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New life for traditional Japanese music?
March 28, 2009 6:21 PM   Subscribe

Jero, or Jerome Wright, Jr. is the first black singer of traditional Japanese enka music. Here he performs a duet - him wearing hip-hop garb, his partner in a kimono. He won the Best New Artist Award in Japan, and appeared today at the Cherry Blossom festival in Washington DC.
posted by desjardins (37 comments total) 10 users marked this as a favorite

 
previously.
posted by delmoi at 6:22 PM on March 28, 2009 [1 favorite]


It might look like a total gimmick to have a black (actually 3/4--his grandmother is Japanese) American enka singer, but the true aficionados--old Japanese people--are crazy about the guy. He's a hit with the grandmas especially.
posted by zardoz at 7:15 PM on March 28, 2009


What zardoz said. Or at least that's been my experience with the grandmas I've met. They love the guy.

NHK had a special on Jero about a month ago--interesting guy.
posted by snwod at 7:28 PM on March 28, 2009


CNN Talk Asia report on Jero from '08.
posted by grounded at 7:33 PM on March 28, 2009


Being a follower of JPOP in general I'd been aware of Jero, but reading this story earlier today I was not surprised to learn that he is a college grad in IT; he seemed kinda uncomfortable in the ghetto garb to me.
posted by mrt at 7:44 PM on March 28, 2009


Calling Enka "traditional Japanese music" is a misnomer. Just saying.

Check out Christine Yano's fine book on Enka, Tears of Longing.
posted by fourcheesemac at 8:01 PM on March 28, 2009 [1 favorite]


Being a follower of JPOP in general I'd been aware of Jero, but reading this story earlier today I was not surprised to learn that he is a college grad in IT; he seemed kinda uncomfortable in the ghetto garb to me.

He looks ridiculous in that stuff.
posted by delmoi at 8:05 PM on March 28, 2009


Being a follower of JPOP in general I'd been aware of Jero, but reading this story earlier today I was not surprised to learn that he is a college grad in IT; he seemed kinda uncomfortable in the ghetto garb to me.

Uh, WTF? How is what he is wearing necessarily 'ghetto garb'? And why does studying IT have equal not being ghetto?

Sounds very close to "I wasn't surprised to learn that X is well-educated; he seemed different than other black folks."
posted by suedehead at 8:20 PM on March 28, 2009 [2 favorites]


I was going to snark at the term "ghetto garb" and the idea that a college grad couldn't wear it.

Then I watched the video. It reminds me of that old soda commercial where they were playing basketball and acting all street and then they call "cut!" and the guys all like, "I played Hamlet at Caaammbridge!"

(Also, interesting post. I wonder if he dresses/they dress him like that because this style of music seems very theatrical, and they consider that the over-the-top equivalent to the lady's kimono costume?)
posted by drjimmy11 at 8:23 PM on March 28, 2009


Sounds more like mrt was thinking of the stereotypical IT nerd loving Japan, more than your suggestion of racism, suedehead.
posted by boo_radley at 8:25 PM on March 28, 2009


I'm not trying to gang up on ya or anything, desjardins, but I feel compelled to reiterate fourcheesemac's point upthread: enka is not "traditional" music any more than, say, doo-wop or bubblegum (to name just a couple of American pop genres from decades past) are "traditional". Somehow, when it comes to perceptions of 'foreign' culture, the word "traditional" crops up when it shouldn't, really.
posted by flapjax at midnite at 8:47 PM on March 28, 2009


No-one considers his "garb" over the top here; it's just understood to be "hip-hop."

The kimono is a visual echo of the music's two-generations-ago aesthetic, i.e. where the singers are understood to have "come from" (this is why men don't wear kimono singing enka, by the way — even one or two generations ago, when enka was codified, they had all already switched to suits).

Jero's outfits work in a similar way but they are not quite the same. They do signify where he has "come from," but these origins have nothing to do with enka. When performing one of his own songs, where the enka sound is fused with some non-threatening "hip-hop" beats, it kind of makes sense: it's a visual echo of the "Jero sound."

In a context that's trad enka, though (like the Karesusuki duet linked in the original post), it's contradictory: it's like he's signaling that he's a new kind of enka artist, funky and straight from the block or whatever, but at the same time he's singing lines like "kono ore o suteroooo" completely straight-faced and 100% as required by tradition.

Of course this is part of his popularity: in some ways, he's the ideal grandson, polite and respectful of tradition, but still with enough youthful energy and fashion sense to fulfill his generational role and make your granddaughter happy.

- Self-link to post about enka in which Jero is discussed and quoted a bit in comments.
- Quasi-self-link to post about Lea Dizon and other foreign celebrities in Japan in which Jero is also discussed quite a bit in comments.
posted by No-sword at 8:54 PM on March 28, 2009 [2 favorites]


This series of CDs looks good for those wanting an overview of the genre... and scroll down the page just a bit... there he is! Jero!

