February 03, 1986 12:00 PM

It starts as soon as he leaves the set of Ponytail, Never Give Up, a popular Japanese TV series. After a few moments of staring, whispering and pointing, giggling housewives and teenage girls surround the performer. Noisy yet exquisitely polite, as only female Japanese fans can be, they thrust paper, shopping bags, even a terry-cloth towel into his hands, asking “Sign onegaishimasu”—autograph, please.

The hysteria is understandable: The man is practically a cult figure—a star whose name and face, according to a recent recognition survey, can be identified by more than 80 percent of the country’s teens. But there’s something inscrutable about the scene, because the object of all this adulation is a boyish lawyer from Orem, Utah, who can’t sing or dance and isn’t trained as an actor. Indeed, the only thing he can do is deliver witty repartee in fluent Japanese. That has made him a frequent guest star on Japan’s talk, quiz and dramatic shows, a coveted speaker at city halls, factories and wedding receptions, the author of three books and numerous magazine articles, the host of a weekly radio program and the pitchman on at least five current commercials. He’s Kent Gilbert, better known as Kento-San, the nation’s top-rated gaijin talento—foreign talent.

Ah, the mysterious East. The gaijin talento phenomenon is unique to insular, homogeneous Japan, where anyone with Gilbert’s sandy hair and brown eyes evokes a special curiosity. And if the gaijin can intelligently converse in Japanese, he instantly qualifies as talento. Some observers, dismissing the meager talents of “professional foreigners,” liken them to sideshow freaks—”talking dogs.” Gilbert, 33, objects to such gibes. “Foreigners present things from another point of view,” he insists. “Japanese want that. Foreigners can say things a Japanese can’t.”

Gilbert has been able to probe such traditionally touchy subjects as shortening the six-day workweek and Japan’s reliance on nuclear energy, both of which he endorses. But he’s more at home on such matters as disciplining children, defining female beauty and maximizing tax-exempt savings—topics he addresses on his radio show, Kent Gilbert’s Information for Wives. It’s probably his appeal to the distaff audience that sets Kento-San apart from the other gaijin. “He’s pleasant and straitlaced,” assesses one observer, “a man every Japanese woman would like to have in her home.” In fact everything about Gilbert shouts wholesome. He extolls such virtues as friendship, fidelity and safe driving. He leads a homespun family life, residing in a Western-style house in central Tokyo’s Meguro ward with his pregnant wife, Lana, 33, and their sons, Richard, 7, and Brett, 5. He jogs and windsurfs, and neither smokes nor drinks. He has the clean-cut appearance of those young men who ring doorbells spreading the word of God.

Which is precisely what he was doing 14 years ago when he first came to Japan. His parents, Sidney and Joy Gilbert, are Mormons, and Kent, the oldest of six children, elected to do his missionary work when he was 19. Assigned to Japan, he was given a crash course in the language and sent off on a two-year stint. “Japan is really nice for missionary work,” he says. “The people are so polite that even if they don’t want to listen to you, they still talk with you.”

Returning to Utah, Kent continued his Japanese studies while pursuing an M.B.A. and a law degree at Brigham Young University. In 1980 he was hired as a foreign-investment lawyer by a Tokyo law office associated with the Chicago-based law firm of Baker & McKenzie. The road to becoming a talento began three years later with a single small step. In January 1983 an amateur theater group recruited Gilbert as a last-minute fill-in for a small role in Moliere’s The Imaginary Invalid. Contacts Kent made doing the play led to a video narration job and a bit part in a TV drama. His entry into big-money showbiz was pure happenstance, says Gilbert, who had fantasized about acting while in high school. The gongs really began to sound for him when he appeared on Japan’s popular game show How Much?, an exotic version of The Price Is Right. An immediate hit, he still goes back to the scene of his first triumph, trying to guess the cost of such items as a lock of George Washington’s hair ($4 million), three liters of German horse milk ($20) or the Dallas Cowboys ($60 million).

Kent Gilbert earned $400,000 in 1984, three quarters of that as Kento-San and the rest as Mr. Gilbert, the lawyer. Last year he made $500,000, with 90 percent credited to his alter ego. For dramatic ventures, such as his Ponytail role, he usually receives 800,000 yen (about $4,000). He averages 700,000 yen for public appearances and commands the same fee from wedding halls for his “bridals,” speeches on love and marriage to couples.

Now a part-time lawyer, Gilbert can devote more time to his demanding talento schedule—often running up five engagements a day, six days a week. Between appointments he dictates his magazine articles and is churning out a Japanese guide to English grammar. His previous literary efforts include Exciting Kingdom of Japan, How To Love and Be Loved and a photo autobiography, How Much in a Smile?

The question is worth pondering. His detractors say he’s all smile and no substance. “He seems affected, not completely true,” observes film critic Yukichi Shinoda, “and this putting on airs is what vain, class-conscious Japanese cannot resist.” While conceding that Gilbert has “a certain kind of talent,” Shinoda believes Kento will have a limited shelf life. “Considering the rapid turnover in Japanese show business, I would give him two more years,” he says.

Gilbert hears similar rumblings at home. “At first I was so excited every time he was on TV, I was rubbing my toes,” says Richard Gilbert, who appears with his father and brother in a commercial for Morinaga chocolate. “But it was in Japanese all the time so it got to be boring.” And despite her husband’s remarkable entree into a society known for its reserve toward outsiders, wife Lana isn’t totally at home in Japan. “I’m just like a yo-yo,” she says. “One day I enjoy it and think how lucky I am to visit a famous place like the Ginza anytime I want. The next day my neighbor tells me I’ve put the garbage out on a national holiday, then returns it to my front door!”

Kento-San is uncertain about returning to America. “I’m not much of a planner,” he answers, “so who knows? For now, we’re sticking around. I look at the profit-and-loss statement. When the loss is greater, then maybe we’ll leave. But I go on what I feel, and right now things are good.” But be warned, America, Kento has hired an agent in Los Angeles. There’s only one problem, but it could be a big one: “I’m not sure how I function in English,” admits Gilbert. “All my jokes are in Japanese.”

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