An atmosphere of excitement and nervousness rose with the early morning sun on the Micronesian island of Yap.
It is March 1 and the smell of hibiscus drifts through the tibnaw huts. Entire families sit on dried palm fronds, as all ages prepare to perform on behalf of their village in front of the still-powerful tribal chiefs.
by Robert Michael Poole
On March 11, 2011, the residents of Fukushima Prefecture felt the earth shake as a massive quake struck off the northeastern coast of Japan. But few could have predicted the explosions that would later follow or that the reactors at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant would go in to meltdown. The region has been physically changed, tainted by radiation, but also altered in other ways: The government’s investigation and ensuing media attention has ensured the words “Fukushima” and “radiation” are forever linked.
“Immortal,” the new Michael Jackson-themed Cirque du Soleil show touring North America may sound grandiose but the self-proclaimed “King of Pop” was undoubtedly a larger-than-life character. While immortality was out of Jackson’s reach, the singer’s family are doing their best to keep his memory alive with musical extravaganzas. Two “Michael Jackson Tribute Live” concerts will take place Dec. 13 and 14 at Yoyogi National Stadium in Tokyo.
It’s a meeting of the memes. Inside one of Shibuya’s biggest clubs, Japan’s happy-go-luckiest talent perches eagerly and wide-eyed on her high stool awaiting the arrival of Canada’s most cheerful pop star. After bounding into the room gleefully, Carly Rae Jepsen doesn’t disappoint. A nonstop frenzy of interviews and appearances in Tokyo has only seemed to energize her — the perfect counterpart to omnipresent idol of the moment, the eminently chirpy Rola.
Queen Elizabeth’s Jubilee celebrations are never complete without a rock star wielding an axe to inaugurate proceedings. For the Golden Jubilee in 2002 it was Queen’s Brian May atop Buckingham Palace. And for The British Embassy in Japan’s Diamond Jubilee party this month, the sword fell on the broad shoulders of Anglophile Tomoyasu Hotei. Not without good cause either. On his 50th birthday earlier this year, Hotei announced that he was about to embark on a challenge to start a new life in London.
Squeezed between the two central Tokyo hubs of Shinjuku and Harajuku, Yoyogi is rarely a destination for tourists — more of a two-minute halt that breaks up the journey to somewhere else. But this month, ecological troubadour Takeshi Kobayashi, producer of multi-million-selling rock-band Mr. Children, opens the gates to Yoyogi Village, a multi-purpose melange of environmentally friendly stores, organic restaurants, coffee shops and event spaces he hopes will regenerate the overlooked district.
In the middle of her recent Japan tour, pop superstar Kylie Minogue surprised her fans by announcing a new song on YouTube. The song, written by Japanese rapper and producer Verbal, is called “We Are One” and is the pair’s effort to try to raise donations for Unicef following the March 11 earthquake and tsunami. Verbal opened for Minogue during the Tokyo leg of her tour and the Australian singer found time to squeeze in promotion for their collaboration backstage.
Halfway through the first-ever Girls Award fashion show at Tokyo’s Yoyogi National Stadium last month, 22-year-old Meisa Kuroki strides down the catwalk, glistening in a sleeveless gold dress and black stockings while delivering her pulsing dance tune ‘‘Shock.’’ The face of a hundred magazine covers and countless TV dramas then blasts the 10,000-strong audience with her new single, ‘‘5-Five-,’’ her confidence belying that fact that this is her live debut.
“I’ve always been a fan of MTV,” says 25-year-old ICONIQ. “Living in Korea I watched it every day, and in America I was addicted to ‘America’s Best Dance Crew.’” With her trademark baby-short hair and bold lyrical statements about women going through dramatic changes, ICONIQ leaped into the public’s consciousness in January this year when she became the face of cosmetic giant Shiseido’s Maquillage range of cosmetics only a month after making her professional debut in Japan. After that, her strikingly androgynous appearance soon became ubiquitous on both TV and billboards.
The five young members of 4Minute sit dressed in tight, black leather outfits at a luxury hotel in Ebisu, Tokyo. It’s one day before their Japanese debut, but they show no signs of nerves. The group’s first concert here, at the 1,500-capacity Shibuya AX, turned out to be impressively packed to the rafters with screaming teenage girls. More notably, though, was the large number of music industry representatives also in attendance. This comes despite the fact the girls have not yet released any music in Japan.
