Oh Yes, He Can

by tjmHolden

16 February 2009


He Sounds Japanese!

Historically, foreigners who have come to the ReDot for any time longer than the duration of their tourist visa, and for any purpose other than to take a few snapshots and make some yen teaching foreign language, have found it a tough thicket to navigate. There is an invisible force-field put up by residents that generally bars full participatory access to outsiders. At the very least, for those who seek to gain admission, there is the obligatory initiation ritual—“good-natured” bullying, one might term it—that takes many forms but is reflected in gushing “praise” like:

“My goodness, the guy speaks Japanese so well!”

“And his singing is so authentic!”

“I can’t believe he’s not a native!”

“Impossible! How can he do that . . . just like us?”

“This is a joke, right? This can’t be real. Incredible!”

Such nervous titters—the veneer masking an ingrained native condescension toward the exogenous “other”—was certainly palpable during Jero’s initial wave of promotional appearances, as evidenced here. Fortunately, that uncomfortable period of cognitive disjunction is now over; the wall of disbelief crushed with Jero’s demonstration of his bona fides. He has made his ReDotPop bones. And, indeed, so far, so good.

Yukiume charted at #4—the highest an enka debut has ever risen. And real resistance to the African American import has been slight. Pundits have already declared that “Jero has a solid chance for a long career, thanks to the quality of his voice and the sincerity he projects onstage.” And, to be frank, at this point, enka—which had long been perceived to be a dying pop genre—would clutch for just about any tool that might re-inflate its sagging fortunes.

Lack of interest by the young has been a major reason for decline—a demographic which, below the age of 30, constitutes 40 percent of the country’s population. On the other hand, surveying the Japanese demographic future, one spies a population in which 37 percent of the population falls into the range of 25 to 50. Add in the five-year cohort below and the number becomes 46 percent. And tack on the ten years above – i.e., those age cohorts generally enamored of enka in the first place—and the population balloons to 71 percent of Japan’s total. From a marketing perspective, then, were a hip entertainer like Jero to connect with the divergent age groups comprising Japan’s demographic panoply, then one could very well envision an enka resurgence (and, not insignificantly for the industry, a steady flow of yen for decades to come).

In a word, one can spy a possible ReDotPop future; and, to (mis)appropriate The Rolling Stones, we can paint it black. If this strikes the reader as racist, well let me be quick to note that, for what it is worth, this is one way that the Jero phenomenon is being interpreted over here: through the historical prism of Commodore Perry’s “black ships”, which arrived in Yokohama harbor and forcibly pulled Japan from its isolationism; opening its economy, its polity and society to the greater, globalizing world.

Newspapers that refer to Jero as enka’s “black ship”, though delving in historically-laced metaphor, may also be betraying Japan’s historic penchant for racial insensitivity. What we know from Japan’s fleeting encounters with ethnicity is that racial sensitivity has never scored high on the list of Japanese qualities. Due perhaps to scant exposure to other races, Japanese have tended to impose an uninformed, uniform, informal, invisible racial hierarchy on exogenous “others”.

To wit: although whites were certainly deemed inferior to Japanese, they have been considered superior to other Asians, who, in turn, have been accorded superior status to those of African descent. This ordering achieved great force because Japan perceived itself over the years as a hermetic society, built of homogeneity—despite strong evidence to the contrary; its homogeneity interpreted as both purity and virtue; the heterogeneity and difference that stood outside its borders was, by contrast, viewed as both cause and indicia of (other society’s) social dysfunction.

In Jero though, perhaps we can glimpse a crack in that monolithic world-view; a glimmer of dawn signaling a new Japanese consciousness, a future of difference, of acceptance, of color-blind opportunity and outcome. For Act I has been nothing but the story of open embrace. This New Year’s day, NHK granted Jero’s wish—his pledge to his departed grandmother—to perform on its signal annual cultural event “Kohaku Uta Gassen” (Red & White Singing Contest), which I have reported on before. During the performance Jero brought tears—both to his own eyes and those of the audience—as he sung wearing a shirt which bore the silkscreen image of his late grandmother.

And if imitation is the best form of flattery, then Jero has surely made it. Recall, when everyone in ‘90s America wanted to “be like Mike” (as in hoopster extraordinaire, Michael Jordan)? Well, as this TV clip attests, in this variety show segment, Japanese entertainers competed to see who could best mimic Jero – in both dress and vocal style, while performing the hit, “Yukiume”:


Earlier I characterized enka, possibly pejoratively, as a song-form akin to American Country & Western. In some ways, that probably doesn’t accord enka its due. Like Country & Western, enka is a fusion, but it’s probably closer to a fusion of folk music—with its roots in social commentary and, at times, political protest—and the more banal blue-collar aspects of country. Boning up on the ReDot genre here, one learns that enka was born of two streams: one political and the other a song form featuring schmaltzy, melodramatic ballads about life gone awry.

Such fusion is not far afield from Jero’s invocation of urban chic while singing traditional Japanese ballads—the politico-social merged with the maudlin mundane. If this is true, then it means that Jero has not strayed that far from enka’s existential core; he is not actually that antithetical or heretical a figure. It may account for why his odd, disjointed—even seemingly jarring—admix, ultimately, passes inspection, and avoids rejection, by enka’s aficionados.

On the surface, Jero’s breakout success proves the Frank Sinatra dictum: “If I can make it there, I’ll make it anywhere” —with enka, one of the most traditional, symbolic, and hermetic of the arts in ReDotPop (along with, say, kabuki, manzai, sumi-e, and sumo), being Frankie’s “there”. Surely, enka is a tough nut to crack, but when native listeners gush as Jero signs their CDs “I thought you were Japanese!”, that is the highest form of compliment; when they toss out plastic card for his concerts and coin for his singles, that is the highest form of acceptance.

Still, in the final analysis, Jero’s significant contribution—as a foreign import toiling in one of ReDotPop’s most indigenous fields—is overshadowed by the simple fact that he has served a crucial reproductive function: he has reintroduced Japanese to their long-slighted, heavily ridiculed, and increasingly ignored musical genres. He is doing more than rescuing a declining indigenous industry … he is helping to resuscitate a cultural staple.

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