|

Language no barrier to multimedia Jon Kabira

by Tomoko Otake

Staff Writer

With a long rousing cry of “Goooooooood Mooooorning Tooookyoooooooooooo!” Jon Kabira launches into his weekly radio show “JK Radio — Tokyo United” every Friday at 6 a.m. on J-Wave, a Tokyo-based FM station popular across the Kanto region.

Delivering cheer with his timechecks on even the grimmest winter morning, the veteran bilingual DJ (or “navigator” in J-Wave parlance) has long been part of life for his many listeners — boosting their spirits as they wake up, get dressed, prepare breakfast and set off on their daily adventures.

And the Okinawa native’s radio career synchronizes precisely with that of J-Wave — Tokyo’s second-oldest commercial FM station (after Tokyo FM), which hit the airwaves 25 years ago with its slogan, “The Best Music On The Planet.” At 5 a.m. on Oct. 1, 1988, it was Kabira’s voice that listeners first heard in English delivering an official statement to launch the station after a few months of test broadcasts.

Two days later, at 7 a.m., as Kabira kicked off the first of the “Tokio Today” weekday-morning music/talk shows he was to helm for close to two decades, listeners heard the same jaunty words — followed by the then global synthpop hit “Always on My Mind,” by the English duo Pet Shop Boys.

Though Kabira’s radio presence is now down to one 5½-hour show each week, at 54 he is a also popular fixture on the small screen, where he currently hosts the 50-minute “Prime Show” entertainment program on Wowow every weekday evening.

In addition to his friendly voice, the ease with which he speaks Japanese and English and his good looks, Kabira is remarkable for the way he manages to pack a wealth of information and witty commentary into even the briefest of interviews he does with a wide range of international newsmakers and trendsetters. He achieves this feat by almost simultaneously translating his English-language interviews into flawless Japanese — while at the same time nailing his subjects with short but incisive questions.

The people he talks to and the topics he covers are astonishingly diverse — from Twitter cofounder Biz Stone to a U.K.-based importer of Japanese kigurumi mascot costumes and — as he recently featured live on “Prime Show” — a Thai documentary filmmaker whose latest work was banned there because of its antigovernment tilt.

As popular as he is as an entertainment, arts and culture commentator on TV — on top of his frequent appearances as a sports commentator, especially for soccer — Kabira’s greatest media passion is reserved for radio, which he says is much more “personal” than TV. And as this is the 25th anniversary of the launch of J-Wave, he has a lot to share about his radio career, as well as the history and the future of that medium in Japan.

Despite his punishing schedule, Kabira, looking a lot younger than his years, recently took time out for an interview with The Japan Times. During our hour-long chat —entirely in English — he also talked about his often stressful bilingual, bicultural upbringing in Okinawa during the postwar U.S. Occupation that lasted until 1972. As well, he delved into his time working as a “middleman” for a major music-business company — including negotiating (in vain) to have a Bruce Springsteen key chain made.

You are a well-known radio and TV personality in Japan who is especially famed for being bilingual. How were you raised linguistically?

My father (whose parents were Okinawan) was born and raised in (prewar Japanese-) occupied Taiwan. Then after the war he earned a U.S. Army scholarship to study in the United States. It’s interesting that he had a choice between Stanford (in California) and Michigan State University — the reason being that those were the two universities available for him at the time to study broadcasting.

He chose Michigan State. And that’s why I’m here — because he met and fell in love with his future wife, my mother, in East Lansing. I praise her bravery, though it was probably due to her not really understanding where Okinawa was and in what conditions she would be living there. It’s proof of how love can blind people — or, romantically, how it can urge people to really push the barriers. So she decided to join him — when my father was coming back to Okinawa — for their new life.

My father started working for the local commercial English radio station KSBK and immediately became the station manager. My mother was a teacher by profession by then so she started teaching at the military school. Then me and my two younger brothers came along.

