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Japan: American enka singer makes waves

The first ever American-born enka singer, Jero, has become the talk of the Japanese blogosphere the past weeks as he made his debut with the single “Umiyuki (Ocean Snow)”. The single came in fourth on the Oricon music chart, setting a record in the enka as well as Top 10 charts for a debut enka single.

Jero, born as Jerome White Jr. in Pittsburgh, developed his passion for enka as he grew up listening to the music with his Japanese grandmother. As soon as he graduated from the University of Pittsburgh with a degree in information science, he moved to Japan with a dream to become an enka singer. While working as an English teacher and later as an IT engineer, through performances at local karaoke competitions, he was discovered by a record label and eventually rose to fame in Japan.

1ko2ko3kon writes that Jero has breathed new life into enka:

もう、ジェロがマンネリに陥って沈滞している演歌界に新しい息吹を吹き込んでいます。
実にすばらしいことです。ジェロ演歌の魅力に刺激され、作詞家、作曲家、歌手たちが、新しい歌謡曲の領域を開拓してくれんことを大いに期待します。
演歌歌手を目指し苦労している皆様、後から来たジェロが瞬間に抜いていきました。もう見えません。マンネリ演歌を引き継いでいては、永遠に目は出ません。聞き手に訴える新しいものを創造しチューニングしてください。必ずや花開くでしょう。

Jero has already managed to breathe new life into an enka community that is stuck in a rut.
That's really wonderful. I really hope that the charm of Jero's enka will inspire lyricists, composers and singers to push the frontiers of kayōkyoku.
Those of you who are working hard and aiming to become an enka singer, Jero, who came out after you, has quickly gotten ahead of you. Already, you cannot even see him. You will never make it if you continue with the path of enka that is in a rut. Tune in and create something that appeals to your listeners. Your talent will bloom.

Dan Markoff, an American actor trying to establish himself in Japan, sees some similarities between himself and Jero and wishes the singer success.

On the other hand, this blogger is not quite convinced:

音楽でもアートでもジャンルが色々あるのには
生まれでてくる背景が色々あるからで
なんも関係ないところからスタイルだけを
真似たものがぽっとでてきても
人の心をうつかな、長続きするかな
とも思います。
なぜ彼が冬の日本海を歌わねばならないのか?

The reason that there are different genres in music and art is that there are different backgrounds to the works produced. So I wonder if the style alone is taken out of the context and imitated, will it move people, and will it last a long time?
Why does he have to sing about the winter-time Japan Sea?

Jero poster

mario in bonn presents a different view. She says that Japanese people are obsessed with their own “Japanese-ness”:

インターネットを見ていたら、最近デビューした
黒人演歌歌手ジェロ、という歌手にぶつかりました。
私と同い年!歌も上手!若い人が演歌を好きで歌いはじめる
というのには新鮮味を感じました。

どこかの番組で歌っているビデオもみましたが、
大体どこでも
「全然日本人に見えないのに演歌!」
とか
「日本人じゃないのにすごく上手」
とかそんなコメントばかり。
これって日本人であることをすごく「特別視」しているのでは?
日本人じゃなくたって日本の文化を日本人以上に
わかっている人もいるし、日本人にみえなくたって
日本語を完璧に話す人もいるし、このグローバルな世の中、
そういうのは普通です。
日本では、この「日本人にしか日本の文化はわからない」
という考え方がとても強いように感じます。

When I was surfing the internet, I came across a black enka singer named Jero, who has just debuted recently.
He is the same age as me! And he is a good singer too! I found it novel that a young person likes enka and has started singing enka.

I saw videos of him singing in some TV shows, but in most of them there were comments like
“he sings enka and he does not even look Japanese!”
or
“he is really good even though he is not Japanese”.
Does that mean they think of being Japanese as something special?
In this global world, there are people who are not Japanese but who understand the Japanese culture better than Japanese people do, and who do not look Japanese but who speak perfect Japanese.
This kind of thing is not unusual.
It seems that Japanese people strongly believe that “only Japanese people can understand the Japanese culture”.

私はドイツにいて、ドイツの文化とか風習とかいろいろ
学んできましたが、「ドイツの文化はドイツ人にしかわからない」
なんて言われてたらドイツを知ろうという気には
ならなかったかもしれません。

ちょっと逆カルチャーショックをうけました。。。

I am in Germany and have been learning a lot about German culture and customs, but had I been told that “only Germans can understand the German culture”, then I wouldn't probably have wanted to learn about Germany.

This was a bit of a reverse culture shock…

7 comments

  • Is he really the first? If we are going by putting out an album, maybe you have a case, but I doubt it. Aren’t some of the original famous enka singers Korean and such?

  • Hi claytonian

    Thank you for your comment.I was referring to Jero as the first American-born person, not foreigner, to sing enka.

  • john park

    I saw jero on CNN. But it doesn’t mention where he learned to speak Japanese? At home? In japan?
    JOHN

  • is a japnese citizen?????

  • Miri

    All these articles about this great singer all start with one phrase, “Black American Enka Singer!” (Sometimes they say African-American). Those things tell me more about Americans than the state of his art, life in Japan, or his Japanese career. Okay, so the guy’s part black, so what? He’s also part Japanese. So what? He’s American. Why don’t they say that instead, since that appears to be the real interest of the articles? He’s the first American Enka singer. If people want to pretend that that’s more important than his wonderful voice or impressive and inspirational drive to succeed at something so seemingly out of reach, then why diminish his accomplishments by making it sound as if there is some other reason his story is so worth hearing? As a child, I imagined growing up to perform all sorts of Japanese arts. I would pretend to practice in my room. As a teenager I finally got the message, “Grow up, you’ll never get to do those things for real. Besides, you’re not even Japanese. You could never perform, and if no one wants you to perform, what’s the point? Just watch others do it and be satisfied.” For me, the fact he has been so focused and achieved this dream (and one of a performer is a difficult one no matter who you are) is what is shocking – and in a good way. Shockingly inspirational.

  • […] Japanese blogosphere? The year in Japanese blogs at Global Voices included posts on everything from an American Enka singer making waves in Japan, to debates on the regulation of “harmful” Internet content, to the Olympic torch relay […]

  • […] Tahun 2008 dalam blog berbahasa Jepang di Global Voices termasuk pos mengenai segalanya dari penyanyi Enka berkebangsaan Amerika yang mengguncang Jepang, ke perdebatan tentang pengaturan muatan Internet yang “berbahaya”, hingga penyerahan […]

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