One thought: by now I'm somewhat surprised I haven't heard anyone punning here in Japan: Jero Instant Pudding.
posted by flapjax at midnite at 9:06 PM on March 28, 2009


I totally thought Jero was some lost Dave Chappelle character.
posted by orme at 9:37 PM on March 28, 2009


Jero Instant Pudding

Ed Zachary
posted by netbros at 10:31 PM on March 28, 2009


When I first saw it, I was like: 'what the hell is this crap?'. Two hours later: I am completely in awe of this guy. Is enka the Japanese equivalent of African American soul music? I got that impression from his interaction with other enka singers. I think the women are better singers..namely this one. Never seen anything like this before.
posted by Flex1970 at 10:49 PM on March 28, 2009


enka is not "traditional" music any more than, say, doo-wop or bubblegum

I'm glad someone pointed this out, because to someone who's never heard of enka before this thread, it sounded much more like French Chanson music or Portugese Fada or some other western ballad form than anything traditionally Japanese.

So have the Japanese finally gotten over their racism? A friend who married a Japanese man some twenty-odd years ago talks quite elequently about how pissed off his family were that he'd married a 'big ugly barbarian'. I thought the older generation were really scared of black people -- or something? Was that a generation before this current enka fan-base?
posted by PeterMcDermott at 12:17 AM on March 29, 2009


So have the Japanese finally gotten over their racism?

"The Japanese"? Gotten over "their" racism? Nah. They're waiting for "the English" to get over "theirs".
posted by flapjax at midnite at 12:39 AM on March 29, 2009 [4 favorites]


So have the Japanese finally gotten over their racism?

After living in Japan for about 5 years or so, I was sick of being stared at all them time, and I complained to my friend Jimmy, who is black, and who also had been living in Japan for 5 years.

"People stare at me, I said. They don't sit next to me on the train. They treat me different here."

"It's worse for me back in the States," said Jimmy. "When I come to Japan I can relax a bit."

Also, no Japanese ever uses the word "barbarian" (yabanjin, or nanbanjin) when referring to foreigners.

I'm married to a Japanese woman, and there haven't been any family problems. Speaking Japanese helps. The biggest challenge is not understanding family politics and the family hierarchy. Not observing proper etiquette irritates Japanese people more than skin colour.
posted by KokuRyu at 12:54 AM on March 29, 2009 [4 favorites]


Also, no Japanese ever uses the word "barbarian" (yabanjin, or nanbanjin) when referring to foreigners.

Yeah, on reflection it probably wasn't barbarian, but some other unflattering word that meant great hulking white foreign woman (as opposed to petite, attractive Japanese girl.)

She went out there initially engaged to another man -- who dumped her because he couldn't even bring himself to mention the fact to his family. Though I'll grant that it might have had less to do with familial expectations than racism per se.

They're waiting for "the English" to get over "theirs".

Go tell that to the Koreans who live there.
posted by PeterMcDermott at 4:04 AM on March 29, 2009 [1 favorite]


Also, I'm guessing -- from what little I know about the place -- that it must be a lot easier to be a man married to a Japanese woman, than it would be to be a woman married to a Japanese man, precisely because of those familial expectations and obligations that we don't have so much in the west any more.
posted by PeterMcDermott at 4:09 AM on March 29, 2009


Actually, many stars of Enka have been "hidden Koreans," and this racially othered.

Again, Christine Yano's book covers this well.

Enka is Japan's version of country music to make the mode apt analogy. And I don't mean Bill Monroe. I mean Tammy Wynette.
posted by fourcheesemac at 4:43 AM on March 29, 2009


Ack, MOST apt comparison.
posted by fourcheesemac at 4:44 AM on March 29, 2009


Go tell that to the Koreans who live there.

This could get testy. I am under no circumstances arguing that there isn't racism in Japan. Of course there's racism in Japan. But if you can't see the glaring irony in (not to mention the superior, patronizing tone of) a statement like "So have the Japanese finally gotten over their racism?" then, um, I dunno what more I could say... aside from adding that a statement like "...from what little I know about the place..." won't do much for your credibility in discussing matters Japan-related!

Anyway, I generally agree with you, Peter, on most issues political and otherwise, but after 13 years in Japan, I wouldn't say that Japanese are, on the whole, more racist than Americans on the whole. Or, I'd imagine, the British on the whole. Of course, I've spent very little time in England. Only a little more, I suspect, than you've spent in Japan.
posted by flapjax at midnite at 5:27 AM on March 29, 2009 [2 favorites]


Anyway, I generally agree with you, Peter, on most issues political and otherwise, but after 13 years in Japan, I wouldn't say that Japanese are, on the whole, more racist than Americans on the whole.

To be honest, I was really seeking info rather than attempting to make a statement about the place. Asking, rather than asserting, so to speak. The little I know about the subject comes from my friend -- who's been resident there for about 25 years now -- and the stuff about the Koreans, who despite being born there, still don't get citizenship or the right to vote.

Oh, I also know they've had a problem with Nationalism in the past -- and that tends to be tied in with racism, but I've no idea if they're more racist than the British or the Americans. What I was really wondering, I suppose, is if vestiges of racism remain, how that plays out for other non-Japanese people who live there, and whether it's different for black people?

