Veteran J-pop singer-songwriter Chara chatted with Billboard Japan for its Women in Music interview series celebrating women in the Japanese music industry. The initiative launched this year in the same spirit of Billboard’s annual Women in Music event that launched in 2007. Billboard Japan aims to elevate women who continue to break new ground in Japan’s music business through interviews, live performances and panel discussions.
On top of her long-standing music career, Chara returned to acting this fall for the first time in 26 years in the Disney+ series Subete wasurete shimaukara (“Because I’ll Forget Everything”) starring Hiroshi Abe, and has been working more often with her two children — daughter Sumire and son Himi — who are also carving out their own paths in show business. When asked what she values as an artist and mother, she emphasized the importance of words and communication. The 54-year-old artist, whose songs depict the delicate subtleties of love, spoke about the power of words in this latest interview.
When you were little, what kind of woman did you look up to?
My earliest recollection of a grown woman would be my kindergarten teacher, and I adored my teacher who could play the piano. So I wanted a piano, but my parents didn’t get me one at that time. When I became a teenager, I remember seeing (Japanese singer-songwriter) Akiko Kosaka leading an orchestra and singing the song “Anata” (“You”) while playing a grand piano, and I thought that was cool. I guess I was impressed by a young woman leading a large group of people.
From there you also became a singer and have led bands yourself. How did you find your way there?
I never did very well in school, but I absorbed a lot from other fun things and exercised my mental muscles that way. Now there’s a term for women who record music at home, “takuroku joshi” (bedroom producer girl), and I was probably one of the first to do that. I met my band mates while playing instruments for fun and started making music. There was no music software you could get cheaply like you can now so everything was analog, and I bought equipment with loans.
I also started learning to play the piano but got tired of it along the way. Playing the practice pieces over and over was never fun and I also wasn’t interested in learning the skill to play fast. I liked music, but didn’t feel like studying it in college because I figured, “If I go to music school, I’ll have to practice like this all the time.” So I quit playing the piano and got a synthesizer and began fooling around on that instead.
Were there any indications of your signature style back in those days?
I think I was a little different everyone else from around the sixth grade. I had the sense that “my parents don’t own me” from around then. I didn’t know that studying abroad was a path that existed, and didn’t know how to get out of my small world, so I ended up at roller discos. Discos were popular when I was in high school, and I also used to cheerlead, so I liked roller discos where you could dance and listen to music while wearing roller skates. I’ve probably been influenced by the people I met at the places where I hung out.
Does that mean you didn’t have an ideal of the kind of person you wanted to be?
There were lots of people I admired. Cyndi Lauper appealed to me, both her music and the way she looks. When I was in school, fashion (in Japan) wasn’t as free as it is today, and it was rare to see a woman with her hair half buzzed or spiked up like hers. I remember being scolded for wearing an outfit that showed my belly button and large hoop earrings to driving school. Even so, I did my best to be creative.
Do the women you admire have anything in common?
I think it’s about appearing to be in a good mood. I’m sure there are times when people in a bad mood or in bad shape, but instead of giving up, they give out power that makes them appear to be in a good mood.
That sounds exactly like who you are now.
It’s not that I’ve been able to be like that since I was young. Even now, I’m not perfect at all. When I was young, I couldn’t speak up honestly because people would say I was being a smart aleck and there were lots of times I caused trouble for those around me. But especially after I had children of my own, I began to think that I have to take responsibility for my words. Words are scary because once you put them out there, you can’t take them back. I’ve experienced many failures in my life, but since having kids, I’ve come to appreciate both the scary and fun aspects of words more. Children are very observant of their surroundings. They ask lots of questions, and you have to respond to what they ask with words. But thanks to that, I’ve come to think that even ordinary words are interesting. When I was younger, I was more arrogant and didn’t want to use the same ordinary words as everyone else. I wanted to find an expression that no one else was using no matter what. But through conversations with my kids, I came to realize that wonderful words can be found anywhere. Because children start talking using really simple words.
Looking back to the days when you made your debut, if you were to give yourself some advice, what would you say?
When I made my debut, I didn’t know anything about the rules of the industry, so I held back and sort of waited to see how things would go. I figured, “I don’t know anything, so I’ll leave it up to the pros,” but there was this one time I was so unhappy with the finished product that I cried because I was shocked that it was completely different from what I’d had in mind. But maybe I didn’t communicate those feelings properly to the people around me at the time. Now I think, “Why didn’t I just try it myself?” but I feel that way now because I made mistakes and learned from them.
One thing I can say though is that it’s important to communicate properly with words. And to make sure the other person understands you. In order to make something go in the right direction, I think it’s all right for both parties to confirm what they’re thinking. And if you can’t align your viewpoints, then so be it. Because if you feel like you disagree, the other person usually feels the same way too.
What do you think is needed to make the world a place where more women can flourish?
I think maybe the world isn’t going to change much unless something happens like a woman becoming the president (of the U.S.). When I first started out, it was common for men (in Japan) to say things like, “Women should shut up” directly to us, so I suppose things have improved a bit since then. One thing we can do now is to raise boys so that a better future will come. For example, parents building a balanced relationship between each other first, since kids observe and sense the relationship between their mother and fathers at home.
You’ve raised a boy yourself. Was there anything you took care in doing or was important to you when he was little?
I’m sure there were a lot of things, but I’ve forgotten a lot of them. [Laughs] But I loved a translated picture book called The Story of Ferdinand by Munro Leaf and used to read it to him a lot. The main character is a bull named Ferdinand who’s brought to a bull ring. He’s a gentle soul who loves flowers. His mother thinks it’s fine for him to be just the way he is, and says it’s OK if he doesn’t live like a typical fighting bull. I never thought that boys should act like boys, and my son probably sensed that I felt that way.
—This interview by Rio Hirai (SOW SWEET PUBLISHING) first appeared on Billboard Japan.