Japan Embraces Multi-Ethnic Musicians

Japan's indigenous music scene is known for breeding cute, superplastic stars like Ayumi Hamasaki and Ayaka—über-pop princesses who routinely top the charts with their safely mainstream sound and image. So it was significant when a mixed-race singer known as Jero was named one of the country's best new artists at the Gold Disc Awards—Japan's Grammys—in March. Perhaps even more meaningful, Jero, who is three quarters African-American and one quarter Japanese, also won the award for best enka artist, topping the genre of traditional love ballads that are often about specific places in Japan. Jero, a.k.a. Jerome White Jr., grew up in Pittsburgh, singing such songs with his Japanese grandmother. "Since I started singing enka at age 5 or 6, I really wanted a career in Japan ... [but] I knew it would be a long shot," he says. Yet the Japanese have clearly embraced this 27-year-old performer who favors hip-hop garb yet sings songs meant to express the soul of Japan.

Jero represents a new breed of multiracial singers who are gaining popularity for the considerable talent and innovation they bring to Japanese music, rather than as sideshow curiosities. The trend reflects a broader shift away from the traditional Japanese values of insularity and conformity. "In the past many foreign or multiracial singers in Japan have tried to either sell themselves as foreign, or imitate Japanese performers," says commentator Kenta Yamada, a professor of journalism at Senshu University. "Jero's different; he's authentic." He speaks Japanese fluently and understands the nuances of enka, but infuses it with his American personality.

In the Japanese pop realm, Thelma Aoyama, who is part Afro-Caribbean, came out of nowhere to record the biggest single of 2008, "Soba ni Iru, ne" (I'll Always Be by Your Side). The song earned Aoyama the Guinness Book world record for most downloaded tune, with more than 8.5 million. Half-white and half-Japanese Angela Aki has also won quite a following; last December she performed on the all-important year-end TV extravaganza Red & White Singing Contest. Her latest single, "Tegami" ("Letter"), recently went platinum, selling more than 250,000 copies.

It hasn't always gone so well. Aki, who lived in Hawaii as a teenager, recalls the racist rejection she faced when she first started peddling her demo tape seven years ago. "Harsh things like, 'Half Japanese don't sell!' were thrown at me," she says. Takeshi Nakagawa, the Japanese leader of the band Soul Flower Union, says the national obsession with ethnic purity even affected those virtually indistinguishable from the Japanese, like Koreans. Slowly, that's changing. "The taboo factor that surrounded singers of Korean descent in the 1980s is becoming a thing of the past," he says. "For this to continue, it is vital that the media not perpetuate the myth that Japan is a racially homogeneous society."

Others argue that Japan's growing acceptance of multiracial entertainers is merely the first step. "The fact is we have a long way to go before the majority of the population lets go of the traditional image of Japan as a uni-culture country," says music critic Hiro Ugaya. Aki concurs, noting that careers in showbiz are still a struggle for those in Japan who don't fit the "pure blood" mold. Still, music has always paved the way for social revolution; perhaps this time will be no different.