Apparently my parents decided to divide the language usage among themselves, so my father was speaking Japanese primarily and my mother was speaking English. And of course the local language was Japanese. So that’s how they divided the task of teaching the language to their children.

You are not only bilingual, but you can speak very politely in Japanese. In contrast, in English your questions are very simple and to the point. Does that come from your upbringing?

I’m sure that (the fact) my father was trained as an announcer has a lot to do with it. He spoke in simple terms, to the point, in a very, I guess, polite way. And of course, the time zone I was responsible for, when I started working at J-Wave, probably has a lot to do with it. Because it was a morning show, it had an extremely wide demographic — from kindergarteners to senior citizens. So of course you don’t want to offend anybody, and at the same time you want to be entertaining. But the very basic point is, you are their friend on the radio.

And you have to wake people up.

Exactly. So obviously I have to have a positive outlook — or else nobody is going to listen to me. I don’t think I was really conscious of it, but in an unconscious way I think I was trying to be approachable and friendly.

I understand you were interested in the world outside Japan from very early on — and even went to the U.S. alone at age 10.

That’s right. I was a farm boy for a year from 1969 until 1970. I spent a very precious year at my uncle’s house and farm in Kansas, where my mother was from. It’s middle America. It’s small-town, extremely religious, and conscientious. It is a Mennonite town — meaning that it was one of the few communities that did not endorse the war.

Do you mean the Vietnam War?

Yes, and in fact World War II as well, I think. They were exempt for their religious beliefs. So my uncle did not fight in the war.

What made you want to go all the way to the U.S. — alone — at the age of 10?

One reason was that I wanted to spend some time where my mother was from. And another reason was, I was finding my school life very difficult in Okinawa.

How was it difficult?

To put it simply, I was bullied because I was different — meaning I was biracial. And there were a lot of unfortunate biracial children at that time in Okinawa. In other words, (those born through relationships between) American soldiers and Okinawan women — which did not always result in a happy marriage. Maybe the kids were unwanted, maybe some were not accepted by their own families. In occupied Okinawa — which was run by the U.S. Army, not even the American government — things related to America were probably not welcomed by everybody.

Did you feel that way even though your background was quite different from such children?

Exactly. I became more conscious of (my difference from other children), because I knew I was the luckier konketsu (mixed child); the luckier ainoko (a derogatory term for mixed children). So I was having a difficult time in elementary school and I guess going to America then was kind of like taking a break — getting away from that and trying to find a new perspective.

After you returned to Okinawa, I believe your family moved to Tokyo (following Okinawa’s reversion to Japan in 1972). Was it a difficult decision for you and your family? Or was it seen as more of an opportunity?

I think it was the latter. It was a great opportunity to open new doors and we were eager to learn what the move would provide us with.

In Tokyo, you went to The American School in Japan.

Well, I first went to a public junior high school in Setagaya. It was interesting that, back in 1972, the level of understanding of Okinawa was amazingly low.

Even in Tokyo?

Yes. My social studies teacher asked me if there were TV and radio stations in Okinawa. And I had to say, “Excuse me — my father works for one.” So I kind of understood where my father was, when he first came to Tokyo after the war. I had heard stories of Okinawans being discriminated against in Japan — as if they were an uneducated, uncultured, backward kind of people. I kind of smelled that scent — just a whiff of it.

I guess you didn’t feel that way when you went to the international school and then to the International Christian University.

No.

Was that because they are so international?

And multicultural and multiracial. Where you came from didn’t matter; it was who you were — and what you had to say — that mattered.

Did you really enjoy yourself?

Yes. I felt much more at ease.

What were your biggest interests then?

(Pause.) Any teenager would love music, sports and of course, if you are a boy, you are into girls — and if you are a girl, you are into boys. You are there to have fun and to learn, to experience new things. I was probably no different from any other kid.

After university you got a job with CBS Sony.

That’s right. I was interested in “content.”

Did you know the word “content” then?

