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A Far Cry From Home
An American Puts a Fresh Spin On Japan's Saddest Pop Songs

By Blaine Harden
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, May 28, 2008

INZAI, Japan

Jerome White Jr. wears a do-rag while crooning syrupy ballads -- in perfect Japanese -- about lost love.

Part Public Enemy, part Sinatra, part schmaltz, it's an act the Japanese public has never seen before, and it is making him a star.

Jero, as he is marketed here, has a hugely successful debut single on the pop charts this spring and an album due this summer. When he makes personal appearances, as he did on a recent Saturday at the Big Hop mall here in the eastern exurbs of Tokyo, thousands of people show up, many of them to swoon. He does especially well with Japanese women, ages 8 to 85.

"I love the way he looks," gushed Sakura Takagi, a soap opera extra in her mid-30s who had traveled two hours by train to look at Jero. "He looks very kind and you can tell he is pure of heart."

Jero, who is sweet-faced, reed-thin and looks younger than his 26 years, comes to Japan by way of a working-class neighborhood on the north side of Pittsburgh.

It was there, thanks to the records, videos and cassette tapes played by his Japanese-born grandmother, that he got hooked on a melodramatic genre of Japanese folk balladry called enka. With no idea what the lyrics meant, he started singing it in fractured Japanese when he was 5. As far as anybody in the music industry knows, Jero is the first African American to sing this shamelessly maudlin music for a living.

Enka wallows in heartache. Accompanied by over-the-top orchestration, it is usually sung by an aging Japanese performer (male or female) in a kimono. Suicide is nearly always a viable option in its ballads of unrequited love, hopeless love, cheating love and relentless rain.

Enka became popular as a bathetic balm for the hard years that followed World War II. The Japanese sponged it up as they rebuilt their country into an industrial colossus. Enka was the sentimental mainstay of a million down-market karaoke bars. Until Jero burst upon the popular music scene here in February, it was also a musical genre that had lost much of its buzz. It had the unhip odor of Elvis ballads in his years of white jumpsuits and belly fat. Most of the people who sang enka were double or triple Jero's age, as were most of the people who listened to it.

Jero, an accomplished dancer with a big honeyed voice, seems to have stopped the music's slide. His marriage of hip-hop imagery with a rainy-night-in-Osaka sound is utterly new and way weird. Yet Japanese music critics and the Japanese public -- young and old -- say it works for them.

"His singing has this quality that is different from the usual heaviness of enka," said Masakazu Kitanaka, one of Japan's best-known popular music critics. "He has something fresh and crisp. He is easy on the ears of those who don't usually listen to enka and those who do think he is charming. I don't feel any incongruity for how he is dressed."

Then there is his ace in the hole -- his late grandmother, Takiko. She met and married Jero's grandfather when he was a sailor based in Yokohama.

Japan is one of the world's most racially homogenous countries. Xenophobia is difficult to avoid. The Japanese people and their politicians often associate foreigners with crime, litter, sloth and other unpleasantness.

Jero, who does not look at all Japanese, rarely gives an interview to the local media without bringing up his grandmother, who died in 2005. Older Japanese fans say that for her sake they can easily overlook his baggy pants, the baseball cap worn askew and that do-rag.

"The fact that he treasures his grandmother makes me feel warm toward him," said Masako Osawa, 59, a housewife who checked Jero out at the Big Hop mall.

In the end, though, there is his sound.

It's been slightly vivified by hip-hop but remains true to enka's treacle-soaked, my-woman-dumped-me roots. Jero often performs hip-hop dance moves before he sings and sometimes afterward but never while singing. He stands still, clutches the microphone, looks heartbroken and serves up the suds.

In his first single, which jumped to No. 4 on the Japanese pop charts, the highest-ever debut ranking for an enka performer, Jero sings about standing on a cliff overlooking the "Japan Sea of Sorrow."

He's longing for a girl who doesn't love him anymore.

He asks himself the existential question that all highly remunerated enka crooners must pose at such a moment: "Darling, shall I throw myself in?"

* * *

Jerome White Jr. was in the gifted program at Perry Traditional Academy, a public high school in Pittsburgh. He was "very small, very nice and a quiet person," recalls Isabel Valdivia, his Japanese teacher for four years.

The Perry North neighborhood can be a tough place to grow up. Most of its residents are working-class or poor, with a sometimes-uneasy mix of African Americans and Eastern European immigrants. As Valdivia explains the dynamics of the neighborhood, a passionate interest in singing enka music -- and speaking Japanese -- does not offer a small, skinny, shy African American kid a smooth path to popularity.

So he more or less kept his mouth shut about enka, and found another way.

"You have to remember Jerome was a gifted kid and he could think for himself," Valdivia said. "Normally, gifted kids don't dance, but he joined the dance team at Perry. It was all African Americans and he was the first boy on the team. They performed with the band during football games. Other boys joined the team after he did."

