Actress Mari Yamamoto is what the Japanese call a kikokushijo (returnee) — a bilingual, bicultural Japanese national who spent some of her formative years living abroad. In Yamamoto’s case, the overseas upbringing was in London, where she and her family lived for three years between 1991 and ’94. Like many returnees, Yamamoto found it hard to adjust to life in Tokyo after she came back, at the age of 8.
“I came back as this kid who was opinionated and full of ideas — that didn’t go down very well in an ordinary Japanese school environment,” she says. “The result was that I had no friends. I went from having tons of friends in London to zero in Tokyo.”
The rough landing led her to turn to films and books for solace. “I think I spent most of my childhood immersed in books and movies,” she recalls. “I didn’t fit in, but I grew to love literature and art.”
Now 33, Yamamoto says things did improve in Tokyo, particularly when she attended the International Christian University (ICU), where she studied Japanese art history and international relations.
“ICU has a very liberal learning environment and many of the students spoke fluent English. I felt like I fitted in a lot more than I did when I was a child,” she says. But perhaps more importantly, she remembers learning to navigate Japanese society as an outsider, with a perspective on life that was a little different from everyone else.
“I’m tall and I’m not afraid to say what I think,” says Yamamoto, laughing. “Talk about the nail that sticks out.”
While at university, Yamamoto also took an internship at the offices of the travel magazine Transit, of which she was a big fan. She learned the hard way, however, that a beautiful publication and a pleasant office environment were often mutually exclusive. Still, she stuck it out for two years.
“The boss yelled at me all the time, the work was grueling and I frequently missed the last train home. When that happened, I would sleep on the office floor,” she recalls.
Eventually, at the end of one hard day, she decided that she had had enough and it was time to move on. “I found work somewhere else,” she says. “This time in the advertising industry.”
Though Yamamoto had hoped to work in the creative department, she was appointed to sales — and again, she found herself stressed to the max, working long hours and very unhappy. A turning point came when she took five days off for a summer vacation and decided to head for New York to attend an acting class.
“I wasn’t thinking about an acting career per se,” she says. “But I was watching movies in the middle of the night and I thought maybe acting would be a way to connect to other people.”
Though it was just for a few days, Yamamoto found both the acting class and being in New York an eye-opening experience.
“I sat on the subway and looked around. I saw some Hispanic construction workers on one side, rich white ladies in the corner and other people getting on and off, and it struck me that everyone is different,” she says. “It was totally OK to be different there. That was the defining moment when I knew that I had to be in New York.”
When she returned to Japan, she faced her parents and declared, “Mom, Dad, I want to be an actress.” Luckily, her parents were understanding. “They told me to go ahead,” she says, “because I had suffered enough.”
To save enough money to relocate and study in New York, Yamamoto decided to work for one more year, and once her decision was made, she found working like a Japanese salaryman got easier. Life now had a specific purpose and was full of promise. The year’s work was a means to an end.
“I worked all week. On weekends I moonlighted at Abercrombie & Fitch in Ginza so I could put away as much cash as I could,” she says. “And at the end of 2010, I flew out to New York to study at The Lee Strasberg Theatre and Film Institute.”
By then, Yamamoto had turned 24. Before leaving for the U.S., she met her clients at the ad agency to say goodbye and they told her she looked much older than her years.
“They said that I looked so tired all the time,” she says laughing at the memory. “I didn’t even realize how stressed I was.”
Once in America, however, Yamamoto not only felt free as a bird, but took to New York like duck does to water. After Lee Strasberg, she stayed on to work in off-off Broadway experimental productions and felt both her performance level and English skills soar.
“Until New York, my English was pretty childish, I realize that now. But studying theater and performing at the same time really took my language skills to another level,” says Yamamoto, who then stayed in New York for four years before returning temporarily to Japan and signed up with a Japanese talent agency, at age 28.
“I was told though, that the only roles available to women around 30 were housewives,” says Yamamoto of her return to Japan. “I knew that was coming but I was still shocked.”
Believing in the power of gaining experience and making herself known, Yamamoto is still signed to the Japanese agency, but now works internationally, moving from city to city and from movie role to movie role. In 2017, she landed her first big role in “Jimami Tofu,” a Singaporean film about love and Okinawan cuisine.
“At this point, I have no borders. I will go and work wherever I’m wanted,” she says, explaining that her list of locales include Greece, Singapore, the Czech Republic, the U.S. and Japan.
Though she has come a long way from the pains of a returnee’s childhood, Yamamoto says she still finds herself suffering from imposter syndrome.
“I guess that’s part of why acting seems to fit me. For a long time, I didn’t feel comfortable in my own skin,” she explains. “But now I’ve learned to live with that and make it part of who I am.” And in the process, she says she has come to love Tokyo in a way that she didn’t think was possible:
“When I was working like a salaryman, I hated Tokyo for what often represents it: stress, long hours, crowded commutes. But my years abroad has given me a different perspective.
“I look at Tokyo now and I really appreciate it. I do love the city, it’s now a part of my world.”