Japan's popular morning drama takes an international twist

For the first time, a foreign actress will play a leading role in the popular morning TV spot for Japanese public broadcaster NHK. The show is based on a historic Scottish-Japanese couple, and promotes cross-cultural couples living in Japan today. 

When she came across a casting notice for a part in a Japanese TV drama set almost a century ago, something made Charlotte Kate Fox overcome her skepticism. At the time she was more interested in finding a day job than in pursuing what seemed like an improbable career move.

But she filed an application, and now, several months later, the New Mexico native is on the cusp of stardom in Japan after securing the role of a young Scottish woman who helped found the country’s celebrated whisky industry.

In her role as Ellie, based on the wife of Masataka Taketsuru – the son of a Hiroshima saké brewer who studied whisky distilling in Scotland in the early 1900s before taking his knowledge back to Japan – Ms. Fox is also challenging convention in the drama studios of the series’ producer, NHK. Having made dozens of popular dramas in a format stretching back to 1961, Japan’s public broadcaster has for the first time cast a foreign actor in a prominent role.

Philip Brasor, a commentator on Japanese media and culture, said that NHK is breaking new ground by making an international couple the focus of its wildly popular morning drama slot. “The old formula for the morning dramas – a cute young actress in coming-of-age tale – started to get old a while ago,” he says. 

Fox, who beat 500 other actors to the part of Ellie, a fictional character based on Masataka’s wife, delivers all but a few of her lines in Japanese. She says she's trying to do justice to the sprit of an ordinary middle-class woman who traveled to Japan at a time when foreigners, and international marriages, evoked a mixture of curiosity and suspicion.

The closing credits of each episode are accompanied by photographs of present-day international couples in Japan. While they are no longer unusual – around 30,000 marriages a year in Japan include a foreign spouse – such couples still attract attention that might seem unusual to an American or European. 

“What's notable about the excitement surrounding Fox’s hiring is how unexceptional it is when you think about other countries. Why is it such a big deal when a foreigner gets a job on Japanese TV? Because they're still exotic?” says Mr. Brasor.

Negotiating Japanese customs 

The real life couple the drama is based on, Rita Cowan and Masataka, met in Scotland in 1918. Rita's mother took in Masataka, then a student of organic chemistry at Glasgow University, as a lodger after the sudden death of her husband left the family in financial difficulty. They married two years later at a registry office, against the wishes of Rita’s family.

The first few episodes, which will debut on Sept. 29, detail Rita’s struggle to win acceptance from Masataka’s family and negotiate a new culture. On arrival at her new home she is prevented from entering the saké storage room because she is a woman; she attempts to hug her Japanese relatives rather than execute a respectful bow; and there are predictable mishaps involving chopsticks and limbs numbed by long periods sitting on the floor.

NHK’s morning dramas are highly anticipated. Producers expect millions to tune in to Massan, as they did for Amachan, a 2013 drama about a high school girl who become a pearl and shellfish diver in the region of northeast Japan destroyed by the March 2011 earthquake and tsunami. Amachan enjoyed average ratings of over 20 percent and generated 32 billion yen ($295 million) for the disaster-hit local economy through tourism and merchandizing.

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