NEW YORK – What would a U.S.A. Day look like in Japan? There would need to be American food, like hamburgers, and some kind of technological wonder, like monster trucks! Now imagine Kate Bush shows up.
OK, that’s where things fall apart — Bush is English. But she’s the closest Western musician that I can liken Akiko Yano to. On May 8, I ventured down to Central Park for the 10th annual Japan Day — which featured ramen and Pepper the robot — to see Yano perform. The 61-year-old pianist was there to celebrate the 40th anniversary of her music industry debut. Her album “Japanese Girl” was released on July 25, 1976.
Her 30-minute set, jazzy and joyous, included signature songs “Ramen Tabetai,” “Gohan ga Dekita Yo” and “Harusaki Kobeni,” and had the crowd of around 400 on their feet dancing. Yano herself, however, is elegantly humble when it comes to assessing her talent.
“I’m not a very special person,” she tells The Japan Times. “I was given the ability to play the piano a little better than the average person.”
When I first discovered Yano a few years ago, though, it quickly became clear that she is a special person. The cover of her 1977 album “Iroha ni Konpeito” caught my eye thanks to the inherent whimsy it portayed: Yano, clad in a red jumpsuit, holds a giant inflatable dolphin over her shoulders. She says the cover came about due to her friendship with iconic fashion designer Issey Miyake.
“I borrowed everything from an Issey Miyake commercial. The outfit, the dolphin, everything,” she says.
Around that time, Yano started touring with Yellow Magic Orchestra, the band of her future husband, Ryuichi Sakamoto (the pair married in 1982 and divorced in 2006). The 1980s were a boom era for the Japanese economy and Yano put out eight albums during the decade. Her most recent, last year’s “Welcome to Jupiter,” was her 27th full-length and though her talent still shines through, the music industry has changed and Japanese acts are no longer promoted as much overseas.
“The music industry goes along with the economy,” she says. “Once the bubble popped, the music industry followed. People are not really interested in Japan now, but in China and other rising economies. However, there are still many venues to connect to Japanese culture.”
Japan Day is one such venue, other ones she mentions are anime conventions. Yano isn’t a huge fan of them herself as they tend to promote an image of Japan that isn’t representative of the many artists currently creating and innovating there.
“The anime and cartoonish things are mainstream now, I’m not really pleased about that,” she says, adding that the reason is “there are so many more serious, different things” such as acts like Sakanaction and Shiina Ringo.
Yano points out that the problem isn’t limited to overseas promotion.
“There’s really good quality music, but people (in Japan) don’t have access to it,” she says. When I bring up the repetitiveness of the acts featured on music shows such as “Music Station,” saying that they should feature more innovative acts, Yano agrees.
During her long career, Yano has worked with many musicians in Japan and overseas: each member of YMO and guitarist Pat Metheny among them. She says that when looking for artists to perform with, she has a much easier time choosing American ones over Japanese ones, perhaps due to the simple difference in population between the two countries. She also believes history may play a factor.
“Japan started to listen to Western pop music in the ’30s and ’40s, but it got more popular in the ’50s and ’60s,” she says. “The United States has a deeper history with this music.”
This deep past has included dealing with gender discrimination, which Yano says is a challenge everywhere. She believes the situation in Japan has greatly improved during her time as an artist and that she doesn’t face the same obstacles she did decades ago, which included people questioning her talent. However, she points out that being a woman and a mother in the industry — son Fuuta Yano was born in 1975 and daughter Miu Sakamoto was born in 1980 — brought with it a whole new set of challenges.
“When I started in 1976, there weren’t many artists who were mothers. I knew just a couple. But now, there are many, and they’re increasing,” she says. “I was a single mother for a while and I had to take care of two kids. I had to have babysitters, use a baby hotel and rely on my staff. For four to five years, I felt like a squirrel in a cage, but I got through it.”
Yano’s longevity has allowed her the luxury of experimenting with new things. The Japan Day set is one of them, but on “Welcome to Jupiter” she opted to work with Seiho and tofubeats, both of whom rose to popularity via the Internet and are relatively new to the scene. When asked why she didn’t leverage her fame to work with older acts she reacts with a laugh: “Because the older people died!”
“I love to work with new people, and they tend to be younger than me. That’s it,” she adds.
I recently spoke with Seiho, completely unaware that I would be interviewing Yano a short time later, and when I asked him what he learned from her he said that he realized staying true to your artistic vision is important because trends are cyclical and will likely come back to you in the end. I share this quote with Yano, which leads her to start gushing about the young musician.
“I think he’s very talented, and I see more possibilities of working with him,” she says. “Working with Seiho and tofubeats and the younger generation, I think I can make a new magic.”
One final point of reflection as we wrap up our conversation, I ask Yano what her proudest moment has been in the past 40 years. She says it involved her father.
“He came to my concert, and afterward he said, ‘You’re my big girl,’ ” she says before adding with a laugh: “That was two years ago!”
For more information, visit www.akikoyano.com.