Chris Chavez maintains an upbeat outlook about life in Japan but leaves the rosy-tinted view for idealists or those newly arrived. This Mexican-American’s snapping brown eyes differentiate clearly the good, bad and indifferent of living as a foreign woman in Tokyo.
From her early career as a dancer, her later double-edged popularity on TV variety shows as “that crazy gaijin who sings Hibari Misora” to her current life as a university teacher of tap and jazz dance, Chavez tangle-foots through a life punctuated with highs and lows.
Work as a dancer first brought a 20-year-old Chavez to Tokyo Disneyland in 1984. As a self-described “20-year-old hypochondriac who didn’t even know where Japan was on the map,” on her first overseas trip ever, Chavez grew up fast. A talented young dancer, formerly a part of the prestigious national dance group, Young Americans, Chavez had landed a seven-month gig as one of only six dancers, the Kids of the Kingdom on the main stage. “It was physically hard work, a 30-minute show, ‘The Lands Melody,’ five times a day; I also danced three extra shows, each day, and of course, the parade.”
The dancing, however, proved to be the easiest part of her early experience in Japan. “It was 1984, and Disneyland had only opened a year earlier, so no one spoke English, and we were in the middle of nowhere. I was scared to eat Japanese food, and we all lived on McDonald’s for two months.”
Despite the awkward start, Chavez learned to enjoy Japan, but even she has no idea why she is still here more than 20 years later. “In Japanese it is easy to say, ‘en ga aru,’ ” Chavez explains. “In English people look at you strangely if you start talking about fate.”
But there’s no other way to say it. Fate intervened — in the form of Hibari Misora, the legendary singer and superstar from the 1950s until her death in 1989 at the age of 52 — and Chavez gave up her dreams of Broadway to spend a lifetime across the world from her native Los Angeles.
After her initial contract at Tokyo Disney ended, Chavez returned to Los Angeles to pursue her goal of Broadway. She told friends and family she would return to Japan someday, but Chavez instantly began planning her future in New York. Chavez worked in a variety of shows to save money for the move, including two years on a cruise ship, but she auditioned one time too many.
“Immediately after I got off the ship, I auditioned for one show, because I was afraid I was out of practice for auditions, and I wanted to be ready for New York.” Chavez never expected to land the job, and had already purchased her ticket to the Big Apple when the phone call came.
“Performing in ‘Strike up the Band’ was offered to me the day before leaving for New York, but the company also offered me my theater equity card. It was too good an opportunity, because in New York, without the card, all my auditions would be as a nonequity dancer, and my choices and pay would therefore be limited.” Luckily, rehearsals did not start for another two months. Chavez accepted the job and glided on the plane toward her dream.
New York, however, first taught her to see beyond ideals. “I had a lot of problems in New York. My apartment was ransacked, everything steered me away from staying in New York, so I was thankful to go back to California for the show . . . still, I had tasted Broadway, and I wanted to get back.”
Fate shuffled and Chavez found herself instead two-stepping back to Japan. “Everyone knew I wanted to someday go back to Japan, so just as I finished the California shows, a choreographer friend called and said, ‘Chris, I’m doing a show in Japan, the Yokohama Expo. I want you to audition.’ “
Chavez wrestled with mixed feelings. Although now close to realizing her life-long dream, after six years of working as a professional dancer, she appreciated the obstacles. A seven-month job in Japan would provide financial cushioning for a return to New York. Chavez decided to audition; after all, her experience five years earlier at Tokyo Disneyland had ended up being “the best dancer’s work” she’d ever had.
Unfortunately, Chavez soon realized that this new work in Japan was quite different. Yokohama Expo 1989 overflowed with tension — tension between the more established, professional dancers like Chavez, and the newbies; tension between the two choreographers, Chavez’s friend and another choreographer; tension between the producers of the expo and the artists themselves. Chavez consistently felt pulled in different directions, and beneath all the conflict was her underlying fear that she had lost her chance for Broadway.
