Even if you’re clumsy, you can survive as long as you don’t give up.
What was your dream as a child?
I didn’t have one. My father had asked me about it too a long time ago. When I answered, “Don’t have one,” he told me, “You should make one,” but to me it was like, “What do I want to do? What does having a dream mean?”
What kind of child were you in class during elementary and middle school?
On my report card it usually said, “A cheerful, animated mood maker. He’s full of energy and does his best.” There was also another key phrase: “Can’t sit still and lacks concentration.” *laughs* I was irresponsible and often forgot my homework or lunch bag.
But you must have been popular among girls?
Nah, I wasn’t. You know how in elementary and middle school, the guys good at sports are popular? I sucked at baseball.
Even though you’re a fast runner?
I’m somewhat fast at long-distance running, but even if you’re fast at long-distance, it’s kind of boring. The short-distance runners were the popular ones.
I see. *laughs* So, did you have a lot friends then?
I was a fun-loving person so I had a lot. But I didn’t like belonging to only one group. Or more like, I was bad at hanging out with people. I just naturally made friends with both the troublemakers and arts and science kids.
That’s unexpected that you didn’t like hanging out with people.
Yeah. I wasn’t really serious about after school clubs either. I didn’t last long in kendo or soccer or volleyball. I wasn’t good at sticking to one thing for a long time. To put it in a cool way, I was the kind of guy who didn’t like being tied to one thing, like, “I have to do something no matter what on this day at this time.” And frankly, I probably just didn’t like it.
So you were a kid that couldn’t stick to one thing.
The only thing I stuck to was track and field. In 3rd grade, my classmate’s father was very passionate about it and said, “You’re the only kid who can run as fast as my son,” and invited me to join them. I accompanied him to practice and I participated in the city’s track meet and stuff.
Why was track and field the only thing that stuck?
There were times when I didn’t want to go to practice, but it helped me realize that there was something I was actually good at and that made me happy.
All right, then why did you apply to Johnny’s in 5th grade?
My parents applied for me. I didn’t have a dream so I think they felt they needed to find something for me to work hard for. They thought it would be a good real world experience, too. I passed the application stage and made it to the 2nd round of auditions.
Did you yourself have any interest in it?
None at all. I thought it was just a whole different world inside the TV. Because you know, when I was in 3rd or 4th grade I think it was, I went to my friend’s house and my friend’s older sister was a SMAP fan and had a concert pamphlet. You know how it was popular to fold money bills to contort Natusme Soseki’s face into a silly one? We played with the pamphlet like that and folded SMAP-san’s faces and stuff. Thinking back on it now, the things I did send chills up my spine.
So you must have had absolutely no interest in the show business world to have been able to do that.
How was your audition?
When I went to the venue, there were about 200 people auditioning. We were told to memorize dance routines and to show our special abilities. I couldn’t do anything, but at the end of the day, a few people were called over. About 9 people, I think. (Shibutani) Subaru-kun was there, and me, and we did an interview for a magazine before they sent us home.
So you passed.
I didn’t know if I had passed or not. I thought the magazine interview was all a part of the audition too.
What happened after that?
When I said I went to a Johnny’s audition, the girls in my class were like, “Get so-and-so’s autograph for me!” and I got a lot of attention for a brief period. *laughs* But after the audition, I received no other word. When I was watching TV, I happened to see one of the kids that was at the audition. When I saw that I thought, “Guess that means I didn’t pass.”
And then you auditioned once more?
There were circumstances that led up to that. I ran away from home. *laughs*
Why did you run away from home?
My parents found out I skipped out on cram school.
I knew my father would beat me up after I got home. *laughs* And on top of that, it was a bit of a complicated time then. I felt I caused trouble to my parents again. I thought my parents would be happier without me. I aimlessly rode my bike towards Osaka. I spent the night outdoors too, but I was just a 5th grader so I went home the very next day. It turned into a family meeting kind of thing and I really got scolded. Then they handed me a notice for the audition. “Just go,” they said. I thought, “Again?” but apparently, my dad thought I still had a chance. I had no reason to refuse so I decided to try again.
