Foreigners finding creative ways to make a living in Tokyo

By Beau Miller

Not every foreigner in Tokyo is an English teacher — there are also bankers, headhunters and other kinds of teachers, too. Joking aside, expats are doing all manner of jobs here, pursuing passions and paving career paths that a few decades ago would not have been possible.

Here is a diverse group of four Americans, a Canadian, two Brits and a Romanian who are making a living in nontraditional ways.

Brian Tannura: The Candy Man

It all started with a talking gumball machine. Then-Nova teacher Brian Tannura, letting his entrepreneurial side get the best of him, ordered one of the devices after seeing it in an American magazine. After he spent the equivalent of two months’ salary on the machine, you can imagine Tannura’s mood after plugging it in and realizing that the hertz didn’t match up.

Gliding through this hiccup, the 34-year-old New Jersey native now manages over 2,000 so-called “flat” vending machines, selling mostly stickers. “There will be 3,000 by end of this year and over 5,000 next year if current projections hold true,” he says.

But it is Tannura’s newest venture, importing and reselling American chocolates and snacks, that has earned him the “Candy Man” moniker. “I hope to follow a path which I first traveled with the sticker business. In that business, I also began with a small testing period—one machine, followed by five and then ten, etc,” he says. “I climbed the stairs, so to speak, re-investing profits into additional machines over the course of a few years.”

Are there clear top sellers from the candy boxes he now places in offices around Tokyo?

“Chocolate is always a big hit. I learned that pretty quickly,” he says. Tannura also recalls one encounter with a customer after the machine had sold out of his favorite product. “The ‘cashew man’ took the first chance he saw to grab me by the collar and let it be known in no uncertain terms that it was I who had got him started on his daily fix, and so it was my responsibility to keep him well-supplied.”

Hazards of the job, he reckons.

Paul Masse: Chainsaw Juggler

Just how does a guy from Miami set off on a career track that involves juggling fire, knives and chainsaws while riding a three-meter-tall unicycle and eating an apple? Well, oddly enough, it all began when Paul Masse was studying to become a ninja.

“I came to Japan 14 years ago to train under martial arts grandmaster Hatsumi-sensei, who is also known as one of the last teachers of ninjutsu,” Masse, 41, recalls. “The ninja of old used to disguise themselves as they traveled around the country gathering information, and one of the disguises was that of a kyokugei, or street performer. So I feel as though this path was chosen for me, and I can do nothing but follow it.”

Masse’s adventures began with modest shows outside train stations, after which he’d use the money he earned to take the train to where he needed to go. As his audiences grew from just a few people to hundreds, the performances started to “take over my work life,” he says.

Masse now trains in martial arts during the week, and on weekends does shows as part of a two-man performing group called AlleyKatz, which he founded in 1999 with a partner. “I just open up with some random comments and see where it takes us. It is sometimes like ad-lib theater. We have a loose idea of what we have to do but how we do it is different every time.” The duo performs nearly every weekend in Yokohama, either in Yamashita Park or near Landmark Tower.

So, has the job taken its toll physically? “Except for an occasional burn or two and the jammed fingers, no accidents — our guardian angels work overtime!” But then again, Masse is not blind to the potential risks. Just in case, he admits, “We have a special kind of performers insurance.”

Dali Rau: Tattoo Artist

The website for Dali Rau’s Graphic Tribe tattoo parlor introduces the artist in this way: “I’m ambidextrous, I speak Româna, English and Nihongo more or less fluently, I’m married — to a Japanese woman and to my work — and I seem to be ‘a nice guy.’”

Hailing from Bucharest, Rau arrived in Japan a dozen years ago. “Tattooing brought me here and I can definitely consider myself one of the luckiest people I know,” he says. “Very few compromises had to be made along the way, and there were very few things that I had to give up in order to do this.”

The 35-year-old is a tattoo artist in the truest sense of the word. He vows never to copy someone else’s design — even his own. That would be “unfair and, to a certain degree, unethical,” he says. “I want to be asked to create something that has a meaning and expresses each and every client’s thoughts.”

And who are Rau’s customers? The vast majority are Japanese, ranging from teenagers to one client clearly over 60. “The person skipped the birth date field on the signed agreement, so I can’t really verify,” he says.

