Japan's beloved "daughters" land at Anime Expo. APA has some fun with Morning Musume, the best-selling nine-member all-girl pop group of the last decade.
Interview with Morning Musume
July 1, 2009
Article by Kanara Ty
Interview and translation by Bryan Hartzheim
Video by Warren Kenji Berkey
What does Japan’s most famous all-girl pop group have in common with Puerto Rican pop sensation Menudo? They are both successful musical acts who have a reputation for sporadic shuffles in their line-up. While Menudo has harsher guidelines for membership (looking and sounding like a teenage boy), Japan’s Morning Musume group is a fierce training ground for new starlets. Morning Musume (also known by their shorter moniker, Momusu) translates to "Morning Daughters," which explains the sweet-as-sugar images of the members. Recently, Morning Musume held their first US concert at Anime Expo (accompanied by Tsunku as well), in addition to holding a Q&A panel for their fans. They displayed an extravagant booth in the exhibit hall and provided this year's Anime Expo with their theme song -- the coupling track “3, 2, 1 Breaking Out!” provided on their latest single “Shōganai Yume Oibito."
In 1997, Japanese producer Tsunku began a nationwide search for a female rock singer for his band Sharan Q on the television show Asayan. From there, while the winner Heike Michiyo would become the first sololist of the newly formed agency Hello! Project, Tsunku would later gather the runner-ups of the contest (Yuko Nakazawa, Natsumi Abe, Kaori Iida, Asuka Fukuda, and Aya Ishiguro) to also join Hello! Project – and thus, Morning Musume was born. For the past 12 years, Morning Musume has gone on to become Japan’s most successful all-girl group, maintaining five Oricon records, including the highest sales of all time for an all-female group.
Many subgroups exist within the group, where Morning Musume members are pulled into to form smaller units, such as Tanpopo, Petitmoni and Mini Moni. Some of these units have gone on to release singles of their own as well, such as Mini Moni’s single “Mini Moni Jankenpyon”, which went on to be a number one single. Over time, members have switched in and out, and Morning Musume often has a different lineup every year. Each time a singer leaves the group (or as they put it, “graduate”), Tsunku holds auditions for a new generation of girls to replace the departing members.
Some Morning Musume members have either pursued solo projects within Hello! Project. One of the more prominent former members is the third generation’s Maki Goto. Goto is considered to be one of Morning Musume's powerhouses – right after Goto entered Morning Musume, the single “Love Machine” shot the single to the top of the charts, selling well over a million copies. Upon leaving Morning Musume, she pursued a solo career within the agency, but then later left Japan for Los Angeles in order to improve her singing and dancing skills. Goto returned to Japan and joined Rhythm Zone, a label within Avex Trax. Goto’s first single was, “Fly Away” as part of the Sweet Black Project (a collaboration between Avex, J-WAVE and Mixi). Goto wrote the lyrics herself, basing it on Hitomi Kanehara’s short story “Mambo”.
The Hello! Project agency has also made developments in other Asian countries. While their concert at Anime Expo was their first US concert, Morning Musume’s international activities include bringing in two Chinese members (Linlin and Junjun), which would be the first non-Japanese members of the group. Auditions were also held in Taiwan to recruit new members for a new Hello! Project group. Morning Musume also has official fan clubs outside Japan, such as in Hawaii, Hong Kong, and South Korea.
So why did they choose Los Angeles' Anime Expo to hold a concert? In recent years, Anime Expo has started branching out on their programming, bringing in Japanese pop acts to headline their concerts. While some acts do have tie-ins to video games or anime, some acts are just there so that fans of anime and manga can enjoy music that has been influential in Japanese pop culture. Anime Expo’s efforts to improve their programming by featuring a variety of Japanese pop and rock artists have been proven successful. And it is the largest anime and manga convention in North America -- what better venue for Japanese artists?
So now that Anime Expo has brought in Japan’s biggest female pop group – how about bringing some of Japan’s biggest male pop groups? Something to think about. In the meantime, APA asks Morning Musume about their favorite American foods, strangest gifts from fans, and the actors and actresses they admire.
APA: First question: what is your favorite American food?
Tanaka Reina: Hamburger!
Mitsui Aika: American jelly!
Reina: French fries!
Niigaki Risa : You got to say two!
Staff member: Maybe if you said your names, it’d be easier to understand.
Reina: I’m Tanaka Reina – hamburger!
Kamei Eri: I’m Kamei Eri – jumbo French fries! Big size!
Junjun: Hot dog!
