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Festival Feature: A Japanese Idol From Pittsburgh

By Michael E. Ruane
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, March 28, 2009

Suddenly, out of the predawn fog, he was there, in all his hip-hop splendor: sideways red baseball cap, gleaming red and white Nikes, long silver neck bling.

The TV lights were on. The interview chair was waiting for him. But when the Japanese ambassador arrived, wearing a dark suit and pink tie, the star placed his hands at his sides and bowed deeply.

Down by the misty Tidal Basin yesterday, this was no rapper. It was Jero, the mind-bending African American-Japanese pop sensation, who was doing a mini-media blitz for the National Cherry Blossom Festival. He performs about 4:15 p.m. today during the festival's opening ceremony at the National Building Museum.

Cherry blossoms and bling?

Jero -- Jerome White Jr., 27, of Pittsburgh -- is a dazzling mix of musical, national and ethnic cultures. Part Lil Wayne, part Wayne Newton, part Japanese torch singer, he looks like the latest American rapper. But he has hit the charts in Japan specializing in a kind of traditional, low-key romance music called enka.

He likens it to Japanese blues, but it seems more suited to Lawrence Welk than the juke joint.

No matter. It's packing his shows and landing him on Japanese television, and yesterday, before dawn, there was a gaggle of Japanese and American reporters waiting when he stepped out of a black SUV.

"He's a very big star," Japanese Ambassador Ichiro Fujisaki said after doing a morning television interview with Jero to help preview the 16-day blossom fest. "He just appeared on the Japanese scene only a couple of years ago, but . . . very rapidly made his name.

"Not many Japanese expected an American to sing a Japanese song in that manner," he said. "But he came out and grasped people's feelings. . . . He really sings these Japanese blues with Japanese soul.

"If music really doesn't have borders," he added, "people will really like it."

They might like Jero, too.

It was striking to see him, decked out in his rap duds, bowing to the ambassador and to Japanese journalists. He looked serious, cooperative, patient and respectful as he gave interviews and posed for pictures.

Later, at the Japanese Embassy, he told his story.

He has lived in Tokyo for the past six years and speaks fluent Japanese, which he began studying when he was 5.

Tokyo "takes a little bit of getting used to," he said. "There's a lot of hustle and bustle, and a lot of people there. Much, much different from Pittsburgh."

His grandfather, an African American U.S. Army soldier, met his Japanese grandmother in Japan at the end of World War II. They married, had a daughter, Harumi -- now a department store sales clerk -- and eventually moved to his grandfather's home town, Pittsburgh.

Jero was born on the north side in 1981. His parents divorced when he was young, and he was reared amid a strong sense of Japanese culture. He always took off his shoes before entering the house. His mother and grandmother spoke Japanese to each other, and Jero was exposed as a child to enka, which his grandmother loved.

"I always felt that part of my heritage growing up," he said. "The music was the biggest part of it."

Enka was born of the pain of World War II and postwar Japan, Jero said, and its themes often involve lost or unrequited love, despair and the potential of suicide.

Just as blues songs often reference U.S. cities, enka songs often refer to Japanese ones, he said. "You know, 'I met this woman in Sapporo, and she didn't love me,' " he said. It is popular with Japan's older generation, rather than younger Japanese, he said, and many enka singers perform into their 60s, 70s and 80s.

He said he was moved by the passion of the enka singers he saw on his grandmother's videotapes. "I really felt that," he said. "I always enjoyed listening to music with some type of soul to it."

He said his favorite American artist is the late crooner Luther Vandross.

Jero moved to Japan to teach English after graduating from college in 2003, sang enka on the side and eventually got noticed by a record label. He said his first release, "Umiyuki," in 2008 rocketed to No. 4 on the pop chart in a week -- the best performance ever for a debut enka song.

Enka singers, female and male, often perform wearing traditional kimonos. They don't usually wear fur-trimmed North Face parkas, which is part of Jero's allure.

But he said it is not a gimmick.

"I've lived in Pittsburgh till I was 21," he said. "The kimono was not a part of who I was, and I never actually wanted to wear one. I didn't want to be someone else when I went on stage. I wanted to be who I was. . . . I wanted to be me. I wanted to be true to myself.

"I was hoping," he said, "once I debuted, everyone would understand my story."

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