Originally published on metropolis.co.jp on July 2010

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.