End of the World, a Tokyo-based J-pop group known as Sekai No Owari in their home country, is looking to accomplish what no other Japanese artist has done in the last 53 years: have a huge hit in America. The last Japanese-based vocalist to rule the Billboard Hot 100 with a No. 1 song was Kyu Sakamoto, who reigned for three weeks in 1963 with “Sukiyaki.”
That song is arguably the most famous Japanese-language song in the known universe, and to celebrate its worldwide popularity, End of the World have recorded their own version, released this week as an exclusive on Spotify.
In Japan, the quartet went from playing their own homemade 60-seat venue, Club Earth, to selling out the 72,000-seat Nissan Stadium in Yokohoma two nights in a row. On Wednesday night (Aug. 17), they will return to an intimate venue, as they make their U.S. live debut at the Roxy on Sunset Boulevard in West Hollywood. Next week, they have an Aug. 23 date at the Bowery Ballroom in New York.
What makes the four members of End of the World believe that they can be the first Japanese act to make it big in America since Sakamoto? “We have passion,” says Fukase, talking to Billboard with his group at Vitello’s in Studio City, just before going to the Hollywood Bowl for the first time to enjoy an evening of classical music. The band also has the experience in Japan of starting out with a handful of fans and watching that number growing to a few hundred the first year. Then they played those stadium dates with a combined audience of 144,000. That gives the quartet the confidence that they can build a large fanbase in America.
Going by just their first names, three of the members of End of the World have known each other for a long time. “I met Fukase when I was in kindergarten,” says Saori, the only female member of End of the World. “We grew up together. When I was 5, I went to a classical concert. A friend of mine in the neighborhood who was also 5 was giving a piano concert. After her performance, she received flowers on the stage. And I really wanted to get flowers so I asked my parents for lessons.” At first they refused, telling Saori that if she wasn’t going to stick to her lessons, she shouldn’t even start. “But I really wanted those flowers and I asked for lessons many times and finally, I started studying classical piano.” Gifted with perfect pitch, Saori continued to study classical music in high school and university.
Fukase’s musical journey began when he was 12 and his father took him to the movies to see Blues Brothers 2000. “I was so excited and interested and then my father bought me a blues harp and the soundtrack to the movie. It was the first time I was inspired by music.”
In elementary school, Fukase and Saori met Nakajin. “I was 6 and in first grade,” he says. “I studied the piano from when I was 5 to 12. My parents suggested that but I didn’t like it very much. When I was 7, I was fascinated by video game music. I would stop playing the game and just listen to the music.” His favorite game was Final Fantasy. “That was my first impression of music.” In their junior high years, Fukase and Nakajin met every day after school to play music. “I wanted to join them,” says Saori, “but my keyboard was too big to be portable and I couldn’t bring it with me.
“After high school, we started our band, when I was 19 years old,” Saori continues. They performed original songs as well as cover versions of songs by Japanese artists who inspired them, including Bump of Chicken. Later, when they needed a new fourth member, they found DJ Love, who is the only person in the group who can walk around Tokyo without being recognized, as he dresses as a clown for all of the group’s live performances and videos. “I started playing guitar in high school but I wasn’t very good,” says DJ Love. “I loved [sound] effects and collected them.”
Fukase named the group “Sekai No Owari,” which does literally translate as “End of the World,” when he was a teenager facing a bout of depression. “When I was 19, I touched the bottom in my life. I felt like my world was ending.”
The foursome’s biggest hits to date include “RPG” (which topped Billboard‘s Japan Hot 100), “SOS,” “Dragon Night” and “Mr. Heartache.” The latter was co-produced by Owl City, who featured the group on his own song, “Tokyo.” “I’m a big fan of Owl City from the time he debuted,” says Nakajin. “Our manager texted him and he replied — it was a miracle.” Later, when Owl City had a live date in Tokyo, he met the group at a local yakitori restaurant and that led to him working on “Mr. Heartache.” “He sent us four or five song ideas and we picked one and built it up and exchanged data via email,” Nakajin explains.
The group has recorded nine of their songs in English. Fukase elaborates: “Four years ago, I said we have to go overseas, because it seemed like it would be fun. So I thought we should study English, as well as the culture [in America].” Fukase called upon an American friend in Japan to spend time with the group to help them understand what life was like in the U.S.
Now, End of the World is not only spending time in America and making their live debut, they are also working on their first full English-language album, with plans for a U.S. release in 2017.