Asked if everyone should get a tattoo, Rau smiles. “Absolutely — but not because it’s in fashion or because their favorite rock or movie star has one… not because all their friends have one and they look cool on the beach. Everyone who believes that tattoos can express what words or conventional fashion — i.e., clothes and hairstyles — cannot, everyone who finds tattoos as beautiful as any other form of art, should get a tattoo.”

In Japan, though, that might mean giving up the right to join a fitness club or bathe in some onsen. “Tattooing is still stigmatized,” he concedes, recounting his maddening search for a landlord who would rent him studio space. But the outlook is bright.

“Fortunately, people are starting to understand that tattooing is a form of art and it doesn’t necessarily have something to do with the gangs and all the bad stuff associated with them.”

Hayden Hughes: Video Game Localizer

One of the reasons for the surge in popularity of video games is their power to transcend cultural and national barriers. Behind the scenes making this a reality are people like Hayden Hughes, who use their cultural awareness to tailor the games to specific markets.

Case in point: “We had a job for a Japanese girlie rhythm game, and the voices they used for the characters were really high-pitched and annoying,” he says. “Obviously, this wouldn’t go over well in the UK, America, France, etc.”

As a game localization manager based in Tokyo, Hughes, 28,who comes from Poole, England, had to first change all the voices to more pleasing alternatives, and then figure out a way to explain the change to the game makers in a way that wouldn’t offend anyone.

“Catering to European publishers, some of them have rather strange standards, such as not including the word ‘love’ in games aimed at a young audience,” he says. “That made it pretty hard when the central theme of one of the games was love.”

Much of Hughes’ job involves toning down Japanese games. “There was one we were doing that included a 14-year-old girl trying to impress a 50-year-old guy with her makeup, as she liked him,” he recalls. “That obviously wouldn’t be looked kindly upon in the West by parents…”

Daniel Babu: Natural Healing Practitioner

“We cannot stop the aging process,” concedes Daniel Babu, 63, from Brooklyn. “But with proper care, we can slow it down. In fact, there are two ages: our biological age, which you can never change, and our physical and mental age, which we can do a lot about.

“I have found that aging is a truly beautiful experience. In a way, it is like everything coming together,” notes Babu. “It is like now you got a real understanding or, as they say in the Caribbean, an 'overstanding,' of how things really work.”

Such wisdom comes from Babu’s lengthy study of macrobiotics, Caribbean medicine, and Eastern healing arts like Chinese kampo and yakuzen — cooking with healing foods, fruits, nuts and herbs.

“People say, ‘I don’t have time or know how to cook.’ But proper cooking and eating are a central and crucial part of the recreation of our vital life energies,” he says. “Knowing these things is a cornerstone of a real life insurance program — of preventing bad health and illness.”

Babu sees natural healing as much more than a 9-5 job; instead describing it as his “lifework.” In the past few years, he has run yakuzen cooking workshops, and next year he’ll organize Dub Plate, which looks to combine Eastern medicinal cooking with traditional Caribbean cuisine and reggae music.

Daniel Babu can be contacted at 090-3819-4627.

Ginger Griep-Ruiz: Solo Aerial Tissue Artist

“I can’t say when I started in the circus industry. It’s just what I have always done,” says Ginger Griep-Ruiz, 29, who arrived in Tokyo six months ago to perform in the new Cirque du Soleil show Zed. “My mother was a trapeze artist, and my father was a fire-eater, sword-swallower, clown, magician and escape artist.”

With a pedigree like that, it’s little wonder the Toronto native chose to attend the Main Space School of Circus Arts and wound up in the employ of Montreal’s whimsical, globe-trotting performance troupe. She joined Cirque at age 22. “I will never forget the feeling of arriving at the company headquarters,” she says. “It was huge and full of action.”

Griep-Ruiz’ work entails dancing, swinging and spiraling midair while suspended by a silk ribbon (tissue). “Being an acrobat/aerialist means I must simultaneously act with respect towards my apparatus (it can be temperamental), listen to my body (small injuries can be just as debilitating as big ones), invest trust in my partner (the technician who manipulates the motor that raises and lowers the tissue), hit my cues (music and staging), while engaging the public and enjoying myself,” she says. “It sounds overwhelming but it’s not... it’s fun!”

Robert Michael Poole & John Toru Rankin: Cofounders, SomethingDrastic

On May 24, 2006, over 36 million people tuned in to watch Taylor Hicks win the most-watched American Idol finale of the show’s eight seasons. By contrast, when pop star Jane Zhang appeared on the televised singing contest Supergirl a year earlier, she had an audience of over 400 million.

