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No reason to feel ashamed

by Steve McClure

The savagely sultry summer has mercifully given way to the cooler, mellow vibe of autumn. It’s time to savor such seasonal delights as sanma (Pacific saury), shinmai (newly harvested rice) and the latest Miyuki Nakajima album, which comes out like clockwork each year around this time.

Miyuki Nakajima

The singer-songwriter’s 29th release, “Kokoro Mori Uta,” which her label translates as “Lullaby for the Soul,” entered the Oricon chart at No. 2 following its Sept. 19 debut. That’s a clear sign of both Nakajima’s staying power and the loyalty of her longtime fans.

Nakajima, who was born in Sapporo in 1952, has been a fixture on the Japanese music scene ever since she won the Grand Prix at the Yamaha World Popular Song Festival in 1975 and released her first album the following year. Very few Japanese pop music acts have that kind of track record. Ryuichi Sakamoto, the Southern All Stars and one or two other acts belong to the small group of Japanese musicians who have managed to weather the vagaries of the fast-paced pop world and remain vital, interesting artists.

One key reason for Nakajima’s continuing appeal is the way her work presents Japanese women with a role model that’s radically different from the stereotypical images of Asian women as manipulative, powerful “dragon ladies” or cute, empty-headed sex objects. One listen to her voice tells you where Nakajima’s coming from. She sings with a passion that is worlds away from the prepubescent warblings characteristic of most J-pop female “singers.”

You often get a funny reaction when you mention Nakajima’s music to people. They seem a bit embarrassed to admit that they’re fans, probably because she’s so determinedly unhip. And yet her music sells.

Melodramatic and melancholic are the words that come to mind when describing Nakajima’s musical and lyrical sensibility — think chanson. Sometimes her vocal style is a bit, well, over-the-top, but at least she emotes honestly, and that’s more than can be said for a lot of J-poppers.

The opening song on the new album is “Sasayaku Ame (Whispering Rain),” which Nakajima sings with throaty, almost guttural passion. Describing the end of a love affair, it sets the tone for the rest of the album. Here’s the official English translation, from the CD booklet:

“He just doesn’t get it, does he?/I have no maternal instinct/I’m not going to console him with a smile/This is no fairy tale with a happy ending.”

Hardly “moon and June” stuff. Nakajima writes some of the most literate, sophisticated lyrics in Japanese pop music, and in recognition of her talent as a lyricist, as well as her work as a poet and novelist, in 1999 she became the first Japanese pop musician to be appointed as an outside adviser to an Education Ministry committee on Japanese-language education. One of her songs, “Eikyu Ketsuban (Retired Number),” will be included in a junior high school Japanese textbook this coming school year.

The songs on “Kokoro Mori Uta” are divided between forceful torch songs like “Sasayuku Ame” and wistful ballads such as “Ai Seki (Sharing a Table),” which describes the beginning and end of a romance with a neighborhood bar as the backdrop. Nakajima’s albums have kept to that winning formula for years, although she does occasionally address wider themes such as Asian identity (for that, check out her superlative 1992 album “East Asia.”)

Besides regular concerts, Nakajima stays in the public eye with her annual “Yakai (Soiree)” concerts, which combine music and spectacle in an imaginative way that leaves the stage presentations of other pop stars way behind.

The Yakai shows, which Nakajima writes, produces and directs, are immensely popular. Tickets are always in big demand. Before each show — held at Tokyo’s 747-seat Theatre Cocoon — scalpers ask as much as 50,000 yen for 9,000 yen tickets.

At one Yakai, Nakajima dared to play the sun goddess, Amaterasu Omikami, using the Shinto deity as a device to explore and explode traditional Japanese notions of femininity in a ribald, witty way.

Unfortunately, Nakajima won’t be doing a Yakai show this year. Instead she’ll be embarking on a nationwide concert tour. In contrast to the often dark, somber themes of her songs, Nakajima’s between-song patter at her shows is often riotously funny — and self-deprecatory; even she recognizes the humor in her fans’ shame. If she ever gets tired of music, she could probably make it as a standup comedienne.

In the meantime, put “Kokoro Mori Uta” in your CD player and sit back and savor Nakajima’s worldly wise meditations on life and love against the aural backdrop of the autumn rain.