For example I'm sure I've read stuff about non-Japanese people being denied access to bars and restaurants in the past. I've definitely read about Japanese sex workers refusing to service non-Japanese -- though I read that this was supposedly due to relative dicksize rather than racism per se. And while I wasn't able to find that reference (which I thought was on Wikipedia), while I was looking, I did notice this:

On 19 August 1945, the Home Ministry ordered local government offices to establish a prostitution service for allied soldiers to preserve the "purity" of the "Japanese race". The official declaration stated that : «Through the sacrifice of thousands of "Okichis" of the Shōwa era, we shall construct a dike to hold back the mad frenzy of the occupation troops and cultivate and preserve the purity of our race long into the future...»

While the British might still fear 'the other', we've always been a mongrel race so while we might be just as racist, I'd imagine that the phenomenon manifests differently in both places -- and that was really what I was wondering about -- though I acknowledge that I could have asked that more clearly.
posted by PeterMcDermott at 6:07 AM on March 29, 2009


If you want the essence of enka, you need to listen to Itsuki Hiroshi.
posted by KokuRyu at 6:18 AM on March 29, 2009


For example I'm sure I've read stuff about non-Japanese people being denied access to bars and restaurants in the past.

Yup. It happens, and though I notice less of this now than I did when I first started coming here in the mid-80s, you still sometimes see signs like this one that I snapped a few moths back in the town of Ota, Gunma prefecture.
posted by flapjax at midnite at 6:18 AM on March 29, 2009


Or, some would say, Misora Hibari.

Jero has a loooong way to go.
posted by fourcheesemac at 6:21 AM on March 29, 2009


Hibari Misora is a goddess. Damn, I love her voice.
posted by flapjax at midnite at 6:23 AM on March 29, 2009


So Enka is like Japanese Schlager then?
posted by melissam at 7:41 AM on March 29, 2009


Those are some great photos, flapjax. They really made me want to visit.
posted by PeterMcDermott at 8:58 AM on March 29, 2009


Thanks Peter!

you're not being sarcastic, are you?
posted by flapjax at midnite at 10:07 AM on March 29, 2009


It was too bad that Peter and Flapjax got into a semantic pissing match as I find the underlying question rather interesting: what sort of obstacle or opportunity presents itself due to his ethnicity? Is it as notable that he's American singing enka? He gives a perhaps PR-spun answer here: moreso an immediate foreigner bias than by being black.
posted by Ogre Lawless at 12:17 PM on March 30, 2009


Very cool -- and he's wearing a Pirates hat. Go Buccos!
posted by nnk at 12:44 PM on March 30, 2009


It was too bad that Peter and Flapjax got into a semantic pissing match...

I take umbrage at your characterizing our exchange in such a way. I take a vast boatload of umbrage. A vast boatload of umbrage sailing on the Umbragean Ocean.

At any rate, whatever exchange we had certainly doesn't prevent anyone here in commenting on the issue in their own way, expanding on it, whatever. Everyone is free to join the discussion by making their own points or asking their own questions. You seem to be saying that the little exchange between Peter and I somehow destroyed the possibility for any further discussion on the question of race or ethnicity or nationality as concerns this artist in particular or Japan in general. Curious that you'd have such a take on it...

So, to continue the discussion...

Is it as notable that he's American singing enka?

I think it's most notable to Japanese fans that he is a non-Japanese singing enka. I don't especially think that his being American or his being black are as notable as the fact that "he ain't one of us, but he's doing our thing'. And indeed, Jero says as much in the video link you provided in your comment.
posted by flapjax at midnite at 6:33 PM on March 30, 2009


I think it's most notable to Japanese fans that he is a non-Japanese singing enka. I don't especially think that his being American or his being black are as notable as the fact that "he ain't one of us, but he's doing our thing'. And indeed, Jero says as much in the video link you provided in your comment.

Right on.

And to ramble a bit -- one thing is that -- it's great to see these Japanese fans enjoy Jero singing enka, really, as opposed to an alternate reaction which could be 'why's he doing that? he ain't one of us.' In the scheme of things, though, when you realize that what is driving an appreciation of Jero is this racial othering ('he's great because he ain't one of us but he's doing our thing'), things seem different. The eventual and maybe radical disappearance of this race-ism that drives an appreciation of Jero would be a sort of awareness but indifference -- Jero would be compared to other enka singers and judged purely based on 'skill' (whatever that is).

I mention this because I'm reminded of a rabidly popular program in Korea ('Gossip of the pretty girls', to stupidly translate) that's basically a talk show involving a large group pretty foreign girls who can speak Korean. There's a similar program in Japan, if I remember. It's fascinating and hilariously entertaining at times, but I'm always reminded that it's fun watching these people speak/sing in Korean/Japanese/Language X precisely because I expect them not to; that there are cultural differences I assume based on their race/nationality; that I conceive of them as other and different than me.
posted by suedehead at 11:04 PM on March 30, 2009


different than I am, dammit.
posted by suedehead at 11:05 PM on March 30, 2009


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