Yup. The audition was the day after I got back, so if I had stayed away from home one day longer, I wouldn’t have been able to make it. And on the 2nd time, (Nishikido) Ryo-chan, Yasu (Yasuda Shota), Okura (Tadayoshi) were there too. Then during a break or something, the president was there and told me, “Huh!? You passed already. What are you doing here?” and that’s kind of how I was able to remain as a Jr.
What were things like after you became active as a Jr?
My first thought was, “Yokoyama-kun is so cool.” Like, “He’s the guy I see in magazines!” He was blonde and fair skinned and looked half Caucasian. When we did the KYO TO KYO stage play, there were a lot of Jrs. there and I thought, “It’s such a shiny world.”
Did you think “Someday, I’m going to stand at the center of this world, too”?
Nah, I didn’t. I was slow at memorizing choreography and the kind of guy who would often forget his places and stuff. I already had a feeling that I would never be at the center. Like, “Yeah, I’m not like those guys.” It was a little frustrating, but I’m not the type to strain myself over it either. Because if you think about it, I was just a kid who enjoyed a little attention that didn’t even stand out in school, and now I had passed the Johnny’s audition--the royal path toward idoldome--on a whim. I thought, “Why would they want to put someone like me on a stage?” I think it’s a habit. I had a habit of thinking, “There’s nothing special about me.” As if I had already given up on myself in some way.
But at the same time, I was hopeful. Like, “If I’m here, maybe they’ll find something in me that has never showed before.” I think I wanted to change. That’s why I enjoyed listening to the president tell us old stories about our Senpai. I don’t know. They kind of sounded like fairy tales to me--that none of them shined from the beginning. That this job gives you something to dream about.
Did you get more jobs after that?
I think it was 2 or 3 years after I became a Jr. At the time, the agency gave me a lot of support. But I wasn’t used to having people put so much hope in me. I had been given a radio job in Tokyo. Mayonaka no Shonentachi, I think it was. I was to talk with senpai Tokyo Jrs. They told me, “If things go well, you might even get a regular position.” But I lacked the courage, knowledge, and skills. I got completely sucked in by the atmosphere and in the middle of it, started talking in the Kantou dialect. After we finished recording, the president said to me, “You, that’s no good. You have to speak in Kansai-ben. What’s the point of putting in a kid from Kansai?” As a result, I wasn’t called back anymore. After that, Murakami Shingo ate his way in and nabbed a regular position.
He one upped you. *laughs*
Yup. *laughs* But what disappointed the president the most was the periodical baseball meet we had. Apparently, they assumed I could play baseball and made me participate. My turn to bat came and I miraculously hit the ball! But then I ran to third base instead of first and the president was so angry at me. *laughs* He said, “If you don’t know how to play baseball you should have said so!”
You kept disappointing them.
Up until then, I never had anyone hold expectations for me in my life, so I didn't know how to do my best. I'm not sure how to put it. You know how sometimes in dreams, no matter how hard you try to run, you just can’t? It’s like that. But at the same time, I never reflected on what I had done wrong and didn’t try to learn from my mistakes. I kept making excuses like, “I’m not good enough,” and had somehow given up on putting actual effort into things. Even when I messed up a dance step, it was embarrassing at the moment, but after it aired on TV I’d forget about it. Like, "the danger past, and god forgotten."
But it’s not like chances come frequently, right?
The determining factor was when I went to Tokyo for an interview with Ryo-chan and Yasu as B.I.G. WEST. After the interview, the two of them went shopping because they liked fashion. I told them I was going home ahead of them and got on a return shinkansen by myself. At around Nagoya, I got a call from the president asking where I was. I said, “In the shinkansen,” and he replied, “You, you shouldn’t have gone home. But okay, fine.”
Why did he call?
