Tuesday, 10 April 2018


A youth where he kept on falling, having nothing at all, just zero. Saved only by a “whim” that was the guitar. He believes in a hope that was born from a “Wow!”

Text: Yukari Takahashi (GLOBE reporter)
Photos: Toshiki Toyama ( Asahi Shimbun photographer)
English Transliation by: Nicki A.
Original source: globe.asahi.com

March, in a live hall in Ebisu, Tokyo. In front of a crowd of 900 people, here stands MIYAVI (36), about to kick off his world tour in 28 cities, including Shanghai, London and Moscow. He smoothly belts out a song in English while brandishing his electric guitar high up as if it were a Japanese sword and plays it at high speed. He wears a narrow pants on his tall figure that stands over 180cm in height, and has an appearance that perfectly fits the name he established in the West as the “Samurai Guitarist”. While he was speaking in his Kansai dialect during his performance’s intermission, I recall the words he said during our interview: “I didn’t have anything at all and I guess that is the best driving force there is in order to give birth to something.”

First picture: MIYAVI, practicing in a Tokyo studio, responded to the camera lens with a strong gaze.

1981-Born as the eldest son of two siblings in Konohana Ward, Osaka City. Birthname: Takamasa Ishihara
1989-Moved to Hyogo Prefecture and started playing soccer in 2
nd year of grade school.
1994-Joined the professional soccer team, Cerezo Osaka’s junior team
1996-Quit soccer in the 2
nd year of middle school. Started playing the guitar the following year.
1999-Left for Tokyo. Joined the Visual-kei band, Dué le Quartz.
2004-Major debut
2006-Put his activities on hold for 3 months. Studied abroad in Los Angeles, U.S
2009-Married melody. and went independent
2013-Confirmed his appearance in the movie “Unbroken” (Released the following year in the U.S and in 2016 for Japan)
2014-Changed base of activities to Los Angeles
2017-Appointed as UNHCR Goodwill Ambassador
2018-Debuted as model in Paris Fashion Week

The hole that opened up after quitting soccer
For MIYAVI, he is aware that his musician self is one that has been “built up from scratch”. Growing up in a town in Hyogo Prefecture, he was just a boy who played soccer, something that was not related to music. His father was a company employee who was also coaching the local soccer team. In his second year of grade school, he joined the local team and became totally absorbed in soccer. He was a team captain who was good at organising his team and had also stood out remarkably. It became so that it was only natural for him to think of becoming a professional soccer player.

Around the same time he entered middle school, he passed the test to enter J-League’s Cerezo Osaka’s junior team and consequently joined them. However, just one-way of traveling to his training grounds took over an hour and the commute was so exhausting that playing soccer slowly became less enjoyable. He would spend his lunch break at school sleeping and by the time he realised it, he was already left out from both his group of classmates and also his group of friends from soccer. When he fractured his toes in his right foot in his second year of middle school, he found himself feeling relieved. He then quit soccer because he couldn’t keep up anymore. After that, he spent his days with his friends, gathering in front of the train station and getting into trouble. He even went around and stayed over at his friends’ house and did not come home for more than a month. Not being able to fill the hole in his heart, he dropped to the lowest point he possibly could.
It was around that time when he first met the guitar. Even though none of his delinquent friends and him had any musical experience, they decided to start a band just based on a “whim”. Despite all that, when MIYAVI plucked the guitar strings for the first time, he somehow saw himself playing the guitar inside of a huge stadium. “This musical instrument will probably be able to help me to once again, go to “wherever that isn’t here”.” He later stopped going to high school half a year after starting it, all the while never parting from the guitar.
When he was 17, the person who taught him music and was two years his senior, had suddenly passed away. After the funeral service, the feeling of not wanting to be in his hometown anymore suddenly became stronger. Later that night, with only his wallet, PHS (Personal Handy-phone System), and cigarettes, he got on a midnight bus to Tokyo. Before he got on the bus, he called his mother and cannot forget her voice saying, “Take care and go”.  Even when he quit soccer, even when he lost his way, this is the mother who silently stood by him. He didn’t think that he was blessed or talented but he did learn that if he wasn’t going to be given anything, he should be making his own path with his own two feet instead.
Once in Tokyo, his money soon ran out and he had to sleep in the rough. He was also frequenting live houses back then and that was when he joined a Visual-kei band. After garnering attention, he had his major debut as a solo artist under Universal Music in 2004. Following in the new generation of Visual-kei, he appeared in very flashy makeup and costumes and gained many raving fans. Universal Music Japan’s president, Naoshi Fujikura (50) reminisced about MIYAVI saying that, “Even from then he was already focused on being “The World’s Top”. His level of commitment was outstanding. He wanted to let the world know directly of his existence and he was interested in being able to do so as quickly as possible, be it through digital or social media. ”

The origin of the “Samurai Guitarist”: the Shamisen
After his major debut and as the amount of performances he had in Asia and Europe increased, he started thinking, “What can I do to make myself a noteworthy Japanese person who plays the Western musical instrument: the guitar?’  The answer he came upon was the “shamisen”. Unlike the usual style of playing the electric guitar with a pick, he plucks the guitar strings intensely with his fingers as if it were a shamisen instead. Add drumming his guitar’s body for percussion and he has a sound like that of an instrumental ensemble. This idea then bore fruit in the form of the now internationally-recognised and original “Slap-style”.
Another thing that he came to realise while overseas was the English language barrier. “People generally chat and speak with each other, whether it’s in everyday or entertainment settings. Not being able to do so in English was honestly agonising”. When he was 25 years old, he took a 3-months break from his activities and went to an English school in Los Angeles where he also mingled with other foreigners. There, he once sat at his desk, crying after wondering “Why am I studying grade-school English when I could be making music?” When he had free time, he’d repeatedly practice by putting up impromptu shows on the streets. Then, by fate, when he was performing in Las Vegas, a famous dancer introduced him as “the Samurai Guitarist!”. This nickname has since spread around the world and is now synonymous with MIYAVI.
Hisashi Shimazu (38), MIYAVI’s supervisor at his music label then, commented that MIYAVI’s tenacity in training himself was similar to that of athletes. Every day, he would without fail, go to the studio, seriously focus on the guitar and practice. He also cohabitated with native English speakers back then and used English in his daily conversations. Although he had a complex about not having been born into fortunate circumstances, it just made him even more fascinating.

