Japanese singer Jin Akanishi launches his career in the U.S.
“You can’t just translate everything directly into Japanese,” said pop singer Jin Akanishi. “For example, ‘The grass is always greener.’ If you translate that to Japanese, it doesn’t make any sense.”
But for Akanishi, a chart-busting singer-songwriter, actor, radio host and overall pop idol in his native Japan, the grass here in America seems to be pretty green. As one of the first major pop singers to make a serious attempt at stardom in the U.S., he’s already gotten American youngsters moving to his dance-friendly techno-pop beat.
The “Japonicana” tour
Where: Hawaii Theatre, 1130 Bethel St.
When: 7 p.m. Monday
Info: hawaiitheatre.com, 528-0506
Akanishi, who first left the top J-pop group KAT-TUN in 2006 to come to the United States to work on his English, gave 32 solo shows in the U.S. in 2010, all without support from a record company or even a song released here. He played to sold-out venues of more than 2,000 seats in Chicago, Houston, Los Angeles, New York and San Francisco.
He visits the Hawaii Theatre on Monday as part of a five-city tour in conjunction with the release of “Japonicana,” his first U.S. album with Warner Music Group, which debuted Tuesday on iTunes.
“I just made up the word,” he said in halting but clear English. “It means Japan-America. You know Latin people use the ‘a’ sound for the female and the ‘o’ for the male. So my album is actually a girl … and it has all music I love. It’s not just one genre. It has a lot of different types of music: R&B, pop, a lot of dance, hip-hop.”
Akanishi always had an interest in American pop culture. Raised in Tokyo, he had a lot of friends who went to the Tokyo International School, and his mother listened to a lot of American pop artists.
As a teenager, he tried out for top Japanese promoter Johnny and Associates and “thought I failed the audition,” he said. “But I guess I didn’t,” after he met up with company founder Johnny Kitagawa while trying to return some paperwork.
Within a few years, Akanishi was one of two lead singers for KAT-TUN, which had 11 consecutive singles that topped the Oricon charts, the Japanese equivalent of Billboard. He also had roles in Japanese dramas and films.
But Akanishi had bigger ideas, and so in 2006 he announced that he was leaving Japan to come to Los Angeles and work on his English. The announcement, though couched in terms that suggested it had been in the works for some time, caught the group and fans by surprise. Upon his return in 2007, he felt obliged to apologize for his sudden departure, according to the Japanese pop culture website Tokyograph. “I just felt like I wanted to go in a different direction,” he said. “I wanted to share my music with the American people.”
He said he didn’t have much difficulty adjusting to America, since he had many friends and supporters here, whom he still depends on for help translating his songs. He now composes mostly in English, and while it’s coming more naturally, he said it’s still a struggle.
“My process for composing is really just whenever the ideas come to me, I write it down,” he said. “Sometimes when I have to write a lyric on a melody, I sometimes write something in Japanese and then English. Then I ask my friends if it’s OK, but I make a lot of mistakes.”
AKANISHI might speak English as a second language, but he seems to have a good ear for the double-entendre nature of pop compositions nonetheless. His song “Test Drive,” with more than 1.5 million hits on YouTube since being posted in November, is loaded with suggestive lines like “We can take it slow, and I’ll bring you up to speed,” “getting the green light” and “going downtown.”
He said he is a “big fan” of hip-hop. “If I could collaborate with Li’l Wayne or any rappers, like Eminem, Dr. Dre, Nicki Minaj, I would be happy,” he said. “But actually, I would collaborate with anybody. I just like to share music with other artists.”
His shows tend to be glitzy affairs, with dazzling light shows and intricate dance routines, interwoven with Akanishi’s tenor vocals, which are sometimes souped up with electronic effects. It’s a formula that works no matter on which side of the Pacific he performs.
“Japanese fans are more, like, polite,” said Akanishi, who continues to have a thriving solo career in Japan. “At a concert they’re more focused on music and my performance, but the American fans, they dance more. Japanese fans will dance, but not as much as American fans.”
American fans will also be able to see Akanishi’s acting chops in the film “47 Ronin,” an English-language film starring Keanu Reeves and crossover acting talent Hiroyuki Sanada (“Lost” and “Revenge”) slated for November release. The movie, taken from a popular Japanese historical legend known as “Chushingura,” tells the story of a group of samurai who avenge the death of their leader.
“It’s based on a traditional Japanese story, but it’s more fantasy,” Akanishi said. “Imagine a Japanese version of Harry Potter, except with a sword instead of a wand.”
But his young female fans might be disappointed to learn that he was recently married to Meisa Kuroki, herself a J-pop star.
Akanishi said he doesn’t think his marriage will affect his music.
“I’ve always kept my work and my private (life) separate,” he said. “I’m super-happy about (the marriage). It gives me more motivation to work hard.”
—Steven Mark / firstname.lastname@example.org