I found out a while later when Ryo-chan appeared on M-ste. I thought “Wow, he’s singing~” and then Yasu came out rapping. Then all the pieces came together. It had been a call about a meeting for this TV show. The president’s voice, “You shouldn’t have gone home,” rang in my head.
You were unlucky.
It wasn't luck. When I received that call, if I had asked, “What is it?” I think my future would have changed. If only I had said, “Okay, I’ll come back right now!” I had no money for transportation, of course, but I could have just asked the president about it.
If you lack the assertiveness, you won’t even know when you’ve been given a chance.
Did that one incident have an effect on your work after that?
I don’t think it was only because of that one incident but I had completely entered an ice age. I didn’t get any more Myojo interviews. To a Jr., being in Myojo was like a status symbol. It’s shocking to not be in it anymore after having been in it all the time. Both work and interviews started to dwindle and I just lead the life of a regular high schooler. However, I devoted myself to writing replies to fan letters with my dad urging me on.
So your father cheered you on?
Yes. And also my fans. I was reading some fan letters once, and one person wrote, “Maru-chan, your smile makes me work hard, so you are my support.” That might have been why I started feeling this job was worthwhile. I realized that I couldn’t just quit so easily. I think I learned as Jr. about shouldering someone’s feelings. My fans taught me a bit about what it meant to be an idol.
So you grew a sense of responsibility?
Yes. But then when I was about to enter high school my dad told me, “If it doesn’t seem to be working out by the time you’re 20, you should quit.” He gave me a time limit to how long I could try and I found it unreasonable. *laughs* But that’s when I realized that a part of me didn’t want to quit. That I wanted this job.
When did the "ice age” come to an end?
The forming of V.WEST played a big part in it. I think it was during KinKi Kids-san’s tour. They told all the guys who played instruments to come. I had started playing guitar in high school. However, all 4 guys who came were all guitar players. *laughs* And then the music producer said to me, “You’re tall so you’re on bass.”
Even though you’d never played it before?
Yup. I was worried about it but I thought, “If I don’t do this, I won’t be able to survive in this business,” so I had no doubts. After that, they let us participate in concerts so we needed a unit name and they named us V.WEST. I think the agency wanted to make a Kansai version of FiVe. Like, Kanto vs. Kansai.
Did you feel any rivalry toward Kanto Jrs?
Hmm, they were like something completely different. It felt like Tokyo was the main branch. Like Kansai was just the second team. *laughs* The ones who made their way up to the first team were Shibuyan, Yokoyama-kun, Shin-chan--the 3 ossan team, and Ryo-chan.
I see. And then Shukan V.WEST started airing on Kansai TV, right?
It was an information variety-like TV show. We were kind of like reporters and went to shoot on location and stuff. We were given the chance to perform our instruments during the ending segment too.
You had live concerts as V.WEST too, right?
We were given the opportunity to have one at Zepp Osaka. Subaru-kun, Shin-chan, and Ryo-chan came to watch, too. My current members. Thinking back on it now, it’s kind of weird.
Work had finally begun to run smoothly for you.
That’s right, but when I was a senior in high school, the other members started saying they were going to quit. In the end, Uchi (Hiroki) and Yasu were the only ones who remained. I guess they had to decide what course to take and they made their choice… The TV show continued after that, but I started getting worried about what would happen down the road.
Once again you lost sight of your future?
But that’s when those guys came back. Although, I guess that’s a weird way to phrase it. *laughs* The 3 Ossan Team returned to Kansai.
What was it like seeing them again after such a long time?
It was remarkable. I could see how different those who ventured out to Tokyo were. We first went on location for Shukan V.WEST. Subaru-kun was so funny, Shin-chan could tsukkomi. Yokoyama-kun could boke even when there was nothing to boke about. I thought we might actually have a shiny new future ahead of us.
And then you did the stage play Another with pretty much the same members as now.