The pressures escalated, and Chavez found herself the scapegoat, ostracized by most of the dancers, in a country not so welcoming this time. “I lost all my confidence, I had a complex about everything.”
There was one saving grace, and Chavez still believes fate intervened, with the voice of Hibari Misora. “Yokohama featured an original musical, tracing the history between Japan and America. When it came to the 1950s, I ran backstage with my Hula-Hoop, to change for the next number, and always the same song would be playing in the dressing room, a famous ‘enka’ (ballad) song from the ’50s.” Chavez looked forward to the then unknown song, and soon memorized the melody.
Although Chavez had become a fan of enka her first time in Japan, it took a serendipitous twist for enka to change her life. After a show, on June 24, 1989, Chavez traveled from Yokohama to Ekoda in Tokyo to meet her Japanese boyfriend and his friends for dinner. Bored by their conversation — Chavez knew little Japanese at the time — she turned to glance at the small television behind her. “It was the same song as the one from my dressing room.”
Misora had died earlier that day, and her image and songs spilled from the screen. Her music somehow reverberated within Chavez, and she became obsessed with everything Hibari. “The next day I went out and bought videos on her music; in order to get through the remaining months of the show, I put my earphones on and just listened to Hibari . . . if the job hadn’t been so bad, maybe my mind wouldn’t have even gone there, but it was like she grabbed me.”
The compulsion was so strong, Chavez gave up going back to L.A., even after the expo ended. She spent two years studying Hibari, with the help of her then Japanese boyfriend and musician, Takashi Matsuo. She created a 30-minute tribute to Hibari and performed at local nursing homes. Their delighted response encouraged Chavez to enter television contests, NHK’s “Nodojiman” or a competition for foreigners on TV Tokyo. A talent agency in Tokyo scouted her, and she soon became a variety show sensation, the foreigner who could sing Hibari Misora.
Struggling to make ends meet, Chavez now performed Hibari for television regularly, as one way to survive financially in Tokyo. Yet she quickly became disenchanted with this fame. “I didn’t care if I was made fun of, that crazy foreigner, but I didn’t want to be made fun of by singing Hibari. I was her fan, I was just trying to keep her spirit alive.”
By 2000, her popularity grew so that she was offered the chance to record a CD with Columbia Records — an English version of Hibari. Chavez balked — she sang Hibari in Japanese, not English — but the chance to record her mentor’s words was too tempting. “When it became a business, when it naturally evolved into something more than I anticipated, it became tricky.” Chavez admits to making some mistakes, to feeling hurt by the criticism leveled by the Official Misora Hibari Fan Club, once strong supporters of her shows.
After nine years on the circuit, Chavez stopped accepting television appearances. She created her own two-hour “Musical Hibari Tribute,” and by 2001 pulled away from television to return to her original feeling: an honest paean to Hibari Misora. Chavez also returned to performing at nursing homes, what she says is “my best audience.” There is one home in Chiba she has visited for more than 10 years. Chavez today cherishes her mentor’s memory with her cat, Hibari, and by performing in tribute only — not as the “gaijin Hibari.”
Chavez still keeps on her toes through teaching, weeks that sometimes include as many as 18 dance lessons, at two different studios, Yamano Beauty College, and for Senzoku Gakuen School of Music, in the musical department. “Sometimes I think, why didn’t I have this life when I was in my 30s, but mostly I think, it’s got to be fate, too. I would never be able to teach dance at a university in America. You must have your degree.” Chavez relishes the chance to keep moving, helping young dancers toward their own ambitions.
Despite her wry realism, Chavez remains able to dream herself: “I still dream of Broadway, that I could audition for a character role some day, like the part of Dorothy Brock from ’42nd Street.’ Right now I’m still too young to do those roles, but sometimes I think it will all fall into place and I’ll be able to perform one time in New York.”