Our experience with child modelling in Japan

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Every so often, M gets offered a child modelling job. This comes as no surprise to me, considering that she is the most beautiful child on the planet (totally objective there), but it also may have something to do with being hāfu, which appears to be highly prized for Japanese ads. When I was first approached, my thoughts went straight to M in her twenties, chain-smoking on a sofa telling her therapist about how her father subjected her to a life of celery dinners and overbearing stage moms.

Our experience with child modelling in Japan

Fortunately, this hasn’t been the case, at least in the handful of situations I’ve allowed her to do it. I cannot speak to this as a full-time job for a child, nor do I care to at this point. But I thought some of you might be interested in what the experience is like for a child and for a parent.

First of all, let me say that our experience with child modelling in Japan differs from full-time modelling in many ways:

  • There is no agent or child modelling agency involved. Most of these have been through my work in advertising. Basically, a client is in need of a child model and they ask me if my daughter is available.
  • This also means that I know the client or the accounts people/product managers in charge.
  • She’s only modelled 5 or 6 times in her life, and I’m always there with her. There are no handlers, drivers, private tutors, etc.
  • We’ve worked with other adult models several times, but only once with another child model and her mother.

With those qualifications out of the way, I can say unequivocally that it has been a good experience for Felicia. She’s a typical little girl, and so the idea of trying on different clothes and getting fed ice cream afterwards is quite appealing. Having a stylist help you with your clothes and hair is also a novelty she enjoys.

But I’ve begun to see some real value in these jobs. Not that I’d want her doing them all the time, but I think there have been some real benefits from them:

She and I get to spend the day together (always a bonus)
She learns the value of work
She learns to deal with adults

Let me break these down a bit.

#1: A day together

The photoshoots we’ve been on haven’t been at a breakneck pace. They start early and can finish late sometimes, but the teams we’ve worked with understand that kids need a break here and there. Also, the photographers need to occasionally stop to show the client what the pics are looking like. During these breaks, Fi and I run around, play or read together. On this recent shoot, it was quite bright, so Felicia caught up on a lesson and played a game on the iPad while the team huddled under a tarp to look at the pics on a laptop (see pic below).

#2: She learns the value of work:

I always frame these shoots as a job, not as a favor to Daddy or as something she has to do. It’s her choice, and if she chooses to do it, she has to act professional. She has to show up on time. She has to follow instructions. It’s always her choice, and I tell her that she’s getting paid, which is true: I make sure the project manager handed her an envelope with ¥1,000 (about $10, which is HUGE for a 7-year-old) and thanked her for her hard work.

#3: She learns to deal with adults

These jobs take her out of the usual relationship she has with adults — teachers and parents — and into a new kind of relationship. Here, she has to deal with people in a different way, and I really like it when they talk to her like anyone else. Also, she has to do her aisatsu (greetings)This may sound like no big deal, but it’s a really important part of Japanese social order and also a skill that I think is worth learning no matter where you are. It’s more than just “please” and “thank you.” It’s a way of interacting and dealing with people with respect. That’s a skill you can use your entire life.

There are cons, of course, and I think they might come into sharper relief if we did this more often. For example, the one experience we had with a child model’s mother was exactly like the stereotype, if not worse: she was petty; she was superficial; she was pushy. And on top of that she was shockingly racist. Well, not KKK-level racist, but just in conversation about having “half” kids (the mother was Japanese), she casually mentions that her husband is from New Orleans, then quickly added “But not one of those kokujin (blacks).”

Wow. We had just met.

This was one woman amongst thousands of model-moms, I’m know, but she sure left an impression.

As for other adult models, they’ve all been super nice and friendly with our girl. Most of these models have been Russian — the statuesque blonde-type that you see in the window display images of Japanese department stores or bra ads on the subway (I say that because I actually *saw* one of these girls in one of those ads a month or so after we met). One model has been in at least three of M’s shoots. She is always friendly and playful during breaks, but when the photographers calls, she stops, grabs M’s hand and says gently “Ok, playtime is over for now. Time to work!”

I liked that.

So overall, a small spate of modelling has been good for M. As for a career, however, let’s hope she explores more options.

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