Yup. We thought that if we didn’t make this stage play a success, we would have no future, so we were desperate. But it was tough in the beginning. The Shochiku Theater has 3 floors of seating, but there were times when we only had enough audience members to fill the 1st floor. It was a part of the show that at showtime, 2 members were to come out from both sides on the 1st, 2nd and 3rd floors so that all 8 members would appear all at once. However, before the 2nd day started, we were told, “There aren't any people in the 3rd floor seats so 6 of you come out on the 1st and 2nd floors." It was shocking. By the middle of the day, it was decided that we wouldn’t even do the 2nd floor either. Because we’ve gone through times like that, every time our “box” gets bigger, we still worry to this day if enough people came to fill the audience.
Winter of that year, Kanjani8 was formed and you CD debuted in August of 2004 with Naniwa Iroha Bushi.
To be honest, we were doubtful for a long time because even though we formed a group, Ryo-chan and Uchi debuted in NEWS. To be in two groups at the same time was improbable back then. We thought, “This can’t be good.” Also, at first, our CD debut was restricted to only the Kansai area. I thought maybe our agency released it because they felt a little sorry for us. But when I think about it now, there's no way they would release a CD just out of sympathy. *laughs*
Were you happy to be able to debut?
Of course! I was super happy, but it wasn’t really our final goal. It’s kind of like deciding on a partner and getting married. I think it’s more like a beginning and not a goal. We knew many things were likely to happen in our future, but we had each other so as long as we walked across together, there was nothing to be afraid of. We decided to just do our best.
After Naniwa Iroha Bushi entered the Oricon enka chart at 1st place, it was decided that it would be released nationwide, right?
We all celebrated together at a cafe near Osaka’s Horie Park. We were like, “Let’s do our best.” We all cried together as we talked. That if we didn’t do our best here, we wouldn’t make it.
So you were overcome with emotion.
Even after that, something I’ll never forget happened. When it was decided they would be selling our CD nationwide, we held a handshake event at Zepp Osaka to say thanks to those who bought the Kansai edition. It was summertime and a very hot day. Despite that, our fans stood in lines for us. Seeing those lines made it all sink in. I thought, "We’re here because of the support from the many people standing here before us now."
Because we experienced such things, Kanjani8 grew by having live concerts over and over again, and we’d like to continue treasuring our live concerts in the future. Since our Shochiku Theater days, we've performed while paying special care to our distance to the audience. That's why we've decided to have at least one concert a year and have been given the chance to do the 47 Prefecture Tour among things. I feel that concerts are our way to meet face to face with our fans and convey our gratitude to them.
And that’s the reason you value concerts.
Yes. Naturally, in a dome setting, the distance between us and the audience grows, right? Like when I went to a Misuchiru (Mr. Children) concert at a dome, I thought, “They’re so far away, as expected.” Yet people still come despite that and I’m truly grateful for that. During every tour, we have stages that go up high and such things as a (big Christmas) tree that we had made because we want to get as close to the audience sitting at the very top as we can. We asked, “Would it be possible to make something like this?”
So that’s the kind of stuff you feel.
It’s like our fans are Orihime and we’re Hikoboshi.* We only get to see each other once a year so we put so much of our heart and all the things we experienced that year into that one date. I think Kanjani8’s concerts are our place to show all of that and give back. This may be a strange way of putting it, but fans come to see us using their money and time, both valuable things in life. What we receive from fans is irreplaceable. It’s something that can’t be bought with money. I believe we receive a piece of their lives.
*From the tale of Tanabata
After hearing your story, I feel like I see Kanjani8’s strong unity.
I think our time as Jrs. pre-debut, plays a big role in it. It's like we’ve known each other since we joined the agency. Of course, we don’t know every detail of what each of us went through, but we share the same feeling of being able to debut after going through bitter times. We’ve seen the same things, felt the same things up until now. Of course, there are things that only the 3 who went to Tokyo and Ryo-chan have seen, and there are things that only Yasu, Ohkura, and I know. Even still, we each overcame various obstacles and share the mutual feeling that we’re all in the same now.
