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May 18

[Interview] Kawashima Ai: Voice of the Cherry Blossoms

The circumstances were unkind to purple SKY’s interview with J-pop star Kawashima Ai at the Brooklyn Botanic Garden’s Sakura Matsuri. We had to shuffle from location to location as the Cherry Esplanade Stage was shut down, and break when one of the many TV reporters wanted Kawashima to deliver a video message for her fans.

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But despite the inconveniences, Kawashima’s kindness and eagerness to help shone through. At one point, the translator had to step aside, and Kawashima and I cobbled together an answer through her decent English and my broken Japanese.

“American people is very lively,” Kawashima said in describing her stateside audience. She felt they showed their energy more than her Japanese ones did.

Kawashima, the 23-year-old with a million-selling hit, three books and a charity project to her name, had always wanted to perform in New York. Her experience living in New York City at the end of 2008 strengthened her interest in singing here.

Her Brooklyn concert is part of a series of American appearances that also includes performances at a Sakura Matsuri in Washington, D.C., and Japan Day in New York City on May 31. Kawashima chose to perform at these festivals because they facilitate a communicative exchange between Japan and America. Moreover, she feels Japanese energy in the cultural activities like cosplay, making these events appropriate places for her to send her message.

Kawashima’s life is a true rags-to-riches story. Her father died when she was a child, and her mother, who had incubated her desire to sing, died when she was 16. Kawashima decided to fulfill her mother’s dream and become a successful singer, and started in the streets of Tokyo by performing 1,000 street lives. She paired with keyboardist Nao to form the band I WiSH, for which she took on the pseudonym “ai.” Out of nowhere, their 2003 debut single “Asu e no Tobira,” sold more than a million copies and stayed in the Oricon charts for over a year. Kawashima, on a concurrent solo career, later revealed she was I WiSH’s singer.

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Though her band broke up in 2005, Kawashima is still hard at work at a number of creative and philanthropic activities. She’s releasing her sixth full album next month, has penned three books including a best-selling autobiography, and donates spare money to start schools in third world countries. She’s opened one in Cambodia and two in West Africa so far, and has set the goal of opening a new school each year.

Because her roots lie in street performances, Kawashima carries the spirit of them to her stage concerts. She imagines she is the performer and the audience is one person. “I always feel like I’m one on one,” she says.

Though she sings in Japanese, Kawashima thinks the beauty of the Japanese language brings something special to American audiences and provides a point where she can share her feelings with them. She considers lyrics the most important part of music, and credits Japanese rock legend Ozaki Yutaka’s message-filled music for making her aspire to write touching words herself.

What makes performing in America a challenge for her is maintaining her originality. She thinks crossing the borders creates the risk of changing herself or imitating another artist.

It’s a risk she’s willing to take up—the singer wants to perform here more, and maybe even release a CD stateside. It’s the kind of determination that drove her to perform the 1,000 street lives and endeared her to Japan as an unassuming, hardworking and incredibly adorable pop star.

Photographs by Emily Chern
Translation by Megumi Sato