Picture with refugee children: Playing guitar while visiting a Rohingya refugee camp in Bangladesh in February this year.

A chance meeting with Angie: Opening of New Doors
In 2013, while he was having steady musical activities inside and outside the country, an unexpected turning point arrived. Yoko Narahashi, the producer who first introduced Ken Watanabe and others to Hollywood, offered him an appearance in a certain movie. It was the movie “Unbroken”, directed by Angelina Jolie and is about the life of a former Olympian who became a prisoner during the 2nd World War. He was offered the role of a main character: a Japanese soldier who relentlessly abused American soldiers. Jolie wanted a “charismatic and cool person” for the role and Narahashi offered the role to MIYAVI as she felt that he fit that description. He initially wanted to turn down the offer because he felt that he couldn’t play such a sensitive role especially since he had never acted before. However, on a later date, Jolie persuaded him saying that, “This isn’t a story disputing about who won in the war between Japan and the U.S. It’s a story about how one is able to forgive another, no matter how much they were tormented by them. This is a story about human strength." Narahashi praised MIYAVI saying that, “Whatever he is told, it immediately resonates within him. The way his heart and emotions are linked with his body, he certainly is a musical instrument himself.”
However, the production received a different kind of attention in Japan. The movie’s screening in Japan was postponed for some time as there were concerns such as the movie being anti-Japanese since it emphasised on the abuse inflicted by the Japanese army on prisoners of war. MIYAVI’s family roots, the fact that his father was a Korean citizen before gaining Japanese citizenship, also became a topic on the internet. Despite this, he was not discouraged. “Just because their opinions do not match, they immediately criticize it and label it as “anti-Japanese”. I wonder if they understand how much of a drawback that is for Japan. Easily building walls and closing doors. I believe that there are many other things that we can do for this country’s sake.”
In 2014, after he finished shooting for the movie, he migrated to Los Angeles with his wife and two young daughters. From then, the breadth of his activities widened. He made his model debut in Paris Fashion Week and also confirmed his appearance in the live action film for “BLEACH”. MIYAVI believes that hopes are born the moment when a person gets excited from something that makes them go “Wow!”. This is why he is continuously challenging the various potentials in him.
In November last year, he was appointed as a United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) Goodwill Ambassador. He had felt some hesitation, thinking that “Being a Goodwill Ambassador isn’t Rock”. Nonetheless, when he went to a refugee camp in Lebanon at Jolie’s invitation in 2015, he made up his mind after hearing the boy who was following him around right until he left say “When I grow up, I want to be a rock star”.
MIYAVI himself was struggling, having to fly in and out of Tokyo and America. Though he believes that it is exactly because of our struggles that people of different races and backgrounds can accept each other and live together. The lyrics of his song “The Others” greatly reflects this sentiment of his.
Who named the countries?/ Who built the walls?/ We fight for money/ While they print it all/ Instead of rifles/ We play guitar/ Sing for survival/ That’s just who we are/ (interlude) We are the others

Self-rating sheet
Which abilities are MIYAVI confident in? We asked him to rate himself on 8 different abilities and for “Originality and Flair”, he rated himself a “6” even though the highest point available was “5”. We felt his confidence when he simply marked it a “5” on the sheet instead, saying “Well, since this is all the sheet has”.

Another ability that he rated a “5” on is the “Ability to take action”. Universal Music president, Fujikura also rated MIYAVI’s ability to take action as high saying that “He was able to build up his world by going overseas with nothing on him, even while getting hurt on the way. He also carried out negotiations and preparations on his own, including those for his shows overseas”.  Although we know that his English is fluent, he rates his “Language learning ability” a “4”. He was humble, saying that he was only good at using it for communication.  On the other hand, he rated “2” for “Persistency and Patience”. He says that this is because when it comes to doing anything, he is the type who wants to make things happen as soon as possible. He also rated his “Cooperativeness” a “2” because “While I like people, I’m not good at being in a group”.

Family-He first met his Hawaiian-born wife melody. on the NHK music program for international viewers, “J-MELO”. After his appearance on the show, he asked melody., then the MC for the show, on a date, saying that he’d like her to teach him English. They currently live together with their 8 year old and 7 year old daughters in Los Angeles. One of his reasons for emigrating was because, “I want my children to understand the influence of English’s conversational strength and its widespread use around the world”. Now, even if he gets tired from being in an unfamiliar environment and the thought of returning to Japan crosses his mind, he is able to persist because he has people that he has to protect now.

Tattoos- The tattoos he has on his fingers, chest, arms and elsewhere on his body serve as mementos for him. The tattoo 不退転 (determination) on his chest reminds him that, If I stop, the world will still keep spinning. So, I just have to keep moving forward”. On his back is the Chinese character for his father’s Korean surname, (Lee). Ever since he became a parent, he started appreciating how he would not be around today if his ancestors hadnt existed. He now wishes to take over the things that they had built and live while continuing on their work.

Translated by Nicki A. (@uchiakebanashi @onakabel)

No comments:

Post a Comment