aren't that literal.''

But the imagemakers here are quick to stress that not just any foreigner will do. They insist that the most successful foreign models are those with a hint of believability. Big blonde Scandinavians rarely succeed here; it's easier for the Japanese to identify with more scaled-down types.

Indeed, the popular myth that exotic blondes and redheads are most effective in Japanese advertisements may be changing. Dark-haired foreigners are said to be in brisk demand these days.

''Their image is still of fantasy, but it's a bit more obtainable,'' says Paul Rose, head of Folio, a Tokyo modeling agency that specializes in foreigners.

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