Blonde-haired and blue-eyed, Gillian Kamata didn’t travel to Japan to land a job in the modeling business, but the Kilgore High School graduate discovered a niche that’s spawned a slew of projects in print and television.
The daughter of Robert and Kim Lightfoot, Gillian finished KHS in 2002 and went on to study at Austin College. In 2007, she jumped at an opening in the City of Tyler’s sister-city exchange with Yachiyo in Japan’s Chiba Prefecture.
“Every year they send four teachers to Japan to teach in junior high school,” she said this week, visiting her parents in Kilgore along with her husband, Shigeyuki, and 6-month-old son, Ellis. The first teaching job spawn several years of work.
The couple married in 2010 and made Tokyo their home, an ideal spot for Shige’s career in marketing.
He, too, had experience in a foreign culture under his belt after studies abroad in Los Angeles, California, and a stretch on the east coast in New Jersey. After completing his education, Shige went to work in a Japanese advertising agency.
“Working crazy, always working, morning to morning,” he said Tuesday. “Especially an advertising agency is crazy.”
Ultimately, Shige opted to seek work at an American ad agency and landed a job with Starbucks’ marketing arm in Japan. Gillian found work at an international preschool.
“I enjoyed teaching,” she said. “I liked it, but I wanted to try something different.”
Shige suggested modeling, a side-job that came highly-recommended from other foreigners living and working in Tokyo.
“You don’t have to make it your number one job,” he said, “but it might be a neat experience to have in Japan.”
Gillian signed up with a modeling agency and began taking auditions. Today, she’s signed with two outfits: the Free Wave model and talent agency and another Tokyo-based operation, Avocado.
To date, she’s accrued more than 20 projects, ranging from magazine fashion shoots to a commercial gig, playing the role of a Westerner trying Japanese cuisine and culture.
Western culture has a strong appeal in Japan, Shige acknowledged, and some clients reach out to Westerners to market their products to Japanese customers – a Japanese model would be too realistic, he suggested, while someone like Gillian adds an element of the “fancy” or “fantastic” to a magazine spread.
For Gillian, it’s an entertaining and fulfilling past-time, but it’s not her prime passion.
“I’m also working on my own business of dog training and dog board,” she said, aiming to help mature pet ownership from a fad to a way of life, implementing celebrity dog behaviorist Cesar Millan’s techniques to improve training and to engender respect for animals: “We’re trying a new style where it’s more ‘Home.’”
A decade abroad and an open-minded approach has led to a wealth of new experiences, Gillian added, and a new mindset for approaching life. While Kilgore was always a comfortable bubble growing up, traveling to big cities in other countries has led to encounters with a broader slice of humanity.
“I guess I just have an appreciation for other cultures,” she said. “I will always love Texas, and I love Kilgore, but I love other cultures, and I love to hear their stories.
“We really just are all people trying to do the same thing.”
For his part, Shige feels their relationship, and his own past experiences in America, has given him a dual perspective, a Japanese mind and American mind, that sparks an appreciation for the differences in the two cultures.
Visiting Kilgore, “For me, this is the first time to be in East Texas, the south,” he said. “Real America is here,” more than the pop culture trends that reach Japan.
For example, the songs of Michael Jackson and Lady Gaga hardly capture the sound of America: country music.
Traveling with Gillian and Ellis, Robert and Kim, Shige’s says he’s gaining more insight on American individualism versus Japanese collectivism, the diversity of America versus the homogeneity of Japan.
There’s tension, he allowed, between the different parts of culture and politics in the United States, but he’s keen to see what continues to develop here.
“This is America.”