Contemporary Culture Going Global

Tommy Lee Jones in Japan: Fifteen Years as “The Alien”

Culture Entertainment

American actor Tommy Lee Jones has enjoyed a long and successful career in Hollywood. Alongside this, since 2006, he’s had a parallel career in the alternate universe of Japanese television commercials. He’s become one of the country’s most recognizable faces through his appearances as the “Alien Jones” observer of terrestrial life in a series of popular commercials for Suntory’s ubiquitous Boss brand of canned coffee. As the series enters its fifteenth year, we talked to Fukusato Shin’ichi, the man responsible for the series, on the idea behind Alien Jones and the reasons that have made the series such a long-running success.

Fukusato Shin’ichi

Born in Kamakura, Kanagawa Prefecture, in July 1968. Graduated from Hitotsubashi University and joined Dentsū in 1992. Since 2001 has worked as creative director at the One Sky agency. Has worked on more than 1,500 television commercials, including successful campaigns for Georgia Coffee, Toyota, and Eneos. His work has received numerous industry awards, including the prestigious Tokyo Copywriters Club Grand Prix.

The Alien and His Many Jobs

Alien Jones is on a mission from his home planet, sent to observe conditions on Earth. Each episode sees him working in a different job. At the end of each “episode,” he gulps thirstily from a can of coffee and intones a variation on his catchphrase, summarizing what he has learned from his latest job about “The inhabitants of this planet . . .” The commercial, which has become a favorite for the gentle humor with which it highlights the foibles of daily life on this “lousy but somehow also wonderful” planet, has now entered its fifteenth year as a fixture on Japanese TV screens.

Playing the part of the alien is Tommy Lee Jones, better known to American audiences as the Hollywood veteran with credits that include an Oscar for Best Supporting Actor in The Fugitive (1993) and a string of appearances as Agent K in the Men in Black series. Jones plays the part of an extraterrestrial sent to gather intelligence on the inhabitants of Earth (read, Japan). Over the past 15 years, he has been depicted working in more than 70 different jobs that have taken him all over the country. He’s played a doctor on a remote island and an apartment building caretaker, as well as distinctively Japanese roles including a sumō referee, a traditional gardener, and a samurai. And he speaks only Japanese—not a word of English. The series was the brainchild of Fukusato Shin’ichi, a commercial campaign planner who has been with the One Sky agency after an earlier career with Dentsū. Now in his early fifties, Fukusato has been responsible for bringing more than 1,500 commercials to Japanese television screens.

An Outsider’s Perspective

Fukusato joined advertising giant Dentsū after graduating from Hitotsubashi University in Tokyo. Despite this elite background, Fukusato says he has never had an optimistic personality. “I’ve always had a feeling that just about anything I do is bound to go wrong,” he says. “I still have it now. A constant nagging feeling like: How could anything ever go right for a guy like me? And for the first ten years or so after I started work, things really didn’t go well at all. So I started to feel: What did I tell you, I knew it wouldn’t work out . . .”

Fukusato says he has always had an unconventional, outsider’s way of looking at the world. He remembers his interview at Dentsū. “They asked me why I had applied for the job, so I said, well, I don’t really have any friends, so I never know what people around me are thinking. So that’s the work I’d like to do at your company: research on what people are really thinking.”

In his book Denshin-bashira no kage kara miteru taipu no kikaku-jutsu, (Creative Planning from the Guy Lurking Behind the Telephone Pole), Fukusato looked back on his own childhood as a detached observer. “I would stand apart at the park, looking on from behind a utility pole, watching the other kids as they galloped in circles around a wistaria trellis or screamed with excitement on the swings. I didn’t dislike being an outsider; I never felt lonely. In fact, it was a contented and comfortable time in my life.”

Fukusato has won numerous awards for his work, including the TCC Grand Prix, the TCC Award (22 times), and the ACC Grand Prix (3 times).
Fukusato has won numerous awards for his work, including the TCC Grand Prix, the TCC Award (22 times), and the ACC Grand Prix (3 times).

In 2006, Fukusato was approached to come up with a new commercial for Boss canned coffee. The client wanted to keep a strong emphasis on the brand’s image as a drink that was “an ally on the side of working people”—an energizing glug of caffeinated sweetness ever-ready to refresh and encourage people working hard on the front lines in their various jobs. The client wanted a series that could run for at least five years—something that would take people’s minds off the constant stream of bad news and make them feel more optimistic about their lives.

Fukusato had an idea. “I asked myself a question. What’s the most depressing thing you see on television? The answer was obvious: the news. I mean, it’s just bad news everywhere you look, right? Politics is hopeless, the environment’s in a mess and getting worse, wars are breaking out. They collect all these bleak and depressing items from around the world and broadcast it as a package of bad news. And it’s not just once a day. It’s become more like a constant stream, all through the day. If you spend too much time following it, you’re bound to wind up feeling depressed. So I asked myself, what’s the opposite of that? What would make people feel better about their lives?

Fukusato came up with the idea of a series of commercials in which an extraterrestrial researcher was sent to Earth to study the lives of the inhabitants, reporting on his findings from a detached perspective. He starts off unimpressed and sardonic about what he sees, but as he spends more time here he realizes there is more to the planet than he initially thought. He starts to feel sympathy and a sense of admiration for earthlings and the way they can work to achieve great things when they put their minds to it. “I thought if we showed an alien coming to appreciate the good aspects about this planet, it would help people feel a bit better about themselves and their lives. And if we had him do a different job every time, we could keep the series going almost indefinitely.”