In an interview in the Tokyo offices of his record company, Jero said that none of his dancing friends in high school knew what he was up to at grandma's house. (According to Valdivia, there was a much-used karaoke machine at that house.)

"They knew my grandmother was from Japan," Jero said. "They didn't know I was listening to enka. My friends in Pittsburgh didn't know about it until my debut single was released. I called them and told them I was a recording artist in Japan. I explained that enka is a form of Japanese blues."

It was in grandma's house, Jero said, that he began dreaming about performing onstage. For reasons he cannot explain, enka grabbed an exclusive and unshakable hold on his musical imagination. In all his dreams about making it big, he said, he sang only in Japanese.

To master enka, one needs a strong grasp of spoken and written Japanese, which is no easy trick. For non-natives, Japanese is among the world's most difficult languages. There are three alphabets -- hiragana, katakana and kanji (which is almost identical to Chinese and has about 2,000 characters to memorize for basic literacy).

To read the record jackets of his favorite enka singers, Jero taught himself the alphabets. He had an ear for the sound of Japanese from listening to his grandmother gossip with his mother, who left Japan as an adolescent. But it wasn't until high school that he could seriously dig into the language.

"Jerome was special," said Valdivia, his Japanese teacher. "He was really good, he worked really hard and he was really into that [enka] music."

* * *

At the University of Pittsburgh, he studied information science. But it was always a sideline.

He made his first trip to Japan at 15, as a participant in a speech contest. At 20, he was back, as an exchange student at a university in Osaka. After graduating from college in 2003, he was back again -- to stay.

"I came to Japan as an English teacher," Jero said. "It was the easiest way to get over here."

While teaching, he sought out karaoke and amateur singing contests. A judge at one of them was from Victor Entertainment, which would become his record label. Victor gave him two years of voice lessons, which he took while working as an information engineer in Osaka.

In January, the record company offered him a chance to record a new ballad, "Umiyuki," or "Ocean Snow." It's slightly upbeat, but, in the mournful enka mainstream, has a tight focus on love gone wrong and suicidal torment.

Since the record was released in February, Jero has not slept much. His life is a blur of newspaper, radio and television interviews.

Japanese entertainment television can be silly in the extreme. (Think of Bill Murray's goofy interviewer in "Lost in Translation.") But Jero, with his excellent Japanese, has managed to come across as hip, dignified and sweet. A television critic in Japan's largest-circulation newspaper, the Daily Yomiuri, recently wrote: "This guy has definitely got a career ahead of him on Japanese TV."

When he is not talking to the media, Jero travels to in-store events and performs in shopping malls. The Washington Post waited about six weeks before his record label could schedule a 30-minute interview.

"They give me one day off a month," Jero said of his handlers. "I usually take the first flight out of Tokyo at 7 and finish the day in my hotel at 11. They want me to sell records, to get myself out there."

Jero said he intends to stay in Japan for the long term and has no plans to sing any music other than enka. He wants to expand the genre's audience and keep it from "getting grayed out."

That's a tall order. Japan has the world's oldest population, with the largest proportion of people over 65 and the smallest proportion of children under 15.

Still, if Jero could become accustomed to an audience of mostly geezers, he has a captive and growing fan base. By 2040, the old will outnumber the young in Japan by four to one. These demographics may prove to be the salvation of enka.

As for his rapper look, Jero wants it known that it was his idea -- not the record company's.

"I have been wearing hip-hop clothes since high school," he said. "It is not something that has been pushed on me."

He said fans always ask him why he doesn't wear a kimono onstage, like all the other enka singers.

"If I did, it wouldn't be me," he said. "It would be perceived as something that was made up."

Victor Entertainment declined to comment when asked how much Jero is making from his recording contract and appearances. (An official from the company said: "Music is about dreams, and if numbers on pay come out, that overwrites dreams.") People with knowledge of the Japanese music industry say the singer is probably on contract, with a relatively modest salary that would increase substantially if he has a number of breakout hits.

The Japanese have a famously fickle appetite for pop-culture fads. This is the country of Hello Kitty and manga, pachinko and loose socks on leggy teenage girls. Whether Jero will come and go like loose socks is unclear -- but Kitanaka, the music critic, believes Jero has a solid chance for a long career, thanks to the quality of his voice and the sincerity he projects onstage.

At the Big Hop shopping center, Jero belted out ballads from his soon-to-be-released album, which will cover some of the best-known enka classics.

He was dressed in his usual hip-hop garb, but didn't attempt a single dance step. Instead, with quiet sincerity and shy little waves, he crooned about cold rain, too much booze and a long-gone woman.

Between songs, after bowing deeply, Jero assured his devoted mall audience that he sometime drinks, but never to excess, and that he does not fight.

When the songs were over, several hundred people -- most of them women, many of them on the far side of 60 -- queued up to buy his CD, tell him he is wonderful and give him a little hug.

Special correspondent Akiko Yamamoto contributed to this report.

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