Japanese dancer Maasa Ishihara sat down with Billboard Japan for its Women in Music interview series. The initiative launched last year in the same spirit of Billboard’s annual Women in Music event that began in 2007, and the Japan-based project also aims to celebrate women who continue to break new ground in music through various contents including interviews, live performances, and panel discussions.
Ishihara is a performer based in the U.S. who has shared the stage with some of today’s top artists including Justin Bieber and Ariana Grande. While she has enjoyed success in recent years, she almost gave up on her dancing career at one point and made a fresh start in the U.S. after moving there when she was 21 years old. Here, she shares some personal routines she uses to stay grounded in the highly competitive entertainment industry, and talks about the importance of accepting each other’s differences.
You’ve built your career outside of Japan, but what was your childhood like? If there were any women you looked up to growing up, could you tell us about them?
I was born in Okayama City, Okayama Prefecture (in southwestern Japan). During my early elementary school years, I saw (J-pop superstar) Namie Amuro on TV and became obsessed with her. I wanted to be like her. There were no dance schools in my neighborhood, so I started singing and dancing by following her example, and that’s how it all began. Back then it was rare to see a female artist performing on stage with backup dancers (in Japan), and I’ll never forget that electrifying feeling when I first saw her.
I always thought I felt that way about Amuro because she represented a kind of tough woman that didn’t exist around me growing up, but recently I’ve come to realize that my mother was also a woman with inner strength. My mom wasn’t a very chatty type of person, but she always quietly watched over me and supported me. The reason why I’ve been able to come this far longing to be like Amuro is probably because strong women felt familiar to me since childhood, thanks to my mom.
So you’ve always admired women with inner strength, from those close to you to stars you saw on TV. Has that feeling been consistent then and now?
Basically, yes. I’ve lived in the U.S., where people with dreams come from all over the world, and have made a living in the entertainment scene where things can change dramatically in a year or two, so it was really important for me to be resolute. In my 20s, though, there were times when I became unsure of myself and struggled to become something I wasn’t. But ultimately, things like magnetism and strength are things you already have, so you just have to look for what you have and hone them. Now that I’m in my 30s, I’ve harked back to my roots and feel a renewed admiration for women like my mom and Namie Amuro.
You went to the U.S. by yourself and won your place in the entertainment industry there. How did you remain consistent? Do you have any tips or tricks you could share with us?
I adopted a lot of different methods until I settled into my own way of doing things. Starting from trivial stuff like, “Do I drink warm water or coffee first thing in the morning?” I eventually found my way to meditation. I think it’s really important to have a morning routine to get yourself into the right frame of mind for the day. When I wake up, I first keep my eyes closed before I pick up my smartphone and try not to think about anything. It’s actually hard not to think about anything. But I make a conscious effort to set aside 10 minutes to do that each day. When I reset myself like this, I can think, “What happened yesterday ended yesterday. I don’t know what today will be like, but I’ll give it my all.”
Therapy is also important. In Japan, the concept of mental care isn’t very familiar, but in the U.S., mental health counseling is common. People go to the gym to become physically fit or to the hairdresser to get their hair styled, right? In the same way, people go to therapy to treat their mental health. It’s important to take care of your mind as well.
So you learned to control your own mental wellness through meditation and therapy?
Yes. Life has its ups and downs, and we all tend to focus on the bad. But you can’t change something that has already happened. So letting it slide for the time being is effective. Even if you feel like you’re still in the midst of a difficult situation, try setting the problem aside and think about what you can do towards the future. And try to “stay ready” instead of “getting ready.” Then once the wave of difficulty passes, you can immediately seize the next opportunity. I try to be in that “staying ready” state both mentally and physically.
Your words are convincing because you’ve really seized those opportunities. Do you think being a woman has affected your career in any way?
Yes, being a woman and a foreigner in the U.S., I’ve felt the effects of various obstacles. It’s a tough industry for a woman to survive as an artist. Sometimes we’re regarded as sexual object in inappropriate situations by undesired people, or we’re underestimated or belittled for being a woman. Even if I was “staying ready,” I wasn’t allowed to stand at the starting line at times. Racial discrimination also persists. For example, no matter how hard I try to speak English, I’m not a native speaker and my pronunciation isn’t great. And because of that, I’m seen as being immature. I can’t count the number of times I felt mortified because people wouldn’t take me as seriously as others no matter how I sincerely I try to communicate. These kinds of things have been going on for a long time in general, but with the #MeToo movement and other reasons, the public has finally become aware of such problems in recent years and moments when minorities have their say are more common now.
Do you feel those influences in the entertainment scene?
I think you can sense the energy of creators trying to break down gender stereotypes in performances. While this is something that’s been done for a while, I get a sense that people are trying to pursue another level of open expression in recent years.
It feels like the number of artists who defy the boundaries of gender is gradually increasing in Japan as well. Likewise, the number of women who speak out and those who support them are increasing as well, but there still seems to be a lot of resistance.
Since moving to the States when I was 21, the biggest change from my days in Japan has been the daily contact with people of various races, backgrounds, faiths and genders. Being born in Japan and growing up in an environment where most of the people around me were Japanese, it took me some time to accept, understand, and coexist with those various differences. I realized that the things I thought were normal up till then were only a fraction of the many ways thinking and values that exist in the world, and felt the need to completely reset the things I thought were a given. I needed to understand, learn, and acknowledge those things that are different from me. When I shifted my way of thinking to “everyone is different and everyone is good,” my perspective broadened. Not only did I learn to accept differences, but I also began to spend time looking into myself, which led to a new awareness of my own identity and the beauty of Japan.
It’s not easy for anyone to accept people and things that are different from themselves and the unknown that they’ve never experienced. It’s scary. But taking that first step and experiencing a 180-degree change in the way I see things was an extremely valuable life lesson. I feel that if people around the world could accept and respect each other’s differences, we’ll be that much closer to world peace.
Check out an exclusive playlist of empowerment songs curated by Maas Ishihara below.
—This interview by Rio Hirai (SOW SOWEET PUBLISHING) first appeared on Billboard Japan