Man of the Moment
Once upon a time, a foreign guy could transform himself from zero to hero just by stepping off the plane at Narita. But with a tanking job market and a changing singles scene, is it last call for Charisma Man?
By: Lisa Gay | Jul 15, 2010 | Issue: 851 | 16 Comments | 21,257 views

Photographer: William Greenawalt; Stylist: Mao Iwai

That guy. You know him. Utterly geeky, yet walking hand-in-hand with an impossibly beautiful Japanese girl. Holding the native populace in awe with a barely coordinated swoop of his chopsticks and his nihongo jouzu. The dude whose crash-and-burn pickup line actually worked. Yeah, that guy. Beginning in 1998, he had a name. He was Charisma Man.

“Charisma Man” has since become shorthand for that foreign guy we’ve all run into. Even before writer Larry Rodney dreamed him up in his comic strip, he was lapping up the attention of Japanese women, from the bars of Shinjuku to the rice fields of Niigata and the eikaiwa of Kagoshima. But now, as he enters his third decade, it’s clear that Charisma Man faces grave threats to his very survival.

The first Charisma Man comic strip saw our geeky hero plucked from his home planet (later revealed to be Canada) and plunked down in Japan, where he was instantaneously transformed into a charming dude of the first order. But every Superman has his kryptonite, and Charisma Man is no exception. Forever stalking the shadows is Western Woman, who peppers our hero with a volley of insults that cut him down to size.

For all his success in Japan, Charisma Man had an unlikely origin—he was basically born on a train. Rodney came up with the idea while commuting to his teaching job here in Tokyo, and enlisted a graphic-designer friend back home in Canada, Glen Schroeder, to develop the idea into a comic strip.

“I emailed him what I wanted frame by frame and how I wanted each frame to look,” Rodney says. “For someone who had never actually been to Japan, I thought he did a pretty good job.”

Rodney dashed off the strip to expat publication The Alien (later Japanzine). It was an instant success, and the editor, sensing a winner in the charismatic loser, started bugging him for more.

“When I submitted [Charisma Man], I just had that one idea,” Rodney recalls. Although he did manage to publish ten more strips before returning home to Canada, he refused to continue the series beyond that, feeling that the comic needed someone immersed in Japan to keep it fresh. So Charisma Man’s adventures were continued by The Alien co-founder and humor columnist Neil Garscadden.

Although Charisma Man intended to poke fun at superstar gaijin, the comic also delved into the general expat experience. Whether it made a lighthearted dig at the “racism” experienced by Western foreigners or unsheathed bizarre examples of Japanese branding (Deathly cigarettes, anyone?), the comic took potshots at the oddball goofiness that this country throws our way.

As the phenomenon grew, “Charisma Man” became a catchphrase for that somewhat nerdy guy who’s successful with the native girls. If it had appeared before the advent of the internet, the comic might not have netted such a wide influence, but thanks to the rise of message boards and Japan-based bloggers in the Y2K years, “Charisma Man” became the default insult hurled at foreign guys who used their “exotic” status to pick up Japanese girls.

And where goes the expat, so goes the lingo. The term leaped from Japanese shores and influenced Western expats in other locales. Same guy, same situation, different country. Bloggers in South Korea and China picked up the meme and used it to explain the same kind of annoying dude—apparently, Charisma Man is not just big in Japan.

Further afield, academics studying Japanese society cite the comic for its depiction of the (largely white) Western experience here. Anthropologist Karen Kelsky, for instance, has published research claiming that Japanese women use Westerners as a sort of “mirror” to reflect back criticisms of homegrown men. By embodying the concepts that Japanese men are said to lack—empathy, self-reliance and so on—Western guys offer a way for them to make a muted criticism of Japan’s sexist society. Yet these concepts are not wedded to any actual experience with foreigners—rather, they exist independently of the Westerners themselves.

Click to enlarge. Copyright ©Larry Rodney. Illustration by Glen Schroeder

Click to enlarge. Copyright ©Larry Rodney. Illustration by Glen Schroeder

Click to enlarge. Copyright ©Larry Rodney. Illustration by Glen Schroeder

Mami Kishino, a recent college graduate, appears to be in thrall to the “charisma” effect. “Even if foreigners aren’t cool back home, here in Japan, because of their expressive, funny personalities, they are cool,” she says. Foreign men also give her a chance to take the reins in a relationship. “Japanese guys always want to lead, and they aren’t willing to be lower in status than their girlfriends.”

Then again, it’s easy for Western men to allow Japanese ladies to lead them around. For one, they are in a completely different environment and usually need help with the most mundane tasks of daily life. Japanese girlfriends often help with translating and interpreting a completely foreign language as well as culture.

