With his single sequined glove, sparkly jacket and sharp moonwalk dance moves, the man on stage could be no one else. Or could he?
“The good thing about being a Michael Jackson impersonator is that I play a global superstar,” says Kazushi Yabe, who has made his living impersonating the late King of Pop for the past 13 years under the stage name Maiko Ryo.
“When I do it well, I get to experience the feeling of what it must be like to be a superstar,” he says. “It’s very exciting to be able to bask in the same kind of adulation that Michael Jackson got.”
The world of celebrity impersonators is big business in Japan, where even the most minor TV personalities, singers and actors provide fodder for mimics to launch their own entertainment careers.
Some perform comedy routines based around a certain character, while others play it straight as musical tribute acts. Impersonators typically find work on TV shows, at company parties, weddings, local festivals and impersonation show theaters such as Sokkuri Yakata Kisara in Tokyo’s Shinjuku Ward, which lists 117 different acts on its website.
A job that requires such a specialized set of skills, however, comes with its own particular problems.
Akihito Kobayashi is a 43-year-old former manzai comedian from Osaka who first started impersonating professional golfer Ryo Ishikawa — under the stage name Furyo Ishikawa — 10 years ago. At the time, Ishikawa was a nationwide phenomenon, having become the youngest golfer ever to break into the world Top 50 rankings, and appeared in TV commercials for everything from banks to English speed-learning programs.
These days, however, Ishikawa is not doing so well. His world ranking has slumped to 300, and his star has been well and truly eclipsed by fellow Japanese golfer Hideki Matsuyama, a five-time winner on the PGA Tour and the runner-up at the 2017 U.S. Open.
“The number of bookings I get has decreased,” says Kobayashi. “When Ryo Ishikawa was doing really well, I used to get booked onto lots of TV shows and interviews with golf magazines. But now he has dropped off a little and Hideki Matsuyama has overtaken him.
“People say I should impersonate Matsuyama instead, but I couldn’t do that. It was because of Ryo Ishikawa that I was able to do this, and I don’t look like Hideki Matsuyama. If you don’t look like the person, you can’t work.”
If you do look like a famous person, however, your life can change in an instant.
Mako Ito was a housewife until the age of 36, when people started telling her that she looked like pop star Kyary Pamyu Pamyu, who at the time was enjoying her first flush of fame. Ito felt emboldened enough to launch her own career as a Kyary impersonator under the stage name Mana, and she hasn’t looked back since.
“For my show, they announce that Kyary Pamyu Pamyu is going to perform and then I come out and sing her songs and act like her until the end of the show,” says the 42-year-old. “When it’s finished, I announce my real age, which is 16 years older than Kyary.”
Getting started, however, was not an easy process.
“Kyary has a very particular fashion sense, and it’s nothing like what I would wear,” says Ito. “I was 36 when I started, and I had to put a big ribbon in my hair and tie it in bunches. I had to make my own clothes and learn her songs and dances and how to do her voice. It was difficult. Maybe it would have been easier if it had been someone that I had liked since I was young.”
Kobayashi had an even harder time getting his Ishikawa act off the ground.
“For me, it wasn’t just a case of learning his golf swing,” he says. “First, I had to learn how to play golf. I went to golf school for two years. I’m 43, so my body doesn’t move like Ishikawa’s, but it became a routine for me. I came to like golf.”
Yabe, on the other hand, had no such problems learning Jackson’s mannerisms. He had been a fan of the singer since the age of 10, and had even been inspired to become a professional dancer because of his moves.
Yabe went on to work as a backing dancer for comedian Korokke, a legend in Japanese impersonation circles whose success persuaded him to try to become an impersonator himself.
He went on to establish himself as Japan’s No. 1 Michael Jackson impersonator, but found himself in an unexpected position when Jackson died suddenly in June 2009.
“It felt like I had been left behind,” he says. “Fans wanted to see him again but they couldn’t. Then they would see me, and they would feel like that was how it would have been if Michael Jackson had been there. Fans would watch my tribute show and they would think, ‘It wasn’t the real thing, but it feels like I got to see him.'”
Yabe says his income has not been negatively affected by the outrage sparked by the release this year of the documentary “Leaving Neverland,” which features people who claim to have been sexually abused by Jackson as children. In fact, he says the recent 10-year anniversary of Jackson’s death has increased his workload.
However, Yabe says that, whatever the booking, he has standards that must be met before he will agree to perform.
“The character I play is respectful toward Michael Jackson,” he says. “If they want someone who’s going to make fun of his nose or black up their skin, I say I can’t do it. There are a lot of comedy shows in Japan, and a lot of them say they don’t mind if someone says something harsh. But I respect Michael Jackson and I won’t do it.”
Yabe never got to meet his idol in person, and Kobayashi has also yet to meet Ishikawa. He says he knows the golfer is aware of his act, however, and he takes a certain perverse pride in knowing that Ishikawa once said he looked nothing like him. He calls it “an official nonendorsement.”
Ito, on the other hand, is well-known to Kyary Pamyu Pamyu.
“Kyary once came to watch me perform,” she says. “I knew she was coming beforehand, and it put me under huge pressure. I was worrying about it for three days before the show. The Kyary that I play is the Kyary that everyone knows, but that’s a little different from how she is when she performs live.
“I was worried about what would happen if she said my act wasn’t like her, so for the day she was coming only, I changed it to make it more like her live shows. She said I looked like her, which was a huge relief.”
There are other difficulties to being a professional impersonator.
Copyright issues can restrict what performers are allowed to do, and Yabe says he will sometimes have to sing acapella if he doesn’t have permission to play Jackson’s music at a certain event.
For all that, however, there is nothing else he would rather be doing.
“I never get sick of it,” he says. “I have my own private life, but people think it’s funny when they see me riding a bicycle or eating junk food. Of course, these are just normal things that I do in my life, but people think it’s funny. I don’t pay it any mind.”