Tarento (タレント) are celebrities who regularly appear on mass media in Japan, especially television. The term is a gairaigo word - borrowed a foreign language word - from the Greek word Ταλέντο which means "Talent" (since Japanese speakers hardly make a difference between sounds "l" and "r"), and has a connotation of "famous for being famous". During the Golden Age of Hollywood, bankable stars were described as Tarento, and were distinguished from production crews which were seen as having more technical than charismatic talents. In that sense, although some sources may paint "tarento" as a concept not easily translatable outside Japanese, in many cases the term translates perfectly (or nearly so) to the English word "celebrity," including the understanding that the fame of a Tarento may or may not be based upon specific accomplishments and abilities.
Japanese television programs often feature these media personalities. Many, sometimes dozens at a time, are called in to take part in these prime time shows. Their participation in these programs varies greatly and includes performing, voicing opinions, mimicking fellow celebrities in a practice called Monomane, taking part in game shows, joking, or just being present for the entire duration of the show (known as being part of the "gallery").
While it is very common for tarento to appear in serious Japanese television drama or movies, they are distinguished from mainstream actors by the fact that, where an actor might go on variety television to advertise their latest venture, tarento often appear on variety shows with no apparent promotional agenda outside of a personal one.
Often, tarento, whether men or women, have notoriously short career spans (around one or two years), and their earning capabilities are not as high as popularly imagined. The vast majority make just enough to maintain a middle-class lifestyle in Tokyo, Japan's media capital. This is because their talent agencies take a majority share of their earnings for the appearances that they make on TV. Part of the money given up by the tarento is to pay for initial support the agencies gave them in terms of free housing, financial stipends, and promotion of that person. These cuts can sometimes be as much as 90%. However, their work achieves social prominence (and all the associated benefits), and a successful tarento career can be the launching point for a career as movie actor or even political figure. An example is Takeshi Kitano, a prominent director, who started out as a comedy tarento and still does weekly shows. Tarento who are unable to leverage their career into something larger sometimes slowly fade away into eventual obscurity.
Important considerations for tarento include the degree to which their names are publicly known ("chimeido", 知名度) which is the Japanese equivalent of a Q Rating, the degree to which they are generally liked by the public ("koukando", 好感度), and the character or personality by which they are known (often just "chara"). The distinction between the first two terms is an important one, as celebrities such as Egashira 2:50 might be widely disliked by audiences and still make a living; being disliked is a part of their character. Other elements of a tarento's character may include their origins and other/former careers (e.g. author/illustrator Lily Franky), intelligence (e.g. Masaru Hamaguchi, a comedian who once misspelled his own name on a televised test), hobbies and skills (many female celebrities are known for how well or poorly they can cook, from the former members of Pink Lady on the high end of the continuum to race queen Yinling on the low end), or appearance (many non-Japanese talents such as Bobby Ologun use their looks to this effect). The way by which a person becomes tarento can more often than not be categorized.
These are people on programs that have a "trademarked" phrase, wardrobe, or mannerism that is used to elicit laughs from the audience. Their on-TV characters tend to be very shallow as they milk the comic device or neta(ネタ) that gave them notoriety and hardly ever expand on their character. It is these figures that tend to have the shortest shelf life on TV as they quickly fade into obscurity after the novelty of their act wears off. They are known in Japan as ippatsuya(一発屋), or "one trick pony". Examples of this kind include Yoshio Kojima, Dandy Sakano, and Razor Ramon Hard Gay.
'Owarai' is Japanese for laughter, or in this case a "comic talent". Owarai tarento are generally former comedians, often in manzai (type of stand up), who, after becoming famous, make appearances on variety television programs that are comedic in nature.
Sometimes, Tarento are given prominent air time on TV and are promoted heavily due to their association or relationship to an established celebrity or politician, and not because they possess any discernible skills for entertaining audiences. One of the bigger examples of this phenomenon is Kazushige Nagashima, the son of the legendary Yomiuri Giants player and manager, Shigeo Nagashima. After failing to become a successful baseball player, he turned to the entertainment circuit and used his father's name to make inroads. The son of controversial Tokyo governor Shintaro Ishihara, Yoshizumi Ishihara, has also achieved a measure of exposure due to nepotism as well as Kotaro Koizumi, son of former Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi.
Additionally, Tarento, both male and female, may be discovered and be given considerable exposure due to their perceived physical beauty and endowments, but the way they are promoted is different from being strictly a fashion model. This is because they spend time making music CDs, star vehicles, and television appearances that capitalize on their physical beauty or on screen charisma. These people are occasionally referred to as obaka-aidoru or "dumb idols". Many of the men that fall into this category come from Johnny & Associates, a male talent agency which is the backbone of the music and television industry.
A gaikokujin tarento (外国人タレント), also known as gaijin tarento (外人タレント) and abbreviated gaitare, is a foreign celebrity active exclusively or almost exclusively in Japan. The phrase literally means "foreign talent". Having at least a conversational level Japanese, combined with foreign looks as well as a standout personality, they are often chosen because they meet the Japanese stereotypes of foreigners (for example, the notion that Americans generally look rugged and have blond hair and blue eyes). Gaikokujin tarento are seen as curiosities by the Japanese, just as other tarento, and are cast differently depending on their ethnicities. A veteran foreign personality, Dave Spector stated, "Doing things like the lowest Bozo, circus kind of stuff. But it doesn't bother me at all. A lot of times the foreigners on TV, models and what-not, are compared to pandas. They use that term here — pandas — because they're cuddly, you can go and have fun with them, and throw a marshmallow and that's about it. And you don't get involved any more deeper than that. But...since I'm making half a million dollars a year, I'm very happy to be a panda."