Aika: American jelly!
APA: What’s that?
Aika: Is this not an American thing? Black jelly! It’s a little more sour than the flavor of cherries, and there’s a lot of pulp inside.
[We realize later, she means American cherries/black cherries.]
Ai: I’m Takahashi Ai – pizza! You guys eat really big ones!
APA: Do you prefer American or Japanese pizza?
Ai: It’s my dream to eat an American pizza. In Japan, we eat small, round pizzas all the time, but in America, one slice of pizza is so big.
APA: So you haven’t had one yet?
Ai: I haven’t. There’s this book called, “Gossip Girl,” and I wanted to eat American pizza after reading that.
Linlin: I like cheese! I ate it on the airplane. It was really tasty.
APA: What kind of cheese?
Linlin: It was triangular. Oh, it was cream cheese! The one you put on a biscuit.
Kusumi Koharu: Spaghetti. Pasta!
APA: What sort of pasta?
Koharu: I love shrimp, so as long as there’s shrimp inside, I’m good.
Michishige Sayumi : I love chocolate! Everyone here loves chocolate, but foreign or American chocolate is really sweet, so if I have just one, I’m really satisfied.
Risa: Fruits. I like eating fruit in Japan, too, but I really love America fruit. There’s something about eating fruit in this atmosphere and environment.
APA: What’s the strangest present you’ve ever received from a fan?
Ai: When I went to Korea, I received a present from the Korean fan club members. They collected everyone’s pictures and created a photo album.
Reina: Ah! A drawing! Completely in pencil. It’s strange, but depending on the humidity in the room…
Eri: We’ve received a lot of things that are very different from fan tastes in Japan.
APA: There are a couple members now in Morning Musume who are from different countries. [Linlin and Junjun nod and point to themselves] Do you ever have communication problems?
All: None at all. Their Japanese is so good.
Junjun: Now, I’ve begun to understand what’s being said. In the beginning, it was pretty difficult. But now I don’t have a problem holding a conversation.
APA: Are any of the others studying Chinese?
off camera: I can say my name!
Junjun: You’ve become so good at saying your name! [laughs]
Ai: They’re so good and capable at Japanese now that they can even say some jokes.
Linlin: But sometimes Chinese jokes don’t translate! I get nothing but silence when I tell them.
APA: Can you give us an example?
Linlin: Really? Should I say one? Okay, so there’s a tomato and a tomato
All: You’re way too early! She hasn’t even said the joke yet!
Linlin: So there are two tomatoes. And they’re walking at a crossing. All of a sudden, a bus comes out of nowhere and whoosh! One tomato is hit by the bus and smashed.
Off camera: You’re too early again!
Linlin: So the other tomato goes to the other tomato and says, “Hahaha, tomato, catchup!”
Ai: You have to think about it first.
Risa: It’s black humor.
Linlin: It’s a pretty dark joke.
Junjun: But in China, it’s is a pretty easy, simple joke.
Reina: The way you said it was really funny. “Tomato! Catchup!”
Linlin: But if say this to anyone in China, they’ll laugh. I don’t understand it.
Ai: Must be cultural differences.
APA: Going in a completely different direction with this next question, Morning Musume members are always changing. Was there ever an especially sad time for any of you when another member left the group?
Ai: Well, graduation is always sad for all of us.
Reina: There are times when a girl leaves, I think, “I really can’t go on.” But I think to persevere is what Morning Musume is all about.
APA: Is there a former member any of you admire the most?
Ai: It’s different for all of us.
Risa: Not only is it different for everyone, but each member also admires certain aspects of each former member differently, as well. So there isn’t just one person, but a little bit from everyone.
APA: Are there any actors or actresses in Japan or America you admire?
Koharu: Meryl Streep!
All: [correct her] Beyonce!
Junjun: I recently got a Beyonce live concert DVD. I watched it today and I thought her performance on a live stage is really amazing.
Linlin: Michael Jackson, Mariah Carey, Christina [Aguilera]
Ai: I like Britney Spears
APA: Do you prefer American actors over Japanese actors? Are there any Japanese actresses you admire?
Aika: Ryoko Yonekura.
All: Yeah, definitely.
Aika: For actors, I really like Riki Takeuchi.
All: Whoa, mature...
APA: What are your goals for Morning Musume and beyond? Where do you see yourselves heading?
Ai: We think coming to Anime Expo and promoting Morning Musume in LA was a great opportunity for us, so we’d like to experience more situations like this in the future.
Click here for the website of Morning Musume's official USA record label.