Washington Post: “Can Japan’s Big Band Cross the Pacific”

Subtitle: Dreams Come True Hopes Its Sound Carries

by Mark Jenkins
Published: July 30, 1998

When Dreams Come True performs tonight at the 9:30 club, it will be only the third American appearance by this band, whose U.S. debut album was released just two days ago. Although the group is very successful in its home country, that home country is Japan, whose music industry has produced exactly one American mainstream hit, Kyu Sakamoto’s “Sukiyaki.” That was 35 years ago.

Nonetheless, says 9:30 club co-owner Seth Hurwitz confidently, “the show’s going to sell out.”

Dreams Come True has sold some 25 million albums of upbeat disco-pop in Asia, most of them recorded for a Japanese company. Last year, however, the band signed a $25 million worldwide deal with the American branch of Virgin, a label founded in Britain. The goal was to crack the U.S. market with a new English-language edition of “Sing or Die,” an album whose original version was released last year in Japan. (The English-language disc, just released in Japan, entered that country’s charts at No. 3.)

“We really want to show our music to the world, especially America,” says band leader Masato Nakamura, who goes by the name “King Masa.”

On Monday, the band played its first U.S. show ever in Boston. “There were many Japanese fans” at the gig, Nakamura reports.

Hurwitz is unsure who’ll attend tonight’s concert. “The show immediately started selling after just our regular ad,” he says. The club subsequently worked with the Japanese Embassy and local Japanese restaurants to promote the concert, he says, but “it was selling before that.”

Some music business observers are convinced that it’s time for Japanese acts to break through in the American market. In a recent New York Times article, rock writer Neil Strauss suggested that “Japan today is in some ways like Britain circa 1960” — that is, waiting for the Japanese Beatles that will give the country’s pop music a potent international appeal. But the Beatles sang in English, emulated American music and stepped into a void left by the death, decline or drafting of some of the most successful ’50s rockers. Today there are no such voids; the world’s major pop-music industries are producing more albums than can possibly be consumed.

Dreams Come True’s bouncy pop also may be simply too slick for American tastes. Watching a videotape of the band’s performance, Hurwitz recalls, “I thought it was really Japanese, really Hello Kitty. I can’t imagine it catching on here, so it will be interesting to see if the crowd is mostly Japanese.”

It may be, but Dreams Come True’s long-term plan is to win American listeners with such tunes as “Song of Joy,” the album’s first single. Nakamura says the band has wanted to make an English-language album since it started recording 10 years ago. “But we used to have a contract with Sony. They were not interested in the world. So we could not get a ticket. With Virgin, we got a ticket to sell a record in America. So we’ve decided this is the time.”

Nakamura and singer Miwa Yoshida have both moved to New York, the duo’s current base of operations, and several of the musicians on this six-date tour are American. But the band’s third full-time member, keyboardist Takahiro Nishikawa, remains in Japan.

It’s all very businesslike: Japanese labels are reluctant to support overseas ambitions because they fear their performers’ fame will fade at home. Nishikawa, who performed with the band on its recent 20-date Japanese tour but is not playing in North America, is responsible for sustaining the band’s original fan base. “It’s very difficult to keep our popularity in Japan, so he must work [to retain the] Japanese audience,” Nakamura says.

One of Nishikawa’s tasks is to host a weekly Dreams Come True radio show in Japan. “It’s very important promotion,” Nakamura explains. “We can play our music and we can report about out [progress] in America.” Such shows are common in Japan, he notes. “The radio station can get high ratings from the musician’s name, and also the musician can play his own music on the program.” He laughs. “I don’t want to say it like this, but this is a good deal.”

Nakamura also plays keyboards in the studio, but in concert he plays bass. He and Yoshida are joined onstage by a guitarist, a keyboardist, a drummer, a backing vocalist and a four-piece horn section. The guitarist and horn section have performed with the band for almost eight years, Nakamura says, but the other musicians were recruited in New York.

Despite this big band sound, Dreams Come True has decided to simplify its image for the American market. The cover of “Sing or Die” features only the band’s single, identified simply as Miwa. “For American music market, we decided Miwa should be the front,” Nakamura says with a chuckle. “This is our plan. Maybe later I will appear.”

For Americans, he adds, the band members’ names are “too long to remember. I really think so. It’s very difficult to say our names.”

In the United States, the best-known Japanese bands are eccentric cult acts such as the Boredoms and Shonen Knife. The Japanese charts, however, are dominated by “idols,” young singers known as much for their faces as their voices. “In the Japanese music scene, our position is very different from others,” Nakamura says. “The Japanese music scene is mostly idols. But in the last three years, it’s much more borderless — can I say ‘borderless’? There are more mixtures. Now mixture is very trendy in Japanese music.”

Nakamura thinks the idols are fading. These days, he notes, Japanese pop musicians “don’t want to say, ‘I’m an idol.’ They really want to say, ‘I’m an artist,’ you know. Even if they’re an idol.”

Bands from such countries as Sweden, whose music industry is booming, routinely record in English. But that will be difficult for most Japanese pop stars, Nakamura believes. English is a required subject in Japanese schools, but few students achieve fluency. “It’s not English English,” he says of the Japanese approach to teaching the language. “It’s useless.”

Nakamura and Yoshida learned the language on the job. “We’ve been recording for 10 years in England and America,” he says. “So I had to speak English. Also, English lyrics are for me the most natural for pop music. I’ve been listening to American pop for a long time. Miwa is the same.

“We have good studios in Japan,” he explains, “but I feel the engineers and producers in England and America are much better. There is a culture of pop music.”

Even Nakamura is dubious that Anglo-American pop culture is ready to embrace an onslaught of Japanese bands. “That is a big question. There are not so many [Japanese] singers who can sing in English. Maybe some of them want to follow us. Of course, they have a chance. But it is very, very difficult.”

Despite the success of Dreams Come True’s first U.S. promotional gambit, Nakamura is careful not to assume too much about his group’s new audience. “We never think we’re a big band in America,” he cautions. “We’re just a band, an unknown band in America.”