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Tuesday, Jan. 22, 2002
Elvis wannabe crooners soothe to 'Rabu Me Tenda'
By TIM HORNYAK
Dressed in a black tuxedo, a middle-aged former company executive took the stage, cued the six-piece band and launched into Elvis Presley's version of the syrupy '60s ballad "You Don't Have to Say You Love Me."
Corny? Not to the hundreds of Elvis fans who were at Tokyo's Kudan Kaikan hall Jan. 13 to celebrate the Memphis singer's Jan. 8 birthday. These days, many Japanese weary of a decade of economic woes are finding solace in the soulful music of the King of rock 'n' roll, and his popularity is still strong over 24 years after his death in 1977.
The guy in the tux is Minoru "Max" Yamaguchi, 52, who served as executive vice president at Mitsui & Co. group firm Bussan Planning Kyushu Co. in the city of Fukuoka until recently accepting voluntary retirement as part of Mitsui's restructuring plans.
"His music consoles me, and I feel comforted when I listen to his songs," said Yamaguchi. "I love him because of his heart and soul and his beautiful voice."
It was Yamaguchi's first time taking the mike at the largest event of its kind in Japan, which also featured professional Elvis imitators in white sequined 1970s' jumpsuits, Elvis movie videos and rare Elvis CDs for sale.
Among the 12 other contestants were Machiko Taha, a housewife from Chiba Prefecture who was dressed in an army uniform and belted out a stirring "GI Blues," and Tokyo resident Yoshihiko Tateishi, whose wife made his jewel-encrusted suit for his rendition of the King's live favorite "Polk Salad Annie," written and initially released by Tony Joe White.
The contest's judges included Masaya Koizumi, the brother of Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi and a senior adviser to the roughly 5,000-member Elvis Presley Fan Club (Tokyo), a cosponsor of the event, and noted music critic Reiko Yukawa.
They didn't award Yamaguchi a prize, but he plans to enter the music business nonetheless by fostering street musicians in Fukuoka.
"These days, because of the recession, people feel very rough, so we need some comfort," he said. Yamaguchi wants to establish a record firm with local musicians who have the ability to soothe listeners, and intends to use Elvis to improve them.
"When I started studying English, 'Love Me Tender' was very difficult for me to pronounce," he said, referring to the problems Japanese have in distinguishing "l" and "r" sounds in English.
"If you say 'Love Me Tender,' it's OK, but 'Rabu Me Tenda' is not," he laughed. "I learned the proper pronunciation of 'l' from that song. I would sing it like a parrot, so now my 'l' is very good."
Elvis had educational value for others at the event as well.
"Rock 'n' roll is still very popular in Japan, and Elvis is the leading figure among rockers still," reckoned Ayako Maeda, a professor of English literature at Yokohama's Ferris University. "He's a kind of healer."
Maeda, who wrote a book about Elvis and translated many Elvis album liner notes into Japanese, plays his music and movies in classes she teaches about U.S. culture.
Many young Japanese like Elvis because of the continuing appeal of his charisma and voice, she said, adding the release in August of a CD of favorite Elvis tunes chosen by the hugely popular prime minister was a big event for older people in Japan.
"Junichiro Koizumi Presents My Favorite Elvis Songs" features 25 tracks described in liner notes written by the 60-year-old leader, who shares the same birthday as Elvis. About 120,000 copies have been sold so far, said Katsumi Miyata, the chief producer at event cosponsor and record label BMG Funhouse Inc. who oversaw production of the album.
Most who buy the collection, which includes karaoke standards such as "It's Now or Never" as well as lesser-known nuggets like "If I Can Dream," are in their 50s, said Miyata, but younger Japanese also have a yen for Elvis.
"After the war, the U.S. brought its culture to Japan," he noted. "Japanese were very hungry for American culture, and I think young people are still interested in Elvis' power and his vocals."
Along with officials from Tokyo charity Central Community Chest of Japan, after the contest event organizers, including fan club head Tadayuki Akazawa, presented a check for about 6 million yen from sales of the Koizumi disc to Asebi Kai, a Shizuoka Prefecture group that helps victims of incurable diseases.
"I'm sure Elvis is smiling down at us from heaven," one fan club official said.