Of course, we all actually have things we're clumsy with and suck at, but we're like, "Everyone's like that," and we understand that about each other, so we trust one another. Kansai Jrs. from around the same time as me all started quitting one after another before Kanjani8 was formed. Only those who didn’t give up remain here now.
So you’re pretty much like a family.
It might be a little different than that. When we released the album Puzzle in 2009, Yokoyama-kun was asked the question, “What is Kanjani8?” and he replied, “Just as there are categories for family and friends, Kanjani8 is its own category.” He said, “Kanjani8 is Kanjani8.” It truly is. Each member is a puzzle piece and all of us vary in shapes. Our fans are also a piece of that puzzle and when we're put together, it forms a picture. Of course, it's still in the middle of completion and that's the way it has to be. That’s why it’s fun. We’re still in the middle of our dream.
Did anything trouble you personally after your debut?
I was continuously worried about lots of things. Last year, Ryo-chan got a lead role in a movie and Ohkura was also in a movie. I thought, “Oh, crap,” as everyone started getting individual CM work and regular shows. I thought, “I’m the only one being left behind.” I felt a sense of danger that at this rate, I wouldn’t be able to stay in Kanjani8. That I wasn’t contributing anything to the group. There were people around me who told me, “That’s not true,” but it's my life, so if I’m not satisfied with it, or if I can’t allow it myself, even if those around me didn’t mind, I wouldn’t be completely content. That's why I thought I had to become a person worthy of being in Kanjani8. That I needed to be happy about myself.
What did you do to work on that?
I decided to show the other members my own work and my own work methods. In 2010, whether it was the drama Freeter, Ie Wo Kau, my stage play Gilbert Grape, or concerts, I decided to start afresh and did each project with respect.
As a result, did you become a person worthy of being in Kanjani8?
Before I found the answer to that, I came to respect my fellow members even more.
What do you mean?
I came to understand the simple fact that when the other members juggle both group and individual work simultaneously, they never show any signs of hardship or the hard work that goes on behind the scenes, and they carry on with their Kanjani8 work as usual. I saw a scene that I had been oblivious of before. It dawned on me what incredible things these guys had been doing. After that, I was able to put it all behind me. I guess it strengthened my resolve. Like, it’s not about whether I’m worthy of this group or not--I want to be in this group. That’s why I decided to continue doing what was in front of me to the best of my ability.
So you found your answer.
Yeah. Well, of course I still have a lot to work on. At the very end of our last tour, I addressed the audience by myself because we always choose a member at random to say a few words that day. I usually prepare what I'm going to say beforehand, but last time, because there was something I held in my heart, those honest words came out--my feelings about wanting to be in this group, and my feelings toward our fans. I felt it was finally clear to me what my role in this group was.
So you're still discovering new things.
I believe I'll keep doing so from here on out.
A young boy who could never stick to one thing has lived half his life as an idol. It's almost hard to believe, isn't it?
I do feel like I made it by the skin of my teeth. If I hadn't taken up an instrument, if I hadn't been in V.WEST, if there never was a Shukan V.WEST, if those 3 hadn't come back from Tokyo... I made it this far because so many things coincided. It's strange.
It's strange, indeed.
If there was ever a crossroad, there may actually have been two. One was that I auditioned twice and the other was that I started playing guitar when I entered high school. I definitely didn't audition at my own will, so it means I obviously didn't get where I am now on my own. Guitar was about the only thing I ever started on my own. I picked it up because my friend in high school played and I asked to try it out a bit. I told my parents, "I want to play guitar," and withdrew some New Years gift money and they went with me to the instrument store to buy one. I rarely take action on my own, so that was the first time I ever did. But because of that, I'm in Kanjani8 as the person I am now. It may have been fate.
But there's no mistake that a young boy who couldn't find a dream, lives in the middle of one now.
That's true. People can change. Of course, there are a mountain of things I wish I had done differently. I've always thought that I should have gone back to Tokyo that day the president called me. But when I do my best now, all my regrets from the past evaporate. That's why I think all I need to do is continue doing my best at whatever is in front of me.