No. They used the word “software” — but not computer software. That software was music, visual arts and whatnot.

Most of my friends who were at ICU were the sons and daughters of bankers, traders and employees of huge manufacturing firms, so they went that way. A lot of them went into trading companies, for example. Not many went into the media or entertainment.

My father was loosely in that genre involving entertainment, music, movies and TV. So I thought that, if I am going to get into business, I may as well deal with something that interests me as a person.

What were your major duties at CBS Sony?

At first I was placed in the Gaikokubu (Foreign Division), which is an interesting name. It wasn’t even the Kokusaibu (International Division). It dealt with anything to do with overseas affairs. As CBS Sony was a joint venture between Columbia Records and Sony, we liaised (on) importing master tapes, acquiring rights to release records and, of course, things to do with accounting. It was business affairs, and back then we also imported plastic, black vinyl and exported small amounts of records to our affiliates. I was initially in the Gyomubu (Business Division). I was dealing with import-export — importing color films. Then I was involved in the promotional side — setting up interviews.

You did that, too?

Yes. Of course I wasn’t able to contact, for example, the Billy Joel management or the Journey management. I would first contact our Los Angeles representative. CBS had an international division — CBS Records International — which dealt with handling and coordinating promotional requests from all over the world. So I’d be in close contact with our affiliates in LA and New York, trying to set up interviews, photo-shoots, or what not. And when the artists visited Japan on tour or for promotions, I’d be aiding and be the middleman, translating.

But of course cultural barriers, language barriers and differences in business practices would not enable us to have our requests fully met.

For example, at that time Tower Records was a huge threat to the local record industry because they were importing cheaper records. So, when Bruce Springsteen was releasing his “Born in the U.S.A.” album (in 1984), we tried to “add value.” The Japanese are great at doing that. So we came up with a plan for a local release in a special package. Why not include a Bruce Springsteen key chain? Why shouldn’t we have a tereka (telephone card) with the album jacket featured? Great plan. And I wrote a telex — it wasn’t yet e-mail then — to the CBS affiliate in LA responsible for handling Springsteen. And I did not give up when they said, “No. This isn’t going to work.” I was relentless. So the LA rep said, “OK, this is highly unorthodox, but if you are really into it and you think it’s going to work and think you can persuade Springsteen’s management — go ahead and make a call.”

In those days I actually had to ask permission to make an international call. I needed the reason, the date — and my request had to be stamped by the correct hanko (company or personal seal)! I had to have it cleared. So my boss gave me the hanko, and I called. The manager — a prominent music-industry lawyer — said, “Jon, OK, I kind of get it. But look at Springsteen’s (record) jacket. He’s wearing jeans, isn’t he? Do you know who makes them?” I said I didn’t. And he said, “We take great pains and extra care not to be misunderstood that he’s endorsing any specific corporate endeavors. So everybody knows he’s wearing Levis, but we took the tag away. So this telephone card — I’m sure it has the NTT logo on it.” He’d got me. We couldn’t erase the NTT logo.

So you were involved in very difficult, demanding negotiations.

Yes. But it was really educating. (I learned) the way people think and the concept of artist integrity, which you do not really hear about in Japan.

Let me ask about your move into radio. Why did you become a DJ?

Actually I was burning out at CBS Sony. I was drained, because I was always in the middle, always trying to persuade, always negotiating. There were huge projects to deal with. I simply burned out.

Right. But how did you get interested in DJing?

It’s an interesting story. It kind of fell into my lap. Well, not really. My former boss in the International Repertoire section was transferred to an affiliate of CBS Sony, producing ads and graphic artwork for the music industry. And he apparently used his connections as an international-repertoire director to open up a new venture in producing radio shows. He was able to get a slot on FM Yokohama. So he called me up and said, “Jon, we have a slot at the new radio station down in Yokohama. Would you … lend your services?” (laughs). So I did it for free. And it had to be after working hours.

Did you emcee the program?

