Billboard Japan Women in Music Interview – Billboard

J-pop star Mika Nakashima spoke with Billboard Japan about the Women in Music interview series highlighting the women who are thriving in the Japanese music industry. The initiative launched this year in the same vein as Billboard’s annual event honoring women since 2007. Billboard Japan aims to elevate the women who continue to break new ground in the Japanese music business through content including interviews, live performances and panel discussions.

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More than 20 years after her sensational debut, Nakashima continues to take on new projects while staying true to her unique style. This year, the 39-year-old singer released a self-produced album of self-penned songs, aptly titled I. “‘Mika Nakashima’ is the work of the supporters around me,” she notes, and true to her words, she has established her career by maintaining the flexibility to update herself by being open to the voices of those around her.

Were there any women you looked up to as role models growing up?

Mika Nakashima: I guess it’s the same for everyone when they’re young, but the cool women in my life were my mom and my older sister. I still thought my mom was just a normal parent until I came out in society, but when I started working part-time and the number of adults around me increased, I realized that my mom is pretty awesome and I started to notice the great things in her. I still remember many of the things she told me and I think I listened to her because I longed to be like her at the time.

She sounds like a lovely person. Could you share something she said that you still take to heart?

Among other things, she often said, “If you borrow something, return it cleaner than when you borrowed it.” I still go back to that, and it’s kind of become my foundation. I mean, it’s literally important to treat something you’ve borrowed with care and return it to pristine condition, but lately I’ve been interpreting it more like, “Even my body is something borrowed and it needs to be returned to the gods in a pure state.” I know that sounds kind of woo-woo [laughs] but because of my mother’s words, I began to think that I should be prepared to return everything in a beautiful way. I am grateful to my mother for giving me words in my childhood that are like hints that are still relevant today as an adult.

Has your image of an ideal woman changed with age and experience?

Not much has changed. I admire cool women and always wanted to be one. When I was younger, I think I aspired to a more superficial, visual cool, but now I know that quality has to come from within, and fixing the surface isn’t enough. Being cool is about how you live your life, and age and experience have helped me realize that.

What is your definition of a cool woman?

Someone who has the ability to be open to the ideas of those around her and organize them. Maybe it’s because I work in the music industry, but I think it’s easier to stick to your own opinion and that it’s harder, but important, to take in the ideas of the people around you. Fortunately, I am surrounded by talented people and I consider it my role to do what I can to allow them to show their strengths and have fun.

That’s a great way to think. When did you start thinking this way?

Since my debut, this idea has not changed for a long time. I started working in the industry when I was 18 years old, completely clueless and couldn’t have done anything without the help of the people around me. They took me by the hand and taught me every step of the way every day and I always thought that I just happened to be the one to sing in front of the audience.

Are there any replacement parts?

In terms of the lyrics, there are some aspects that I interpret differently now than in the past when I had less experience. When asked to sing songs from the past, some artists seem to feel, “But my current ones are good too,” but I think it’s a valuable opportunity to express a new aspect of these songs that can be performed because I’m human , who I am today. In the past, I think that by singing these songs, I was trying to get closer to the image of the strong woman portrayed in them.

Like you said, a lot of fans must think of you as strong and cool, but is there a difference between who you really are and your public image?

I’m glad that people perceive me that way, but that image and the actual me are probably completely different. But this does not mean that the image of “Mika Nakashima” is something that we consciously created. I was just too nervous and shy to speak well when I appeared on music programs on TV, or that my facial features looked cold. All these things add up to create the image. I’m actually a lively person who gets everyone involved and I’m loud in my dressing room. Meeting people and talking to them helps me relieve stress.

Do you find it stressful to have this gap between your public image and your true self?

It was actually good for me that people thought of me differently. I must have been intimidating or something, but not many people came up to me, so that worked out well because I’m quite shy. But I really don’t mind people coming and talking to me.

You wrote all the lyrics and music for your self-produced album released in May. How does the songwriting process influence you?

When I write lyrics, I feel kind of lucky to have my emotional ups and downs. There were times when I felt bad about myself for being like this, but I can write songs because I feel all kinds of emotions. I have to face myself when I write lyrics, so it releases the stress and I find words that I want to say to myself. I also sometimes imagine an ideal, thinking, “I want to be the person who would say things like that.”

Does being a woman affect your musical activities, including songwriting?

I thought about it again for this interview, but I personally don’t think it affected me too much. It doesn’t matter if I wear a skirt or pants on stage, or use “boku” as the first person (usually used by men) in my lyrics. One thing I thought of though is that women (in Japan) are more likely to be accepted if they are “harmless”. For example, I have tattoos. Sometimes when I upload a picture of me wearing something that shows a tattoo, some online media will write an article about it. I’ve been lucky enough not to bear the brunt of this general tendency to put people down for standing out, but it would be sad if there were artists who held back from expressing something because of it.

Are there female artists or songs that give you strength?

Honestly, without shame, the artist I like the most right now is me. My songs are the ones I want to listen to. I probably feel this way because of the things I’ve accumulated over the last 20 years. I had no confidence in the past and stood on the stage feeling apologetic. I made countless mistakes and there were times when I was depressed because of my hearing problems. But now I can create works that I think are great. I can’t leave this job until I give back to the people who supported me.

Listen to an exclusive playlist curated by Mika Nakashima below or here.

—This interview by Ryo Hirai (SOW SOWEET PUBLISHING) first appeared on Billboard Japan.

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