Fukusato felt that casting a foreign actor in the role would help to underline the “alien” element of the character as an outsider and detached observer. Tommy Lee Jones is a successful and thoughtful actor, who once roomed with former United States Vice President Al Gore at Harvard. But 15 years ago, he was not yet a universally recognizable figure in Japan. Jones impressed with his ability to present a straight face and a convincingly “alien” expression of bemusement. He was hired almost immediately, and soon his face was familiar to millions of people in Japan.

Once the basic idea was decided, Fukusato says, the details came quickly. “Alien Jones is an outsider who does not enter into the normal social circles of the [Japanese] earthlings. He watches detached and apart, with an eye that’s ironic but never malicious, sometimes amused by what he sees, at other times admiring. In fact, come to think of it, he’s just like me,” he says with a smile. Fukusato’s withdrawn, detached personality, which he had used to observe his peers from a distance as a child, came to life again in the character of Jones. Alien Jones, it turns out, has a lot of his creator in him.

In one episode, set in a “factory, the earthling workers are boisterously shouting otsukare-sama to one another, the everyday workplace greeting that, roughly translated, is an appreciation of the other’s efforts meaning “you must be very tired.” Alien Jones mutters his findings at the end of the episode: “The inhabitants of this planet take happiness in their tiredness.” In another episode, Jones plays the part of a courier delivery worker. “On this planet,” he reports, “there is a constant demand for speed. Why things have to be so urgent is not clear.” He hurries back to the delivery van, only to find he has received a ticket: “They are also really strict about parking infringements.” Like a well-drawn cartoon, each installment of the commercial humorously and memorably encapsulates in a few effective strokes an aspect of daily life in contemporary Japan.

 Tommy Lee Jones as an alien taxi driver.
Tommy Lee Jones as an alien taxi driver.

Over the years, as the series has become successful, it has incorporated numerous popular actors and “idol” groups, bringing its message of gentle humor from settings as diverse as outer space, remote islands of the Japanese archipelago, and the famous “scramble” crossing in Tokyo’s Shibuya.

Fukusato describes his personality as “herbivorous,” passive and yielding, and says he hates fights and arguments.
Fukusato describes his personality as “herbivorous,” passive and yielding, and says he hates fights and arguments.

A touch of the truth

The eighteenth episode in the series saw Jones working as a “construction worker building a tunnel. “When the inhabitants of this planet see a river, they build a bridge; when they see a mountain, they dig a tunnel. Where could they be in such a hurry to get to?”

Jones presses a detonator, blasting away the rock and successfully joining the two sides of the tunnel. “It must be admitted,” he says, “that the sense of accomplishment you get from work on this planet can be habit-forming.”

Alien Jones gets emotional as he joins fellow workers in a round of “banzai” cheers to celebrate the successful dynamiting of a new tunnel.
Alien Jones gets emotional as he joins fellow workers in a round of “banzai” cheers to celebrate the successful dynamiting of a new tunnel.

“That episode put into words what I was always feeling myself. Why are people always working so hard? Surely it would be all right to stop and just take it easy,” says Fukusato. “It’s not just for the money. People really throw themselves into their work, and they feel a sense of accomplishment when they complete something. That, surely, is at the heart of what work means to most people. That’s the thing about commercials—if you can include an element of the truth like that, and maybe spice it up with some humor, it can really resonate with audiences.”

A 2017 outing, “A breath of fresh air: where is everyone?” was set in the office of an IT company developing smartphone apps. It contained the following snatch of prescient dialogue.

Sakai Masato: “What’s going on? Has no one come in today?”

Sugisaki Hana: “The company president and team manager are working from the co-working space. Sugiyama-san and Kumi-chan are using up their paid leave allowance, and Tanaka-san is in a meeting on remote. So, yes: there’s no one actually in the office.”

Sakai (to Narita Ryō, via video teleconferencing screen): “Why didn’t you come into the office today?”

Narita (from his garden at home): “Why should I? What’s the need?”

Jones: “The inhabitants of this planet seem likely to have a decreasing need for the office in the years to come.”

Several years on, this dialogue seems to have accurately predicted the “workstyle reform” trend that has become a mantra in corporate Japan in recent years—and especially in recent months, spurred on by the coronavirus pandemic. Here again, Fukusato incorporated an “element of the truth” into his script: If you can do your work from anywhere, why go in to the office at all? Even the manager, played by Sakai, can’t argue with the logic of it: “Hmm, now you put it that way, maybe you’re right . . .”

“I think probably a series like this wouldn’t work in other countries,” Fukusato believes. “A lot of the time, I think, clients overseas want to emphasize how a product can offer solutions to problems. This series isn’t like that. The alien just describes some aspect of earthling behavior and then at the end gulps down a can of coffee. It’s the empathy and fellow-feeling he comes to feel for the people he is observing that gradually develops the image of the brand.”

In May this year—at the height of Japan’s state of emergency, amid stay-at-home requests and shuttered businesses around the country—a special digest edition of the commercial was released, featuring 90 seconds of “Advice from an Alien” culled from excerpts from previous episodes aired over the previous 14 years. “First of all, make sure to wash your hands really well,” the clip begins. Wear masks, maintain distance from others, stay at home, open windows to air out your rooms from time to time, the spot continues. And above all, “show appreciation for the efforts of people who are working to save lives and keep society running.” The success of this mini-masterpiece was made possible by the accumulated stock of clips showing “Alien Jones” in various settings alongside the hard-working people of Japan. The outer-space visitor’s words of encouragement offer solace for us all, wherever we may be living and working on this lousy but wonderful little planet.

“Advice from an Alien” (May 2020)

(Courtesy Suntory; © Jiji Press)

(Originally published in Japanese. Banner photo: “Make sure to wash your hands really well,” says Tommy Lee Jones, as Alien Jones, at the height of the Covid-19 crisis in May 2020. With thanks to One Sky. Photos of Fukusato Shin’ichi ©

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