“There’s a whole bigger world out there than what we are doing,” says jazz pianist and vocalist Emi Meyer. “Studying roots music and ethnomusicology always kept me open-minded.” Born in Kyoto, but raised in Seattle, 23-year-old Meyer is exploring new musical genres for her sophomore album, “Passport.” She has teamed up with Japanese rapper and producer Shingo Annen, known to his fans as Shing02, for a journey that encompasses bossa nova, reggae and hip-hop. Annen describes the amalgamation as “an organic fusion of culture and styles.”
“We want to establish our reputation as a rock band rather than a ‘female’ rock band. But I’ve noticed there are big differences in feeling between men and women and it seems to be easier to convey how we feel and get into the rhythm as girls.” So says Eriko Hashimoto, 26, vocalist of melodic-rock trio Chatmonchy, who since 2005 have reached the upper-echelons of the Japan charts with three gritty, emotional, yet vivacious albums.
“Songs these days have become a lot shorter because people don’t seem to have time to listen to whole songs anymore,” laments Takanori Nishikawa, vocalist of Abingdon Boys School. “They just (listen to) their favorite part and then skip to another song.” Nishikawa is hoping the public can get over their collective attention-deficit disorder and give Abingdon Boys School’s newest album, “Abingdon Road,” a proper start-to-finish listen.
“First of all, I am a Tibetan, 100 percent,” says singer Alan Dawa Zhuoma, more commonly known by her stage name alan. “I’ll never forget the many Chinese teachers and friends who gave me knowledge and encouraged me while I studied in Chengdu and Beijing, but wherever I go, I am Tibetan and I always remember it.” Preparing for this month’s release of her sophomore album, “my life,” the 22-year-old alan says she has discovered herself after living in Tokyo for two years.
“It’s like a meteorite flow” says Verbal of his group’s name. “I spelled it ‘mediarite’ because I thought we would hit with a big impact in the media and surprise the unsuspecting masses with some good music. I think it worked better than I anticipated.” m-flo, the combination of DJ Taku Takahashi and rapper Young-Kee Yu, better known as Verbal, have become one of Japan’s premier hip-hop production teams over the past 10 years. They’re also the go-to collaborators for a string of the nation’s leading pop vocalists.
“There is still some racial thing going on,” claims a mild-mannered Crystal Kay. “Some people can’t accept there are a lot of foreigners out there, even in the industry.” The 23-year-old is the original pioneer for interracial artists in Japan, and with eight top-10 albums under her belt, she is currently celebrating 10 years in the business with her first ‘‘Best of’’ collection and a tour. Effortlessly glamorous in the office of her record company in Nogizaka in the Minato district of Tokyo, she is charming and modest about her impact on a J-pop scene that is increasingly discovering mixed-race acts.
“I find beauty in the dark side or in people’s anger!’” confesses a boisterous Anna Tsuchiya. Surprisingly, Japan’s choice wild-child actress, model and singer did not talk about herself egotistically, but merely justified her love of Chopin over Mozart: ‘‘When I (first) listened to Chopin’s ‘The Revolution’, I thought classical music is rock music’’ she says. ‘‘It was beautiful and I wanted to go into rock!’’ Tsuchiya, 25, is gearing up for her performance at the New Classic Gig, a unique live event that sees unlikely musicians paired with a full orchestra, all as part of a fashion show directed by creator Hideki Matsui.
Michael Jackson’s musical influence reached all corners of the globe — and Japan too. Artists across genres and generations have all spoken about the loss of one of the music industry’s all-time greats.
More than 40,000 people are expected to gather in Los Angeles between July 2 and July 5 for the largest anime, manga and games convention in North America, Anime EXPO. Despite reports suggesting Japan’s most ubiquitous cultural export might have peaked, AX is in it’s 18th year and is expecting another record turnout. According to estimates from the Japan External Trade Organization, the American market for Japanese anime-related products peaked in 2003 at $4.8 billion and has fallen ever since, to just $2.8 billion in 2007.