Yes, without any training!

None whatsoever?

None at all! So the former boss was either crazy or had a glass ball into the future. That was the mid-’80s, probably ’85 or ’86. So we were producing this weekly show, in Japanese and in English, and it was called the “Urban Contemporary Wave.” What a title. I’m blushing.

It was the ’80s, though.

“Urban” music and R&B were huge back then. So we were playing urban music and having fun. The show was prerecorded and somebody — actually somebody in charge of radio promotion at (leading advertising/PR agency) Dentsu — who was in charge of building a new radio station, J-Wave, was searching for talent. So he was listening and apparently my voice, my show, or whatever he saw in me, caught his attention. He called his friend at CBS Sony Records (saying he was interested in having me for the new FM station). I responded saying “Wow.” I thought maybe I should give it a try.

And also happening at around the same time, from ’85 to ’87, my senpai (superior) at Sony Records comes down and says, “Ah, Kabira-kun, I signed you up for an English DJ contest (hosted by a separate radio station in Tokyo). Your name is on it, so come up with a demo tape.” I was like “What?” She said, “But you know, if you win you can go to the States. They give out a four-night, six-day West Coast trip.” I said sure and submitted the tape, went to the preliminaries, went to the interview, went to the finals — and won.

Wow.

And only because I wasn’t that serious about it (laughs). I wasn’t trying to open any doors. I wasn’t seeing it as an opportunity for a career change. And that’s probably the only reason I could stay calm. It was bizarre.

J-Wave was launched 25 years ago — right as Japan’s bubble economy was beginning to burst. What do you think the radio station tried to achieve at that time?

The programming was designed by Mr. (Hiroshi) Yokoi (the first producer of J-Wave). He had a clear vision of offering something totally new to the Kanto public — with alternative music, in a different sense of delivery. Not too much talk, it’s music-driven, and trying to offer a wide range of music. For example, Enya, world music — a genre that wasn’t addressed by the broadcast media at the time. So it was a fresh new air of radio programming. And it was like “soundscape.” Like landscape, we provided soundscape to the public. And that really caught on.

I understand the percentage of overseas music or imported music played on J-Wave has fallen over the years. Has the mission of J-Wave changed?

No it’s always the same. Our mission is to provide something different. Of course it’s hit-driven, but it doesn’t have to coincide with the local charts, Billboard or what the New Musical Express is pushing in the U.K. It’s really important for us to always look for something new. Or if it’s going to be the same song, (we would ask), “How are we going to play it? Where are we going to place it during the show? — And how are the navigators going to present it?”

You started navigating in the pre-Internet days. How has the Internet changed the radio industry and its programs?

It has changed a lot. We used to read faxes, postcards. Now we look at Twitter feeds. We look at the show’s Facebook page. It’s instant, so the feedback is great. And I think radio is Internet-friendly. I don’t think TV is that Internet-friendly. (The relationship between the Internet and radio is) very fluid, quick, and complements each other.

What are some of the most memorable episodes from your long radio career?

Calling the White House. It was during the transition between the (George H.W.) Bush administration and the (Bill) Clinton administration (in 1993). So my curiosity led me to call and find out if they were getting ready for a farewell party or if President Clinton’s staff were already there and were planning a welcoming party. I got through the exchange, and the press officer in charge of radio came on and said, “We do not accept live interviews.” But I persisted. I asked, “Are you representing the Bush office or did you just arrive at the White House representing the Clinton administration?” She said, “I’m sorry, as I said, we do not accept live interviews.” She was very calm, very polite, but to the point.

Was that happening during the program?

We were airing it! So of course it was very educating that I got through the exchange, first of all. And I got through to the press officer, and she was very stern, but cordial. And that says a lot about what politics is all about. I think people who were listening were probably amazed by the very fact that they dealt with this inconsequential, not even really credible guy who claimed (to be a radio DJ), which I was. But how would they know if I was bona fide or not? They did not even question. And that says a lot. It was quite educational.