Zhang is “China’s biggest and most successful music act,” says Robert Michael Poole, 29, from Wiltshire, England and cofounder of SomethingDrastic management agency, the singer’s official representative in Japan. “We are the only company aimed at building a bridge between China and Japan, musically.”

“We started by managing Chinese acts here in Japan and have now begun promoting Japanese artists in China starting in Macau,” says Poole’s business partner, John Toru Rankin, 28, from Seattle. This involves the thankless task of accompanying such singers as Double to five-star resorts in tropical locales — but someone’s gotta do it.

Both men have had moments where they went from behind the scenes to front-and-center. While Poole was attending the filming of the music video for “Black Diamond” with Double and J-pop queen Namie Amuro, he was thrust onscreen and told to start dancing. When Beyoncé was in town playing the Budokan, Rankin was called the day of her show and given the part of the guy who “forces her into a chair” during the performance.

But the biggest perk is the sense of accomplishment that comes from improving the China-Japan relationship through music. “We have a long-term vision of SomethingDrastic as the one music company that sits between the Asian countries, guiding artists who want to move from one to another, or who want to be successful across the continent simultaneously,” says Rankin. “The entire region has huge growth potential that is currently untapped. We aim to further expand those opportunities for Asian artists.”

This story originally appeared in Metropolis magazine (

© Japan Today

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Wow this is an awesome article, more like these please JT. It's always fascinating to read about other careers instead of the usual english teacher or other salaryman. Love that entrepreneural spirit.

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Ah, I've seen the juggler dude in Queens Square Yokohama a few times...he always seems to draw a big crowd.

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I sell rare video games and systems on eBay. It started out as a small way to make side money, and in just 6 months, I make more doing that than my monthly salary. I have no interest in video games whatsoever, but I found out that geeks all around the world are willing to shell out a lot of money for a rare game. I dried up all the supplies at all my local used game shops, so i had to turn to online shops. I just started getting into car parts last month. What someone in the States is willing to pay for a Japanese version of a part that's already on his car is amazing. I don't know much about it, I just look at what other people sell, and price it just a bit lower. Boom, I'm makin money. I thought eBay was a gimmick, but damn, you can really make money with that site.

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Wow, these people are creative. Proving that if you get off your duff and use your head you can still get ahead in life independently. Good on them.

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Solo Aerial Tissue Artist

In conventional English, we usually just say "tosser."

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I had the vending machine idea 2 years ago but got into commercial finance instead so the prospect of the amount of work it would take to build that company lost its appeal compared to current earnings. Good on that guy for taking the opportunity.

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Is being a "hostess" a "creative way to make a living"? There are plenty of foreigners doing that here.

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I'm looking for some people to help me with a great idea that I have for foreigners in Japan. Especially with the big push for bringing tourists to Japan.

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There is this one foreign guy in Okinawa who runs some awesome offshore fishing charters off the south end of the island. I saw it on Discovery Channel's Travel & Living program, so I had to go and try it for myself. We caught an unbelievable amount of fish! He said they take out around 2,000 clients each year!

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this guy have a homepage or anything

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Yes he does, but I don't think I can mention it here. I recommend you do a generic search for "saltwater fishing okinawa".

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Finally! A news story about how foreigners are NOT evil and are productive members of the Japanese community!

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Dali is a great guy, unbelivable artist, and his prices are very good for the quality of his work.. His studio is near the Ebisu station and it is very clean and proffesional. If you are planning to get some ink then this is the guy you should talk to. Here is his contact info...

I have also seen Paul and all I can say is WOW he is very talented at juggling.. Its scary to watch but you will enjoy the show greatly.

I think it is great that Gaijin can create unique businesses in Japan and thrive doing it.

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Good story. Just wish I had the creativity and get-up-and-go to do what they do! Good luck to em all and lets home some people on here are inspired to break out of the standard gaijin professions in Japan too.

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higekisan, I buy games from ebay from Japan and it's great! I go to Japan myself and get most of the games personally, but if I can't find something or run out of time I'll get it from ebay. The reason you have a business is because in the US they're just ripping us off, or there's too much red tape to export (i.e. as an individual you're able to circumvent inspections and tariffs by labelling it as a "g--t"). I know I pay $10-$25 more this way, but what am I going to do fly back to Japan? =)

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All I can say is you gotta be a bit daff to juggle chainsaws. He says he has insurance. Wonder how much he has to pay for that.

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