“I think that you can convey a fact by words, but you can not convey the truth only with those words,” says Misia, taking a break from recording sessions in Tokyo’s Shibuya district. “And I believe music is what can fill it out.” The dreadlocked soul-singer has recently embarked on two trips that have affected her outlook on life, as well as the message of her songs. A live tour last year saw her perform around some of Asia’s other metropolises: Taipei, Shanghai, Singapore, Seoul and Hong Kong. But it was her trips to some of Africa’s most deprived hot spots that left a lasting impression.
“I believe in my voice as a singer,” declares Mika Nakashima, alluding to the three words tattooed in English around her right wrist. ‘Trust your voice,’ in a broad sense, means we should accept everything and believe in many things. I learned this in New York and developed myself in many ways that I don’t want to ever forget.” Her management looks on a little displeased. “I knew I’d be reprimanded for getting tattoes if I told them I was going to do it! But that’s why the tour is called ‘Trust Our Voice.’ “
‘Half of my quarter of a century belongs to music, so I never belonged to anything else,’’ says Welsh songstress Duffy. ‘‘I feel very able and ready!’’ The blonde bombshell was in Tokyo for her first full-length live show in Japan — at Shibuya AX on March 17 — and is still basking in the success of her debut album, ‘‘Rockferry,’’ released in March 2008. Three BRIT awards and one Grammy later, the old-school soul singer is the lady of the moment, with 5.5 million album sales to her name.
“It has always been my dream to debut in America!” BoA announces gleefully. “Every Asian artist has that dream of Hollywood or the Billboard chart, and this is the perfect time to go to America.” This week, South Korean singer BoA becomes the latest Asian star to attempt to make it in the West with the release of her self-titled all-English language album. Having debuted in her homeland aged just 13, the 22-year-old has already come far, becoming the first Korean to hit No. 1 in Japan, where her first six albums reached the top spot, as well as recording in Mandarin Chinese.
Most artists dream of longevity, but few are afforded significant time in the limelight. The paradox of all-girl group Morning Musume, 12 years since they began, is the enforced time-limit its members face in order for the group to remain forever young. Generation eight of the group, with nine members, is the longest-running incarnation so far, celebrating its two-year anniversary this month. Yet under the tutelage of producer Tsunku, “graduation” is likely never far away.
“I search for answers a lot in life when I feel like I don’t know which way to go or what’s right or wrong,” says singer-songwriter Angela Aki. “So I turn to the piano and search for the answers through songs, and I figured in the end that the searching process has all the answers you are truly looking for.” Born in Itano, a town of 14,600 in rural Tokushima Prefecture, Shikoku Island, to a Japanese father, Kiyoshi Aki, cofounder of the AEON English-school chain, and an Italian-American mother, 31-year-old Aki’s turbulent life story, which took her to the United States and back again, has handed her more questions than most.
“In Tokyo, there is too much information,” says famed Japanese producer and DJ Towa Tei. “Even if you don’t want to listen to music, you are raped into listening to something you don’t like at the convenience store. So I try to go somewhere quiet and listen whenever I want to!” Announcing the release of “Big Fun,” his first album in four years, former New York resident and Deee-Lite member Tei, 44, has maintained a mystique and allure thanks to his creative sound collages that defy genre, fashion or fad, mixing modes as he creates almost entirely electronically.
Even the most optimistic critic could be excused for approaching with trepidation the major-label debut for one of only a handful of domestic female rappers. But fears that 24-year-old Coma-Chi is about to deliver a pale imitation of a genre exhausted in the early 2000s by the likes of Missy Elliott and Eve are nixed within the explosive first two tracks of “Red Naked.”
“I got my heart broken for the first time,” laments Yuna Ito, ‘‘at the unbelievable age of 24!” Hearing her vibrant new single, “Koi wa Groovy2”, it would be hard to guess that such an experience would be the inspiration. “It’s about getting ready to love again,” she remarks warmly. Ito moved to Japan five years ago from Hawaii, where she was brought up by her Japanese father and Korean-American mother. Now 25, she has always worn her heart on her sleeve.
