Japan's Maasa Ishihara Talks Dancing at Grammys With Ariana Grande & Auditioning for Justin Bieber: Interview

Maasa Ishihara
Mimi Thomas/Courtesy of Billboard Japan

Maasa Ishihara

Maasa Ishihara is a Japanese dancer who has supported performances by numerous A-list Western acts including Justin Bieber, Nicki Minaj, TLC, Ciara, Major Lazer and Becky G, as well as J-pop megastars Namie Amuro, SMAP and more. Her most recent engagement was performing with Ariana Grande at the Grammys in January, and she is currently rehearsing as one of the main dancers in Bieber's upcoming tour.

While her career has taken off in recent years, she didn't enjoy smooth sailing for most of her journey: She experienced a five-year hiatus from dancing at one point, and also ran into the wall of immigration bureaucracy and was forced to return to Japan from Los Angeles after passing a career-changing audition there. Here, she talks to Billboard Japan:

What was it like performing at this year's Grammys?

It was my first time performing at the Grammys. Kobe Bryant passed away earlier that day, and we heard the news when we were about to get up onstage for the final technical rehearsals. People in the venue started crying and shouting in anger; it was a mess. It was the first time I had to perform feeling like that.

I think Kobe's accident really brought home to everyone there that "tomorrow isn't something that's promised." It was an unforgettable day that made me reevaluate my own life.

News of Kobe's death and the Grammy Awards were being covered simultaneously in Japan as well, and it definitely was an unforgettable day. Could you share some of the process of how Ariana Grande's performance that day was created?

I remember being told that the concept was to create a show where Ariana and the other performers coexisted, not the kind where the artist is featured with the dancers in the back. She personally checked everything including costumes, staging, and choreography, so I think we were able to present a show that packed everything she wanted to express in it.

How did you start your career as a dancer in the States after moving there when you were 21 years old?

I got into dancing when I was 11 years old, but there were no schools specializing in hip-hop and street dance in Okayama Prefecture, where I'm from. So I learned how to dance at classes held in our local fitness club.

I moved to Tokyo after graduating high school, but lost my passion for dancing when I got there and quit. I then went to the States when I was 21, but it wasn't to pursue dancing. I wanted to make a fresh start and build my life from scratch in a new place.

I spent about a year studying at a language school, but got tired of just going back and forth between home and school. Then a friend of mine invited me to the dance studio where she attended. I hadn't danced in five years at that point, so wasn't sure about going at first, but once I took some classes, I realized that it was what I wanted to do. I recalled seeing dancers on awards shows and tours on TV back in Japan, and after regaining my passion for dancing, I began to seriously work towards making it my career.

Did you begin working right away after that?

No way, not at all! I hadn't danced in five years, so day after day it'd be like, I'd be scolded during training each day, come home and cry out of frustration, then go back and train again the next day.

After about two years of that, an acquaintance told me that a choreographer was holding a private audition the next day and had asked for me to come. So I went to a studio in Hollywood the next day. There were about maybe 20 or so dancers there, and each of us was called into a room with no explanation and told to freestyle around a substitute man.

I was later told in the waiting room that "rehearsals start tomorrow," and learned after passing the audition that it was for Justin Bieber's music video.

You unknowingly passed an audition for Justin Bieber's video?

Yes, but I was unable to participate in it! I needed a visa to work, but when I consulted with a lawyer, I was informed that it would be hard for me to obtain the necessary visa because I had no career to speak of in Japan. So I had to hurry back home. I'd never worked as a dancer in Tokyo, so I had to start from zero again.

How did you build your career from there?

Dancer auditions aren't very common in Japan, so I gradually began appearing in late-night dance events. Then one day, I got a chance to audition, and the first tour I participated in Japan was for (Johnny's idol singer/actor) Tomohisa Yamashita. I then began performing in Namie Amuro's tour, and around the time I got hired for the second time for her tour, I was able to obtain my U.S. working visa. After returning to L.A., I performed in many shows by artists including TLC, Nicki Minaj and Justin Bieber.

Unlike people who obtained their visas when they were 20 and started working in the U.S. at a younger age than me, it took me a long time to get to where I am now. It took me four years to obtain my visa, so I strongly felt that I shouldn't be wasting a second of my time. I was determined and focused, probably more so than anyone, so I think that's why I was able to pass auditions for various top artists after returning to L.A.

Do you notice any differences between working in Japan and in the States?

As dancers, the things we worry and dream about are the same no matter where we're from. But I think the careers of dancers are treated with more respect in the U.S. than Japan. There are many dancers who also work as actors on TV and film and appear in commercials while also performing onstage. I also appear in a number of commercials and my career has also branched out.

People like me are called "back dancers" in Japanese, and while "back-up dancers" is commonly used in English as well, I don't like those terms. When I'm onstage, I consider myself an entertainer. I don't think I'd be where I am now if I considered myself the backdrop for artists.

I try to be aware of the aspects that are uniquely mine, and my own personal strengths. Watching other dancers around me, the people who are selected out of the thousands who audition are those who understand the meaning of and the reason why they're onstage.

Did you always feel that way from the beginning?

No, gradually as I gained experience. Speaking from experience, here in the States, the dancers are always referred to by name, and everybody respects each other when they're performing together. After working like that for some time, I've come to feel more and more that I'm standing onstage as an entertainer. I'm inspired every day by the people who stand onstage alongside me, and that has built my self-confidence.

What do you have lined up in the near future?

I'm participating in Justin Bieber's upcoming tour, his first in three years. Just the other day, I met everyone again for the first time in three years for the "Yummy" music video shoot. It was a strange feeling, thinking that we were all gathered in the same place again after going through different things and maturing for that length of time. We're currently rehearsing, and everyone is filled with positive energy like, "We're gonna make something new and more amazing than ever before!"

What would you like to take on in the next decade?

I feel so differently now compared to when I began working professionally in the States five years ago, so I frankly don't know how I'll feel in the next five or 10 years. How I feel about dancing has changed greatly, that's for sure. Five years ago, making a living as a dancer was a dream that I hoped would come true, but now, dancing is life itself.

Up until recently, I just wanted to get a little bit closer to fulfilling my own dream, but these past few years, I've begun thinking about what I can pass on to the younger generation. I hold workshops whenever I return to Japan, and people I've never met but who know me from my social media and such come out to meet me. People have approached me and said, "My life has changed thanks to you. I want to be like you so I'm moving to L.A. next year," with tears in their eyes because they were so glad to see me.

My life and work in L.A. comes with much greater responsibilities now. I feel pressure and conflicted at times; this business isn't just about the glamour like many people think. So those words from younger people really keep me going now.

So, you want to be a mentor to the next generation?

When I returned to Tokyo because of my visa at 24, I expected to be able to go back to L.A. right away, so I didn't clear out my apartment and just left everything there. But it took me two years to go back! My life is so haphazard, isn't it?

I've always lived each moment to the fullest, though, literally as if my life depended on it, so I have no regrets. During the two years I was in Tokyo and couldn't obtain my working visa, I'd dream almost every night that I was back in L.A. and wake up looking horrible from crying. I still remember that as if it were yesterday. But I didn't give up. I'm much stronger mentally today because I overcame that period in my life.

I grew up in an ordinary household in rural southwestern Japan until I turned 18 years old. By showing that a person like me can stay competitive on the global stage, I'd like to show that as long as you don't give up, your dream can come true, and signify hope for someone out there.

I'd also like to support people who want to work outside of Japan and become a bridge between Japan and the U.S. I've been supported by so many people during my career, so I feel that this is the way I can pay their kindness forward.