Pop culture including J-pop builds bridges between Japan and the US

I’m a fan of anime and manga, although I don’t actually follow the zillions of comics or animated series and movies, because they’re instrumental in building bridges between Japan and the United States. I’ve spoken with eager young Caucasian anime fans in full cosplay (dressed in costumes playing the part of their favorite anime characters) who said they’re taking Japanese classes, and are planning on Japanese Studies in college, because they love anime so much.

That’s some powerful tug on the hearts and minds of our country’s future leaders.

And anime and manga are just the most visible signs of pop culture’s powerful effects, thanks to the many festivals and conventions across the US, and the popularity of anime programming on cable TV. Just take a look at video games, movies, and music, and Japan’s influence on America goes way beyond instant ramen and sushi happy hours. (Ramen shops are exploding in cities everywhere, but that’s another post….)

Curiously, though, J-pop, or Japanese pop music, hasn’t made too much of a dent in the American charts over the years.

Just last year, if you have kids you may have caught a catchy bit of bubblegum rock called “Sugar Rush” from the soundtrack of the Disney animated feature “Wreck-It Ralph” (notice how if it’s an American film we call it “animated feature” and if it’s Japanese we call it ”anime?”). The song plays over the end of the film, which will be released on DVD and Blue-Ray, etc. on March 5. You can see the super-sweet adorable video of the group singing it on YouTube above.
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Jero, the first black enka singer in Japan, is not just a novelty

Jero, the first African American Enka singer in Japan, learned the musical style from his Japanese grandmother.Enka music is often referred to as “Japanese blues.” The comparison is apt for a couple of reasons: the music is almost always about heartbreak and inconsolable loss. You can hear it in the singing. And, enka singing relies a lot on vocal inflections that are also common to American blues and gospel music: vibrato and melisma (the bending of notes to show emotion).

But fans of Enka in Japan probably never expected to see and hear an African American from Pittsburgh, PA make a name for himself as a rising star in the genre. (UPDATED: See bottom of this post for a video of Jero’s historic New Year’s Eve performance)

Jerome Charles White, Jr. (coincidentally a name that would sound cool for a blues musician), who goes by the stage name Jero, is unique among Japanese pop stars, in that he’s young (27), gifted, mixed-race black and American.

He sings (and speaks) in perfect Japanese, and more important — and more unusual — he sings a style of Japanese pop music that many consider to be “old-fashioned.” Enka music isn’t quite blues — aside from some of the vocal inflections and the sad subject matter, it’s not a rhythmic style. It has roots in folk music like blues, but it’s always presented in slick, orchestrated (stagey and theatrical) arrangements. Young Japanese have drfited away from this style and seem to prefer more modern genres like R&B, rock, disco and rap.

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