Some Japanese women have learned the hard way that Western men are, well, individuals. Yuko Sumizawa, an event planner, has had some bad relationships with foreigners in her past. Although she still believes that foreign men are fun to hang out with, she sees them more clearly now. “The foreigner who tries to pick up every girl… there’s so many of them,” she complains.

Mika Aikawa, a hospital clerk, says that she grew up on American sitcoms that portrayed men as friendly, domestically minded partners. Yet she’s found that hard to square with boyfriends who were initially warm to their relationship, but cold about the future. “They don’t mean anything bad by it, but foreigners like to play around,” she explains. “The line between friend and girlfriend isn’t very clear, and that sort of relationship is hard to imagine in Japan. I understand now it’s part of their culture.”

If there was one area in Tokyo that could be considered Charisma Man’s natural habitat, it would be Roppongi. The numbers game alone tips the playing field to their advantage—but even here, there are signs that they are now on the losing side of the equation. Indeed, the Charisma Man phenom is under fire from several different angles.

One is simply that Japanese are getting used to foreigners. The younger generation has grown up with the standard-issue English teacher, and gaikokujin are no longer the novelty act they used to be. The worldwide recession has also heavily hit the foreign professional: expat bankers and their ilk have been leaving Japan in droves. (A recent report on news website Japan Today profiled relocation company Allied Pickfords, whose business has grown by more than 30 percent since the “Lehman Shock.”) Even the once-lucrative eikaiwa industry has suffered due to the bad economy. Nowadays, many schools offer monthly salaries of as little as ¥180,000 a month—hardly the kind of remuneration Charisma Man needs to lead a successful life in Tokyo.

Hassan is a DJ in Kabukicho who has watched foreigners pack his place night after night hoping to land some girls. “If you’re not a regular, the drink-back girls fly to you. Chances are, you think you got really lucky—you got this hot girl all over you. If she wants you to get a drink, you’re gonna buy her the drink.” Drink-back girls are apparently affiliated with the club and get a tidy sum of money for persuading you to keep their glass topped up. But romance is never on the table: all they want is to empty your wallet as fast as they can.

“When I came six years ago, girls were like, ‘Foreigners OMG!’ It was so easy to get a girl,” Hassan says. “Now they’re used to foreigners, so that whole OMG thing has worn off.” Aspiring Charisma Men who’ve heard that girls were easy in Japan may find their hopes dashed. “If they’re not gonna get girls where they come from, then they shouldn’t really expect to get girls here.”

Laurent Coens, a Belgian transplant who has lived in Japan on and off for the past ten years, echoes the sentiment. “The past was so easy, but everyone is getting used to foreigners. Ten years ago, I walked into a bar, ordered a Black Russian, and walked out with a girlfriend. I was getting reverse picked-up all the time.” Now you have to go to the countryside, he says, or at least a smaller city, to capture that level of obsession.

For their part, some Charisma Men milling about the bars of Tokyo gripe that Japanese girls are the cold, calculating ones. An Australian who declined to give his name complains that in his ten years in Tokyo, he’s not once been taken seriously. “You’re just another toy to play with,” he says, adding that he’s thinking of moving home in order to find a serious partnership. Alex Endrizzi, an Italian wine importer/exporter, laments the lack of places to meet girls with a strong intellectual bent: “Universities? Maybe so, but in bars? It’s pitiful… these girls are nowhere to be found.”

Another anonymous guy went so far as to claim that foreign men were never as popular as they might have seemed. “You have the same Japanese girls sleeping with the same foreign guys. But these guys are only here for a year or two anyway, then they go home, and the new guys show up without knowing these girls’ past.” Then the cycle begins again.

To be sure, Japan still offers foreigners, especially Westerners, endless opportunities for self-reinvention. Trevor, an American working at a public school, believes that the experience allows anyone to adopt a new, dare we say more charismatic, personality.

“You come to a new area, leave old baggage behind. You’re really happy and appreciating all the new things around you. It’s a very attractive attitude.” In his opinion, the Charisma Man image is just sour grapes over those perceived as “breaking the rules.” And really, what is more rule-breaking than a gorgeous Japanese girl with an average dude?

Love him or hate him, Charisma Man has survived for so long precisely because he’s a spot-on parody of the Western experience in Japan. But can he remain relevant in the new, more hardscrabble Japan? Forget Western Woman—only time will tell if our hero can overcome the twin onslaught of a faltering Japanese economy and a savvier breed of Japanese female.

Charisma Man: The Even More Complete Collection

The chisel-jawed hero returns this summer with an expanded collection of strips detailing his exploits in Japan. The Even More Complete Collection contains all of the strips from the first book released in 2003, along with a selection of all-new episodes. An essential addition to any self-respecting gaijin bookshelf, it’s available at bookstores nationwide from the end of July.

See www.charismaman.com for more information.

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  • http://metropolis.co.jp/community/members/towntown/ towntown

    Well, we all know that Japanese girls are slut and nothing of brain; and fake personality.

