[17 February 2009]
You know this story, right? Multi-racial kid, thin as a wisp, elongated frame, mocha-complected skin, lives in a foreign country, comes to the ancestral home of his mom and grandparents, does well in his university studies, then toils hard for a few years in a grueling, thankless, low-profile job. Through determination and commitment to his craft, he positions himself to experience “overnight” popularity—massive in scale—and suddenly is in all the media seemingly 24-7, saying all the right things, amassing a legion of supporters, being hailed as a savior, and anointed as the new king.
“Yeah,” you say, you are familiar with the story, having watched the US presidential inauguration on January 20th. Only . . . actually . . . it wasn’t Barack Obama who I was describing. No, the guy whose tale I was referencing goes by the name “Jero”—at least over here, in the place of his monumental conquest: ReDotPopland. “Jero” being short for “Jerome White, Jr.”, a brother from Philly; a dude whose dad was African-American, but whose mom was half Japanese, half American [what they call “hafu” (half) or “daburu (double) over here in ethnically-over-attuned Japan].
Jero is a phenomenon, a symbol, a beacon of hope, a potential bell-weather, a portent—all rolled into one. And, because this is so, wherever you are reading this, you may actually have heard about him and, thus, you may be familiar with his bio. If not, you can catch up here. In a nutshell, though, Jero is a hit in the world of enka—ReDotPop’s most conservative of musical genres, Japan’s equivalent to American Country and Western music—which, to date (and for over half a century), has been popular among the geriatric set.
And Jero cuts an especially striking figure: not only because he has mastered the arcane language and warbling intonations of this tradition-bound musical genre, but because he has done so outfitted in urban gear and with urban attitude—making him popular with younger audiences. Whereas nearly every enka star stands stock still, crooning in a kimono, yukata, flowing gown, or tux, Jero offers up a few hip-hop moves, and emotes with baseball cap askew, covering a do-rag; with diamond studs glistening in his earlobes; sporting untucked button-down plaid shirts or loosely-fitting fleece jackets, unbuttoned or unzippered enough to reveal a cotton T beneath; and topped off by baggy jeans and lace-less high-tops.
Heretical for the staid world of enka, some might think; a breath of fresh air, many others would argue.
How did this all come to pass? How did Jero get this way? Why did he choose enka? And why has enka, apparently, chosen him? Especially considering the hip-hop fusion?
Well, the story repeated in (by now) hundreds of interviews, goes that his consuming passion for Japanese Country & Western came by way of his grandmother. An influential figure in Jero’s adolescence, much like Barack’s grandmother was during his. And not unlike Barack, as a mixed race kid living in a lower, working-class neighborhood in the states (in this case Pittsburg, Pennsylvania), Jero was relegated to the margins. As such, he often sought refuge in his grandmother’s home and, there, ended up sampling enka tunes on her records and cassettes.
Early on he may have fractured the lyrics, but by the time he had graduated from the University of Pittsburg, and with a three month stint under his belt as an exchange student at Kansai Gaidai University in Osaka, he was more than adept at handling the mic in karaoke competitions. Which is how his big break came.
Armed with a degree in information science, Jero moved to Japan in 2003 to work as an English teacher—one of the major (and most lucrative) means by which foreigners come to spend time in the ReDot. When he wasn’t teaching, he appeared on Nodo Jiman (“Proud of My Voice”), a song-fest on NHK (the public television station), as well as entering karaoke and amateur singing contests. And it was at one of the latter that he caught the attention of a judge, who, coincidentally (or not), also happened to work for Victor Entertainment.
Victor signed Jero up for development, which, in the rigorous, competitive, corporatized world of Japanese music, meant two years of voice lessons. (Hard to believe, as bad as so many entertainers’ voices are. On the other hand, enka is one of those genres where good singing actually dwells—likely the result of all those years of company-enforced training). While studying voice, and with no guarantee of ever recording a track, Jero toiled at a day job as an information engineer. The homie from Pittsburgh, paying his dues.
In February 2008, he got his break—and his ship was finally launched—when Victor (ironically) offered him a song called Umiyuki (roughly, Ocean Snow / Snow Sea), the promotional video for which looks and sounds like this:
Now, if you know anything about enka, that opening street prancing and unison dancing might strike you as incongruous, but once the song settles in, it’s actually no different than any other enka piece worth its salt (which is to say, the accumulation of shed tears). The lyric centers on love unrequited and/or lost (“Darling, no matter how much I love you / You never love me back”); it posits deliciously boundless despair (“Following you to Izumozaki /The Japan Sea of Sorrow /I’ve lost your love and I’m standing on the cliff”); it trucks in the intoxicating logic of suicide (“Darling, shall I throw myself in?”); it operates though lugubrious metaphor (“From the freezing sky /Snow falls down to the sea / Drifts on to the waves and / Vanishes without a trace … The tears that fall are just snow on the ocean / which never settles”).
With lines like that, the song’s gotta be a hit.
On the other hand, there was nothing sure-fire about the communicator. Would Jero sell to the Japanese public? In watching him make the rounds on the wake-up shows and afternoon talkies (the so-called “Wide Shows”), what is clear is that the young artist has all the right moves. He is personable, intelligent, relatively articulate, and, above all, humble. For instance, in this video here, during the post-song interview (which, as is true in any other country, is so important for connecting with and building a fan base), Jero speaks like a native singer would. He immediately “admits” to the host: “I was really nervous, but it was fun to sing (and then I became relaxed)”, suggesting that he felt just like any average, everyday person would with a camera thrust in their face. When asked pointedly about his attire, he explains: “It wouldn’t look right for me to wear the traditional dress of those who normally sing enka” he says, trying to reassure all those purists who might fear the impending corruption of their heretofore rule-governed, tradition-bound art.
When quizzed about his Japanese roots he responds: “I sing enka because my grandmother’s influence was so strong and because I loved her greatly”, thus, showing that he is family-centered and above all, beholding to and respectful of his Japanese roots. When queried about his “dream”, he replies: “I promised my grandmother to become an enka singer and to appear in (the annual New Year’s) Red-White Singing Contest”, thus tugging on the heartstrings of those who now know the back-story of his grandmother’s passing three years prior. And when asked about the sort of food he likes, (as all foreigners who come to Japan are invariably asked—an implicit “can you really fit in a country where the cuisine is so different than in the West?”), Jero makes a beeline to two of the most unpalatable items for many foreigners (and even some Japanese): “I love eating natto (fermented soy beans) and
(pickled fruit that is something in between a plum and apricot)”, thus sending the message that he may even be more authentically Japanese than some of those in the audience.
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.