Yuri Chika and Mika Todd have several things in common but are approaching their dreams from opposite directions. What they have in common is talent, Japanese ancestry and parents who support their careers in the music business. Where they differ is in the route they're taking.
Cross-cultural hop: A singer
from Japan aims for an audience
in Hawaii, as a singer from Hawaii
builds success in Japan
By John Berger
Yuri hopes to strengthen the musical ties between Japan and Hawaii with English music from Japan. Todd is showing Japan that singers from here can fit into the pop scene there.
Yuri, Japan-born and raised, is testing the waters in America with a debut single of English-language songs. The Mountain Apple Co. released "I Cry" as a three-song CD single in Hawaii in August, and it made a splash on the import chart at Tower Records here.
Todd is your all-American local girl who moved to Japan several years ago after auditioning and getting the call to join Coconuts Musume, a Japanese pop music "girl group" on the Zetima label. (Musume can be translated as "daughter," and a contemporary colloquial meaning is "young girl"). Coconuts Musume, originally a quartet, is now a trio -- Todd, Ayaka Kimura and Lehua Sandbo -- and recently released a CD single that also introduced the group's new military/glamour look.
"On our last two singles when it was the four of us, our image was cute and innocent, but our producer says that now we're getting older, and he feels this is more of our image," Todd said of the new paramilitary look.
The title song of the group's latest CD is "Jonesty Yuki Mirasen," which translates as "Passionate Future Love Boat."
"It's basically about how this person is so in love with his or her lover that he or she just can't stand to be away from them," says Todd, who was able to visit Hawaii for a few days despite the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.
Hawaii is still home for Todd, even though she says she finds herself thinking in Japanese these days. Kimura, the oldest member of the group, was born in Kobe and is a native-speaker; Sandbo is from Haleiwa and didn't speak Japanese when she joined the group.
"It's probably the hardest on (Sandbo)," Todd said, "because she had to learn Japanese and be really open-minded because it really is a different culture, but she's a sweet girl and learning fast."
Making the adjustments necessary to enjoy living in a place so different from Hawaii has proved difficult for some former Coconuts. Todd, who speaks fluent Japanese, recalled getting a taste of what some others were experiencing when the group performed in Taiwan and she had to rely on Kimura to translate.
It's been a little more than 13 months since the last Coconuts Musume single was released, but the group and its mentor/producer, Tsunku, have been working steadily. The group's alliance with their "big sister" group, Morning Musume, another of Tsunku's protégé creations, is continuing to open doors for them. Morning Musume starred in a one-month musical production and featured Coconuts Musume as "dancers from New York" in the show.
"We did two shows a day for a month. It wasn't like doing a concert where everybody just sings their songs. It was a story about an amusement park. We were playing dancers, and they were playing regular girls who were working in the amusement park, (and) it was about how great life is. You meet people and you go through hard times, but you work together to overcome those hard times."
Coconuts Musume also performed in conventional concerts with Morning Musume. Both groups were also part of the "Hello Project," a series of summer concerts featuring all the girl groups Tsunku produces.
Todd has also been recording with three members of Morning Musume in yet another Tsunku spinoff project, Mini Moni (a Japanese abbreviation of "Mini-Morning Musume"). Mini Moni is aimed at kids, and the music has a lighter, more whimsical Japanese techno-pop sound.
While Coconuts Musume prepares for a New Year's Eve concert, Yuri Chika is hoping for more exposure here.
Her recent visit was cut short in the aftermath of the Sept. 11 attack. She was here with her parents and producer to help promote her first American single, "I Cry," after Sam the Man on 102.7 Da Bomb discovered it. The highlight of her stay here was to have been performing in Waikiki with Kenneth Makuakane at the Aloha Festivals' Waikiki Ho'olaule'a. The decision to postpone the event denied her the showcase she'd been dreaming of.
She's now back in Japan where she attends college and works as a radio station deejay. "Island Dancer," one of the Makuakane tunes not included on her "I Cry" disc, has been selected by Toshiba-EMI to be her first single there, and she hopes it will be possible to perform with the Brothers Cazimero on May Day someday.
Not only is May 1 -- Lei Day in Hawaii -- her birthday, but she loves Hawaiian music. The ties go back to when her father met Makuakane as he toured with the Pandanus Club in Japan. She says her name has a Hawaii link because the kanji of "chika" can be translated as "flower." The title of her debut album, "Hana," can also be translated as "flower."
"My father makes me a flower lei every day on my birthday," said Yuri, who speaks English fluently enough to converse but finds it expedient to have a friend, Shay Shay, help out during interviews.
"Hana" was released in Japan in July. Although all three songs on her Mountain Apple Co. CD were written by Makuakane, the songs she wrote for the album show that she can write well, too. Makuakane's songs display an unexpected knack for commercial pop writing. The arrangements are a polished blend of synth tracks and live instruments; Yuri's remake of "The End of the World" is also noteworthy.
"They like it but they don't understand (the) meaning," Yuri said when asked about the appeal of Japanese music in foreign markets. Sakamoto Kyu topped the Billboard Hot 100 for three weeks in 1963 with "Sukiyaki" (known in Japan by its original title, "Ue O Muite Aruko"). It's certainly possible that another Japanese artist could do the same with a Japanese song.
Yuri would be happy to establish herself and her music in Hawaii and be able to spend more of her time here, particularly by bodyboarding. It's possible to bodyboard in Japan during the summer -- or with a wet suit -- but she prefers Hawaii.
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