Queen Elizabeth’s Jubilee celebrations are never complete without a rock star wielding an axe to inaugurate proceedings. For the Golden Jubilee in 2002 it was Queen’s Brian May atop Buckingham Palace. And for The British Embassy in Japan’s Diamond Jubilee party this month, the sword fell on the broad shoulders of Anglophile Tomoyasu Hotei. Not without good cause either.
On his 50th birthday earlier this year, Hotei announced that he was about to embark on a challenge to start a new life in London. In August of this year, he will up sticks with his wife and daughter to live permanently in the source of his inspiration with only one show on his agenda at Camden’s Roundhouse on Dec. 18. But this isn’t another valiant Japanese search for the Holy Grail of international stardom. Hotei says this move is purely personal.
“When I was young, I wanted to be a big star,” he says kicking back at his office in Tokyo’s Azabu-Juban district. He achieved that dream via his former band Boøwy, the prototype for modern Japanese rock music that dominated the charts in the mid-1980s. “But now I feel like I just want to enjoy myself, relax, meet friends and try new skills. Even in a pub!”
Boøwy played London’s Marquee Club in March 1985, an event Hotei remembers mostly for scary fans drinking beer. “[That era] was huge for me. I was a guitar boy, like Ritchie Blackmore, but then Eddie Van Halen came along and was just too fast. Punk and new wave [taught me] that my style was not about technique, energy or ideas, but my personality.”
Buoyed with a new British approach to music, Boøwy would be credited with developing a new era of rock in Japan in the 1980s, dubbed the “band boom.” But the pioneers would themselves soon disintegrate, playing two farewell gigs at Tokyo Dome in April 1988 for which 95,000 fans snapped up tickets in just 10 minutes.
Hotei was quick to establish himself as a solo act, recording with musicians here and abroad, including with his own idol (and former band’s namesake) David Bowie. After opening for Bowie on the first of a two-night stint at the Budokan in 1996, Hotei plucked up the courage to make a personal request.
“I couldn’t say anything to him at dinner in the moment, so after midnight I wrote a letter and put it in David’s room. The next morning he said, ‘Hey, what song do you want to play?’ and we did ‘All The Young Dudes’ (together on stage). He is an artist, not like a rock star — sensitive and really frank, really human.”
While the industry searched for the next Boøwy it proved to be in vain as Japanese rock music never quite replicated its 1980s peak, a fact Hotei laments. “The market became too big,” he says of the money-driven music landscape today. “It’s all over the world, everyone has to keep up with technology and downloading, so they have to keep in mind how to appeal commercially, but at the same time it obstructs the goal in the long run, the artistry. We have to deal with it and because of this, music like The [Rolling] Stones, Sex Pistols, David Bowie is needed and I want to incorporate that in my music.”
Hotei’s last stand before departing to the U.K. will be two British-themed shows at the Budokan on June 18 and 19. He’ll play with the Tokyo New City Orchestra for a portion of the show. Having tasted the thrill of playing with a full-blown orchestra conducted by Michael Kamen at the Atlanta Olympics’ closing ceremony, Hotei now considers 54 accompanying musicians as just a huge band.
“I wasn’t ready for it the first time, but now I am certain that I can do something fantastic. I’ve learned many things over the years. Nothing changed in my style but something changed in my heart and finally I found how to play guitar!” he jokes.
The orchestra will be conducted by the award-winning Simon Hale, who has directed strings for Jamiroquai and Björk. As Hale has worked on many of Hotei’s original solo albums, the rocker believes Hale’s familiarity with his music will engender a feeling of one big cohesive unit.
Filling out the extended band will be two more Brits, drummer Ian Thomas (Eric Clapton, Steve Winwood, Sting) and bassist Jerry Meehan (Roxy Music, Bryan Ferry). “We are going to focus on the orchestra in an instrumental section. But it’s still a rock ‘n’ roll show, so, shout!”
Included in the set will be an extended orchestral version of Hotei’s biggest international hit, “Battle without Honor or Humanity,” which features in Quentin Tarantino’s 2003 film “Kill Bill.”
“I will continue to play in Japan,” says Hotei, confirming that his departure is not a complete move away from his homeland. He also candidly brushes off concerns that attempting an overseas career could backfire on his reputation here. “My fans in Japan are like family, so this relationship is forever.”
So far Hotei’s plans in London are intentionally lacking. Having to carry his own guitar to studios, riding the Tube and relaxing with his wife — actress and singer Miki Imai — in London’s parks is high on his agenda.
“I am alone. I am looking for a chance to play with good musicians and be myself. I don’t want to be a one-night visual rock star or anime otaku, I’m not that kind of guy,” he says. “I know there are many British fans of Japanese culture so I want to introduce something different.”
Hotei’s casual approach to starting over is certainly refreshing compared to recent attempts by rock groups such as X Japan and L’Arc-en-Ciel to achieve international success with full fanfare. While Hotei’s ultimate goal is similar to theirs (he wants to play the Royal Albert Hall), he’s quick to note where similarities end.
“They are a different style,” says Hotei, “which is great, but I have my way. The important thing is that I see a potential that the audience has an interest in Japanese music and I definitely want to make it bigger, but starting with small venues.”
Tomoyasu Hotei plays the Nippon Budokan in Tokyo on June 18 and 19. (7 p.m. start; ¥8,000-¥12,000;  5456-9155 ). For more information, visit www.hotei.com.
IN FIVE EASY PIECES WITH TAKE 5