  • http://metropolis.co.jp/community/members/jameshadfield/ James Hadfield

    …but trolls are always the same, regardless of nationality.

  • http://metropolis.co.jp/community/members/sarita/ Editorial

    hey, that even rhymes!

  • http://metropolis.co.jp/community/members/mistertroy2010/ superflycharismaguy2010

    This “Charisma Man” thing is a total load of Sh&#! Has anyone looked at the comic strips? What college graduate works at McDonalds and then moves to Japan? You do need a degree to come here, don’t you? Now, let’s say you’re the college grad at a bar in Roppongi and you’re standing next to a local guy who dropped out of high school, looks pretty good, but just hangs around bars on weekends after working HIS McDonalds job or construction job. Which one is the girl gonna choose? The guy that makes some money and offers the opportunity to travel abroad or the poor uneducated bar-hopping local?

    I’m sick of this lame cliche where people (western women primarily) believe that just because a guy shows up here he can get hot chicks. The very fact that he’s here means he has a college degree. Do college graduates get hotter women than non graduates? How many hot women do you know are happily married to guys who are scraping by? Probably not many. I know that American guys can cook and pick up after themselves just fine. Before I met my wife, my place was big, clean, and fun and I cooked all my meals. How many Japanese guys fall into this category? While it may be true that most guys had trouble getting good looking girlfriends back in the states, that’s no fault of the guy’s. American guys with good jobs and educations but not model look-alikes go to a bar with their model look-alike friend (who has to burn a candle in his apartment at night because he can’t pay the electric bill and is wearing his one good/clean set of clothes) and 100% of the time the girls will pick the model look-alike. Japanese women look for a little more. Yes, of course they still want a guy to be somewhat handsome but they want a provider even more.

    The only haters are western women because it doesn’t work for them to come here with a college degree and suddenly have guys jump at her like every desperate drunk back home. Guys don’t need girls to support them or to help them travel abroad more easily. They just do it. I also take issue with the comic showing the western women as being thin, hot and stylish girls. How many foreign girls have you seen in Japan that look like that? 95% or more are girls I wouldn’t even have touched when I was in my home country drunk.

    People are also failing to take into account that foreign guys are a LOT more aggressive than Japanese guys. If a girl wants to meet a guy at a bar, there’s a much higher chance for her to hook up if she goes somewhere where there are more foreign guys.

    I conclude that the lack of interest in foreign guys isn’t because Japanese women are getting used to them. It’s because the salaries have been falling and they can’t provide as well as they used to. And for the western women haters, they should take a look in the mirror. I have rarely seen attractive foreign women (from English speaking countries). I have also rarely seen a foreign woman, attractive or not, without a Japanese boyfriend. So why pick on the guys? Don’t underestimate education, income, and personality as factors in getting the girl. The guy may not have been “your type” at home, but what does that say about you?

  • http://metropolis.co.jp/community/members/okiman/ okiman

    mistertry, I live in japan without a degree. I’m not bad looking, I don’t have a lot of money, but girls seem to like me. It’s really not that hard to get girls in Tokyo, but i think that’s because there are so many of them.

  • http://metropolis.co.jp/community/members/voldrea/ voldrea

    I kinda partly agree with this in that it’s definately more difficult to get numbers nowadays than it was five or six years ago. I’m not sure what it’s like in the regions but in Tokyo the women seem a bit more worldly than they used to, especially in old pick up joints like Heartlands. It’s still quite easy to score in Muse later on though, so drink can play a part. The strip is just too awful for those of us who’ve been here longer than a few months.

    I’m not an English teacher and get a good whack, with a flat on Omotesando. That said, you get utterly tired of women in Japan who’re only interested in you cause of this. First they check your watch, then they ask you where you live. Very difficult to meet a genuine woman in Japan. I also agree therefore that if you want to “graduate” from the pong scene that it can be pretty difficult meeting nicer women who are interesting to talk to. Most of the girls you meet in the pong are from a pretty low level socially. You probably couldn’t introduce them to your parents, and a lot of them can have one or two, probably more, gaijin on the go at once as they string you along – their level of heartlessness can easily beat that of the gaijin playboy hero.

    I’m pretty done with J-women to be honest – this is in no way representative, but the gaijin can also be pretty tired of the locals once the yellow fever abates a bit.

  • http://metropolis.co.jp/community/members/mistertroy2010/ superflycharismaguy2010

    How did you get a visa if you don’t have a degree?

  • http://metropolis.co.jp/community/members/twocents/ twocents

    I think mistertroy2010 has some good points. Foreigners with steady white collar jobs are popular in many countries because they are probably independent and know something about the world. They are not living in their parents basement. Besides this, in 6 years of living here, I haven’t actually known that many mismatched couples. Young, handsome guys will often end up with young beautiful girls. That’s natural. There may be a few pairings that surprise me, but to tell the truth, it is often reversed, and I am often shocked that such a handsome white guy would be dating such a mediocre Japanese girl. In any case, it goes both ways, definitely.

