The song “Neba Neba Natto” may never make the Japanese music charts, but it is becoming a classic of a sort. The song, by Nikkei Aloha, has a laid-back Hawaiian tempo and humorous lyrics paying homage to natto (fermented soybeans).
“Neba Neba Natto,” along with with other memorably titled tracks, such as “Mama Chari and Me” and “Keitai Denwa Warui Denpa,” are the creations of three assistant English teachers (ALT) in the JET program. The three hail from Hawaii and are presently based in Saitama Prefecture.
“When we first started playing together three years ago, we never imagined that we’d form a band and even produce our own CD,” says Scott Agena, 27, the group’s ukulele virtuoso.
Agena, along with band members Brad Kaya, 29, and Neal Sakue, 28, met for the first time in the summer of 1998. It was the last evening of an ALT orientation conference in Saitama. Sakue invited a group of ALTs, mostly Hawaiians, back to his hotel room for drinks and Kaya showed up carrying his six-string guitarlele.
“There must have been about 10 of us in the hotel room that night and we all really got into singing our favorite Hawaiian songs,” Kaya says.
A few weeks later, Agena invited Kaya and Sakue to his Saitama apartment to play their ukeleles and cook Hawaiian food. It was the beginning of regular Saturday sessions for the three that often lasted late into the night.
“We were having a lot of fun, but soon realized that none of us were any good in the kitchen,” Agena says.
One night, finding themselves hungry, the three musicians went out to a late-night yakitori bar nearby. The place was nearly empty, and the owner, curious about the miniature guitars the three Hawaiians were carrying, asked them to play.
“It was our first public performance,” Agena says. “After we played a few Hawaiian songs, the owner gave us all free yakitori and drinks.”
Hearing that the local Ageo City World’s Fair was looking for foreign entertainment, Sakue arranged for the three musicians to perform at the annual Saitama event.
He also called his cousin, a hula dancer and English teacher in Saitama, who brought some of her hula dancing friends to join them on the festival stage. For a full half hour they performed Hawaian songs and dance before an audience of over 150 people. Following an ecstatic ovation the group finished with a Japanese song, “Ore wa Ninki Mono,” originally by the group Crayon Shinchan.
A JET working as a co-ordinater for international relations in Maebashi, Gumma Prefecture, was at the World Festival concert. He later invited them to perform at an event he was organizing called “Culture along the Pacific Rim.”
“That was a real turning point for us,” says Agena. “We were all Nikkei-jin, people of Japanese descent. After that performance we began to realize that our reason for being in Japan was to discover our ancestral roots and identity.”
On the long train ride back home to Saitama, the three members started playing around with the lyrics for their first original song, titled “Nikkei Aloha.”
“I got home that night and after going to sleep woke up about 3 a.m.,” says Kaya, who writes all the lyrics for the band’s songs. “I picked up my guitarlele and tried a few chords and the words for the song pretty much all came together.”
“Nikkei Aloha” was followed soon after by “Mama Chari and Me,” another popular original, and then “Neba Neba Natto” a few months later.
In their work as English teachers, Agena and Sakue often carry their ukeleles to school to perform English songs in their classes.
“It was a good way for me to make self-introductions,” says Agena, whose grandfather was a well-known Okinawa jamisen player before emigrating to Hawaii.
Many Japanese schools use popular English songs, such as The Beatles’ “Let It Be,” in their English-language curriculum to teach vocabulary and grammar, and the Nikkei Aloha members soon found themselves being asked to make recordings of their songs to be used in classes.
“It was a good feeling to be walking down the hallway and to hear a bunch of students singing our songs,” Kaya says.
When Sakue decided to go back to Hawaii to teach mathematics after two years in Japan, Agena suggested making a group CD to commemorate their experience together in Saitama. He found a recording studio in the phone book, called and made an appointment to meet a producer. “When the guy first set eyes on me, he said, ‘You look like you don’t have any money, so I’m going to give you guys a special deal,’ ” Agena said.
Nikkei Aloha’s first 100 CDs were produced for a mere 100,000 yen. They quickly sold out to friends, family and fans. Another batch of CDs was produced. A new member was recruited, Simon Koperu, a half-Maori singer and guitarist from New Zealand, and the group began getting requests to play at live houses in the Tokyo area.
After finishing up their maximum three-year JET contracts this summer, the group members plan to stay on in Japan, finding work while continuing their musical journey.