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Friday, July 3, 2009

Japan was Jackson's other Neverland

Special to The Japan Times

Last Friday I watched the second half of the two-hour tribute special to Michael Jackson on Fuji TV and after it was over started surfing to see if there were any others. NHK's BS-2 channel was airing a retrospective of performances by the late singer Hibari Misora, and it occurred to me that June 24, the day before Jackson died, was the 20th anniversary of Misora's own death at the age of 52. At this time of year, there are always plenty of reminders about her passing, which, even more than Emperor Hirohito's six months earlier, marked the end of the Showa Era (1926-89) for Japanese of a certain age. This year the memorials for Misora were almost completely overshadowed by Jackson's death.

News photo
Winner: Michael Jackson appears on stage with Masami Hisamoto to collect a lifetime achievement award at the MTV Music Awards Japan 2006 in Tokyo. AP PHOTO

This is quite a feat considering Misora's standing as a homegrown pop icon, albeit one whose fame didn't travel very far beyond Japan's borders. Like Jackson, Misora became hugely successful as a child — both released their first records when they were 11 — and was immediately recognized to be prodigiously talented. Like Jackson, she lived her entire life in the public eye and suffered for it. Like Jackson, she was eventually caught up in a scandal that derailed her career for a time, though unlike Jackson, that scandal was mostly of someone else's doing, namely her brother, who was prosecuted for yakuza-related activities. Also like Jackson, she had chronic health problems, and when she died unexpectedly of pneumonia, some people blamed her personal physician. Most significantly, like Jackson, she was a pop singer whose talent actually transcended her unprecedented notoriety. She sold 68 million records while alive and another 15 million or so after her death, and she remains without a doubt Japan's greatest singer.

Misora's core fans came of age during the postwar miracle of economic recovery, when Japan was still insulated from the world. Jackson's Japanese fans came of age during the 1980s, that decade when Japan had caught up enough with the world to confront it on its own terms, and when, according to radio DJ Jon Kabira, who was born the same year as Jackson, "all things" that meant anything to his generation "became popular." Those people, who are now in their 40s, retain a piquant nostalgia for the go-go bubble era in much the same way their parents long for the can-do '60s. Japan seemed invincible in the '80s, and Michael Jackson was the foreign pop star du jour.

But it wasn't just timing. Everybody talks about Michael's special affection for Japan, though no one has really tried to explain it. Some commentators claim that his Japanese fans were never as put off by his plastic surgery and his trial for child molestation. But those sideshows were covered in the Japanese media just as breathlessly as they were overseas, and I imagine a good portion of his Japanese fans found them as bizarre as people in the U.S. did. The implication is that it didn't bother them as much.

One has to remember that before Jackson turned, as gossip columnist Michael Musto put it, "from a black boy into a successful white woman," he was adorable. Even white folks thought so, despite the fact that, taken at face value (pun intended), it was weird in 1969 for an 11-year-old to be singing about sex and jealousy with such convincing passion as Michael did with his brothers in "I Want You Back." Cute has the power to overcome queasiness, and before long the Jackson 5 would be the heroes of a Saturday morning cartoon series.

The group was equally popular in Japan and definitely more so than any other American R&B act. They toured here in the early '70s, and their example was duplicated domestically by the Finger Five, a quintet of brothers from Okinawa who mimicked the Jacksons' dance steps and general stage demeanor. They were popular but, as with all idols of the time, faded fast.

One of the pundits the Japanese media has sought for quotes following Jackson's death is veteran music critic Reiko Yukawa, whose standard line is that J-Pop developed on the back of Michael Jackson's music. This sort of boilerplate reaction (Yukawa was the go-to pundit for quotes when Elvis died, too, which tells you something about the paucity of pundits) is hardly useful. One could easily say that all pop since "Thriller" developed on the back of Jackson's music.

However, it is useful to set Jackson's particular entertainment paradigm against that of the burgeoning boy-idol acts of the '80s and '90s, during which the male-only talent agency Johnny's Jimusho hijacked Japanese pop culture. Early '80s Johnny's artists like Masahiko Kondo and Toshihiko Tahara, with their outsize dance moves and coached exuberance, were clearly influenced by Jackson. And one of the salient traits of Johnny's acts in the '80s, as put forth by cultural critic Chikako Ogura, is that they were sexually nonthreatening. With their feminized features, total lack of hair anywhere but on their heads and preternaturally cheerful attitudes, they provided adolescent girls with fantasy boyfriends who, to put it politely, would never think of taking advantage of them.

Jackson's sexuality on stage and on record was purposely coarse, but it was also clearly theatrical. He admitted to the stylistic debt he owed Jackie Wilson and James Brown, two singers whose sexual abandon was unmistakably aggressive. Jackson's wasn't, which is why he could grab his crotch and nobody thought it offensive — silly, maybe, but not prurient. The macho pose was meant to fool absolutely no one. Of course, there was aggression in some of his songs, but it was emotional aggression. And as the skin turned lighter and the features less masculine, the dancing, the singing, the whole stage gestalt became a brilliantly realized mixture of what Los Angeles Times pop critic Ann Powers called "the androgynous" and "the cyborgian," which is a fairly good description of a lot of Japanese pop culture. In fact, Jackson's derided post-'80s visage eerily resembled the male heroes found in shojo (girls) manga.

If he was the perfect entertainer, as nearly everybody agrees he was, it had something to do with the fact that he was always "on" when he performed and knew better than the public did what it wanted from an entertainer. That's why it was so painful to watch and listen to him when he was "off." Jackson's Japanese fans never seemed to make as much of a distinction, and they had less of a problem with his Peter Pan peccadilloes.

In the U.S., his willfully arrested development, widely seen as the manifestation of an abusive upbringing, was pitiable at best and creepy at worst. Japanese fans took it in stride, and he not only appreciated their solicitude but exploited it. During his first solo tour of Japan in 1987, he brought his pet chimp Bubbles wherever he went, even on official company tours. Desperate fans who broke through security lines showered him with stuffed toys. It was exactly what he wanted.

He made a number of visits to Tokyo Disneyland — had the place to himself, in fact — and the Huis Ten Bosch theme park in Nagasaki Prefecture. He felt at home, among people who understood him, and at one point even said he wanted to live here.

Last week, it was revealed that several years ago he was in negotiations with a Japanese group to strike a ¥140 billion deal for a Michael Jackson theme park, skating rink and line of toys. The deal fell through, and in retrospect it might have been a life-saving opportunity. Many people have concluded that his singing and dancing days were over after the trial, those 50 London comeback concerts notwithstanding. Becoming Walt Disney in middle age would have been a fitting way to ease out of the performing side of his fantasy life.

Much has been made of the fact that Jackson chose Japan to make his first public appearance following the trial, which, despite the acquittal, effectively ruined what was left of his reputation in America and Europe. It was certainly clever of MTV Japan to offer him its Legend Award at that particular time, thus providing him with not only an occasion to put the trial behind him but a setting where he could do so without the caustic media scrutiny that would have likely materialized if he had done it elsewhere. Certainly, the subsequent "VIP Party" in 2007, where Japanese fans paid up to ¥400,000 just to be in the same room with Jackson, was a money-making endeavor, but those who paid knew what they were getting and, by their own accounts, got their money's worth. In any event, that was the last formal paid appearance Jackson ever made, which makes the memory for those who attended all the more special. In the greater scheme of things they win and the people who bought all those tickets to the London concerts lose. You can't predict these things. It's just the way the pop culture universe works.

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