    However, the main problem I always had about Charisma Man is that it is actually racist against Japanese people. In the end, it is Japanese people who are made out to be the idiots. When we laugh, we are often laughing at them, not at Charisma Man. The foundation of the story is that even a Western loser is better than any Japanese man. Is that not the reason why so many of us Westerners love this comic? So, sorry, Metropolis, I don’t find Charisma man “spot on”. He is not a parody, he is a stereotype, and a racist one at that. Is this something we should celebrate?

  • http://metropolis.co.jp/community/members/overlord/ overlord

    The issue with this article is that we are discussing a comic strip. Does anyone not see a problem with that? Comic strips should be funny, well drawn, and parody life. Quite possibly the mentioned strip consistently is a deal breaker on all 3. Also, the purpose of this ‘piece’ is a blatant promotion for the book. Not buying it.

    Western women, or any gaijin ladies are not the nemesis. Possibly the real competition is other guys, but most likely yourself.

    And what? The dork, nerd, ugly guy is not allowed to have romantic love experiences, conquests, or however you define it? Much better that he stays home on isohunt downloading a “how to make bombs” guide, right? You won’t think so when he crashes your home party. I digress.

  • http://metropolis.co.jp/community/members/mkooltra/ mkooltra

    > “That guy. You know him. Utterly geeky, yet walking hand-in-hand with an impossibly beautiful Japanese girl. ”

    Really? I’ve never seen him here in Japan. As a matter of fact, for the longest time, foreigners in Japan have had a well-known reputation amongst the Japanese for hooking up with unattractive girls that most Japanese men wouldn’t touch.

    >”Although she still believes that foreign men are fun to hang out with, she sees them more clearly now. “The foreigner who tries to pick up every girl… there’s so many of them,” she complains.”

    >”“They don’t mean anything bad by it, but foreigners like to play around,” she explains. “The line between friend and girlfriend isn’t very clear, and that sort of relationship is hard to imagine in Japan. I understand now it’s part of their culture.” ”

    Wow! I’ve been living here awhile, and there seems to be absolutely no shortage of Japanese men who also enjoy skirt chasing either. Who in the world built all those love hotels created for the main purpose of cheating on your wife/girlfriend? The foreigners? Its slightly racist, and very ignorant to think Japanese guys don’t do this too.

  • http://metropolis.co.jp/community/members/davidhutchings/ davidhutchings

    and so Western Woman strikes again, the author failed to acknowledge her own bias towards Charisma man being “Western Woman ” totally shows your bias,,,your are WESTERN WOMAN herself!! and your last name is Gay, Lisa!!!

  • http://metropolis.co.jp/community/members/lostandfound/ lostandfound

    Can`t help feeling you`re missing another (perhaps more interesting?) story – Western Woman and Japanese Man. Are foreign women more popular in Japan than back home? Are there geeky foreign girls being chased by handsome Japanese men? Are there bars or infamous places where foreign woman go to meet Japanese guys? What happens when the western woman wants to take the Japanese guy back to her home country?

    In fact, why stop at “westerners” with Japanese? Why not have an article about Japanese/mixed race couples from all over the world? In a city as large as Tokyo surely there must be some interesting stories you could find.

  • http://metropolis.co.jp/community/members/originalcharismaman/ originalcharismaman

    You must help me find the Western Woman and stop her before she becomes too powerful:

    Here is a picture of her from every panel she’s appeared in:

    http://i.imgur.com/L98za.gif

    Use this to track her down and stop her! GOD SPEED GENTLEMEN!

  • http://metropolis.co.jp/community/members/usman/ usman

    The whole stereotype is one of white men and the presumed gaga-factor they have on Japanese women.

    Aside from how this is insulting to Japanese women – and the strip keeps them as bimbos, idiots who don’t speak other than to go agog over the white man in their presence – it constantly refers to white women as ‘Western women’.

    What, us Western-raised and bred guys and girls in Japan, who are not white, but are Asian, brown, black, and so on – we aren’t ‘Western’?

    Note to ‘authors’: just be honest and call him a ‘white’ guy and them ‘white women’.

    This strip is immensely racist as it is; it doesn’t need to hide from saying ‘white’. You’re already excluding Westerners of any non-white heritage very blatantly as it is.

    Western does not equal ‘white’. It hasn’t for decades. This strip is archaic as are those who find humour in it.

  • dork

    Make more articles like this!

  • White

    You funny guy. It’s whites who made the western civilization (and the most part of human culture as a whole). That blacks now can work in the US, doen’t mean that they are a part of the “western civilization”. They just eat fruits of white’s work.

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