When singer and actress Ami Suzuki appears in the TBS drama “Love Letter” this month, she’ll finally realize the end of a remarkable comeback. The toast of 1999, when she sold 3.2 million CDs as a 16-year-old electro-pop princess, her fall from grace was infamous. As she attempted to distance herself from her management company, which had been implicated in a fraud scandal, the music business responded by blacklisting her. After years fighting against the very industry that made her a star, she now celebrates her re-emergence as a singer with a 10th-anniversary album, “Supreme Show,” while maintaining an acting career that she sees as crucial to her future.
“I never wished to become an actress or a star who performs on TV,” explains Aya Ueto, the prominent model and actress. “I took this role because my management gave it to me.” The role in question is that of Alice Mitazono, a wealthy hotel heiress who meets a poor widowed father of three named Taro Sato, played by Yusuke Kamiji, in the new Fuji TV drama “The Celebrity and Poor Taro”.
Legendary English rock band Def Leppard brought the circus back to town last week. Paired up with fellow hair-metal survivors Whitesnake, the group began a four-date Japan tour with two nights at the prestigious Nippon Budokan in central Tokyo on Oct. 23 and 24. The two behemoths of 1980s pop metal have each weathered rather differently with age, and it showed on the opening night. While Whitesnake dragged themselves around the stage and lumbered through an uninspiring set, Def Leppard, buoyed by their latest album hitting the Top 10 on both sides of the Atlantic, captivated the audience as if time hadn’t passed at all.
With her sights set on achieving her long-held ambition of winning a Grammy award, Los Angeles-born and
Tokyo-based vocalist AI is adamant that dreams only come true with hard graft. “The reason I want to get a Grammy is because everyone knows them,” AI tells The Japan Times. ‘‘And when you get something that everyone knows, your words get powerful. Then I can say, ‘Stop the War!’ “
“When I’m walking beside her, people tell me I’m a lucky guy,” sang John Lennon on the 1964 Beatles track “Every Little Thing.” Sitting comfortably next to iconic lead singer Kaori Mochida of the band of the same name, guitarist Ichiro Ito has had 12 years to get used to such a feeling. However, he admits that though the older one of the duo, he was the more intimidated when they first met back in 1996. “She was wearing a pair of thick platform boots in the “gal” fashion of Shibuya and was much younger than I,” he tells The Japan Times, in the duo’s first ever interview for an English-language publication. “I didn’t know what to say to her!”
It wouldn’t be the obvious place to look. And yet Okinawan singer Hajime Chitose was seeking a new peace of mind when, 1.3 billion km away, she found what she was looking for. “When I saw a picture of Saturn, I thought the relationship between the planet and its many rings represented the good balance that is so important in life,” the bohemian singer proclaims. Known as Cassini rings, they lend their name to Hajime’s latest release. Hajime, a singer from Amami Oshima island who is dubbed by the media as “The voice of 100 years,” rose to attention in 2002 with her remarkable vibrato vocal delivery and her take on the traditional island folk songs known as shima-uta, and took the music to the mainstream.
“When it has to happen, it will happen,” declares a bullish Judy Ongg, a Taiwan-born actress, singer and novelist based in Japan. “When you think it has to be done, you have to do it yourself.” Speaking to The Japan Times shortly after a press conference on June 26 announcing the Heart Aid Shisen Charity Event, which takes place July 14 in Tokyo to raise funds for survivors of the recent Sichuan earthquake in China, she is clearly proud to be leading the call for help in Japan. And that call hasn’t gone unheeded. “The first thing I did was pick up the phone and call my best friend Jackie Chan,” says Ongg.
Staying at the top of the game after 10 years is no mean feat in Japan’s fickle music business. As one of the first artists to bring American-style R&B to these shores, Double’s achievements are doubly impressive. And now she’s celebrating her first decade with an album of collaborations with Japanese and American artists such as De La Soul, Ak’sent, AI and Kreva. To top it off comes “Black Diamond,” a pulsating duet with self-styled “Queen of hip-pop” Namie Amuro.
“Putting the heart of the world into music” is the theme of Osaka-based quintet Bahashishi, who graduate to a major label with this, their second album. Taking their name from the Swahili for “heart,” the band, led by effervescent vocalist Yurari, have a clear J-pop-with-a-conscience mission, which results in highly-polished pleasantness that matches the compelling and potent vocal delivery of UA with the melodic craft of contemporaries Singer Songer.