And another episode was reporting the death of Michael Jackson. The news had just broken (when we were on air on June 26, 2009), and was unfolding in front of us. And we were able to talk to our LA stringer who reported almost minute-by-minute what was happening. Of course she wasn’t able to get to the scene, so she was reporting what the media was reporting, and the significance and impact of Michael Jackson.

It was crazy, because we had to change the music lineup, as we were trying to pay tribute to the pop icon. And we were able to interview a former A&R (artists and repertoire official) at Epic Records who was involved in releasing, promoting and actually meeting Michael Jackson when he visited Japan. So we wanted to paint a picture of who he was, what he meant. And that show earned us the Galaxy Award (from the Japan Council For Better Radio and Television, an industry nonprofit group, for the best radio show of the year). It’s sad but, it’s quite an honor to be credited like that.

You do a lot of work on TV nowadays. How do you enjoy working for two different media?

Radio is far more personal. It’s you and me. TV is not personal. I guess radio is far more imaginative, meaning that you can project imagery into people’s mind. Radio is a theater of the mind. So it gives a lot of freedom to the listeners in what they can imagine. TV is in your face. And it will always be.

Do you think radio is going to survive?

Absolutely. It’s portable, live and local. Radio … or the voice media, the media driven by the human voice, and music and sound, will never go away. It may change in the way it’s delivered — the device and the forms of transmission may change.

I often hear the word yōgaku fukyō (foreign-music recession) used in Japan, meaning young people today apparently don’t listen much to foreign music, and sales of imported records are falling. According to Recording Industry Association of Japan data, such sales now account for only 16 percent of all record sales — compared with 24 percent 10 years ago. What do you think about this?

I think it is only natural to have “local” repertoire gain popularity. Although I firmly believe that the pathos that drives people to make and listen to music is shared universally, local artists are in a better position, physically and emotionally, to hit the heartstrings of the local public.

The depth and range of J-pop has been growing at an incredible pace and J-Wave has been embracing this phenomena. In fact, the term (J-pop) was coined by J-Wave! International repertoire may have been declining in CD sales, but the concert scene is ever more thriving — and that says a lot. We will serve the public with quality music wherever they are from.

How do you see your own role in Japan’s media industry?

I’m simply the guy in front of the camera, in front of the microphone, trying to have fun with the people who are facing me or listening to me, because I’m not necessarily the anchorperson. (I’m a) guy who loves to have fun with music, sports and information, and I have this intense urge to share the joy of being informed. Because I’m not (singers) Justin Bieber, Leona (Louise Lewis), of course, or Jay-Z — I’m the guy trying to inform what they are doing, and what (dissident artist) Ai Weiwei is doing in China, and putting that into a certain perspective.

What’s your long-term goal?

I hope to be able to provide insight, perspective, an alternative way of looking at things, through whatever media I’m working with. I can’t change the world; nobody can. But (I try to) at least come up with a positive vibe, to lift people up, try to have a positive outlook, and always have an open mind.

It was amazing when (national broadcaster) NHK (recently) approached me for the “NHK Special” (program). It’s the epitome of NHK journalism. I find myself in the studio, talking about how Japan can come back in the manufacturing field. I’m flabbergasted, thinking, “What am I doing here?” But maybe they wanted this Kabira perspective.

What is the Kabira perspective?

Trying to be precise, to the point, offering an alternative view, I guess.

Do you mean offering a view slightly from the outside?

Slightly from the outside and from a different angle. That’s what it is.

  • Carl Sundberg

    Jon — please just keep doing what you are doing from your SOUL! You
    have already been such an icon for Japan…please continue to help us
    move into the future with innovation, vigor, and economic localization!! I truly believe that if Japan reinvents it’s export model, it can teach the rest of the world how to balance sustainability across economic, social and environmental lines! My own country the US has failed to do so…not sustainable. Japan, next try!