Though she liked anime growing up, Sally Amaki never thought she’d grow up to be an anime character.

After moving from Los Angeles to Tokyo, Amaki tried her luck at voice acting and eventually landed the role of the blond-haired Sakura Fujima, one of the eight members of animated idol-pop group 22/7.

The catch, however, was that Amaki wasn’t just going to voice the cartoon, she had to become an idol herself.

“The info for the audition said they were looking for voice actors who would play idol characters,” she tells The Japan Times from Sony Music Japan’s office in Tokyo’s Ichigaya area. Singing, dancing, meet-and-greets — none of it was anything she necessarily wanted to do, but a job’s a job.

“It was hard for me and for the longest time I just couldn’t accept that I had to become an idol,” she recalls.

The life of a Japanese “idol” can be highly controlled. Management often bars performers from dating, and usually keeps close tabs on what they do in real life and online (if they are allowed social media at all). Save for a few exceptions, idols have to present an image that gels with their group, even if it means suppressing who they are.

In the year-and-a-half since she debuted in her role, however, Amaki has managed to shine in her role as Sakura while carving out a social media following distinct from the cartoon: more than 35,000 followers on Twitter, 11,000 on Instagram and regular live streams on idol-centric site Showroom.

The secret to her success? A willingness to tell it like it is in both English and Japanese. Amaki revels in memes, self-depreciation and the occasional existential crisis. She has criticized the music industry for its reluctance to let idols date and its practice of blocking international viewers from watching music clips on sites like YouTube.

She has therefore helped 22/7 — which features production from AKB48 mastermind Yasushi Akimoto — attract a decent-size fanbase overseas, a rarity in J-pop.

“My character wasn’t even originally supposed to speak English,” Amaki says. “It was after the staff found out that I got a lot of people from abroad to support me that they decided to use my English.”

Sakura serves as 22/7’s chief YouTuber, and Amaki joined fellow members Mei Hanakawa and Reina Miyase (who voice Nicole Saito and Ayaka Tachikawa in the group) on a recent visit to Anime Expo in Los Angeles.

It was a full-circle moment for Amaki (she doesn’t reveal her age, but tweets constantly about classes), who grew up in the LA area, where she ice-skated and did a little ballet but wasn’t particularly outgoing.

“I lived in a neighborhood where there weren’t many Asian people,” she recalls. “It’s really bad to say, but I really hated being Japanese because I thought like I didn’t fit in anywhere.”

In junior high school, Amaki gravitated toward J-pop and K-pop, but more importantly she discovered anime. She soon started attending Anime Expo as a cosplayer: “Anime was basically what made me love who I was.”

She decided to pursue voice acting and moved to Tokyo. It took time before 22/7 came about.

“It was probably my 100th audition,” Amaki says, laughing. “I failed so many because my Japanese wasn’t that great.”

She focused on improving her Japanese by watching anime and copying down what she heard, repeating the technique when listening to J-pop from Hikaru Utada and the idol-pop groups from Hello! Project. “22/7 was the first audition I had after focusing on studying … I guess all of those judges were right! My Japanese skills had been terrible.”

To become an idol, Amaki says she then had to learn how to work in a group, as she’d never been a part of any club at school (“I never hung out with more than two people at once”). Luckily for 22/7, the group united over a particularly terrifying experience.

“We had one really strict voice-acting teacher,” she recalls, one who routinely made her students cry during class. “Our fear of her bonded us together.”

Over the first year the group was in existence, Amaki mostly operated in Japanese, and in videos from this period she says she was never a favorite among 22/7’s domestic fans (“I’m not the visual of the group … I’m literally like a sewer rat”). Last fall, though, Twitter user @nise_shi posted a highlight reel of Amaki’s livestreams, which consist of her giving advice (when asked how to stop crying, Amaki replied, “You just have to kill your heart), declaring herself “the principal of meme school” and dabbing. That tweet garnered more than 36,000 likes and coverage on websites that usually focused on far trendier K-pop.

“I went on Showroom the next day, and so many English comments came running down the comment section,” she says. “It was crazy.”

“Sally’s outgoing personality and her willingness to be open about her feelings, bend the rules and criticize the idol industry she’s part of while also celebrating the good bits was such a breath of fresh air,” @nise_shi says via Twitter. “The fact that she went from being a pretty normal cosplayer to a professional voice actor is inspirational and makes me want to pursue my own dreams as well.”

Plenty of Japanese idols use social media to connect with fans, but Amaki exemplifies how simply letting a performer be themselves can connect them with an audience that appreciates authenticity.

“Everybody tells me I’m really funny because of the way I act, but really all of the idols I hang out with backstage are funny too, but they don’t share it on camera because they are too afraid that if they say something that … you know, that might go against what other people think, they’ll get shunned and lose fans,” Amaki says. “But I feel like idols should be able to say what they want.”

Having a supportive team goes a long way, too. On social media and in videos, Amaki presents her relationship with her management as a tug of war. She campaigned to have her own Twitter account, and after she was told she couldn’t use .gif files for copyright reasons, she made her own. Amaki says that in real life the situation isn’t quite as contentious, and that things work because they know one another’s boundaries.

“It’s like best friends going at it with one another,” she says.

Two days prior to our interview, Amaki asked users on Twitter to record a radio segment featuring the debut of 22/7’s latest single because her iTunes wasn’t compatible with it. “But that’s pirating music,” she says with a laugh. English-language users scolded her for encouraging the activity. She asked her fellow members what they thought, and they didn’t see the big deal. “And I say management can’t read my English tweets … but they can. The fact that it is still up there and it hasn’t been deleted shows that they are kind of OK with it.”

Music companies helping their performers show the world just who they are might be one way for Japanese acts to make inroads abroad, and 22/7’s baby steps into international markets show how it can benefit everyone.

Japanese pop music’s outspoken idols

It’s rare but J-pop’s “idols” don’t always toe management’s line when it comes to voicing opinons.

Rino Sashihara: This AKB48 election winner has a history of speaking up on how stupid the group’s dating ban is and encouraging aspiring idols not to bother learning how to sing or dance.

Pour Lui: Formerly of BiS, she recently caught attention for a YouTube video in which she shared her salary for her final three months with the group. Spoiler alert: she’s no Kylie Jenner.

Yuko Oshima: At the 2017 AKB48 election, one member took the chance to announce her marriage plans. Former member Oshima went on Livestream to express how she felt about the news — by pointing at a hat that just said: “F__K.”

For more on 22/7, visit www.nanabunnonijyuuni.com. You can follow Sally Amaki on Twitter at @sally_amaki.

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