J-pop star Mika Nakashima sat down with Billboard Japan for its Women in Music interview series highlighting women flourishing in the Japanese music industry. The initiative launched this year in the same spirit of Billboard’s annual event celebrating women since 2007. Billboard Japan aims to elevate women who continue to break new ground in Japan’s music business through contents including interviews, live performances, and panel discussions.
For over 20 years since her sensational debut, Nakashima has continued to take on new projects while staying true to her unique style. This year, the 39-year-old singer released a self-produced album with songs she wrote herself, aptly entitled I. “‘Mika Nakashima’ is the work of the supporters around me,” she notes, and true to her words, she established her career by maintaining the flexibility to update herself by being open to the voices of the people around her.
Were there any women you looked up to as as role models growing up?
Mika Nakashima: I suppose it’s the same for anyone when they’re little, but the cool women in my life were my mother and older sister. Still, I thought my mom was an ordinary parent until I went out into society, but as I began working part-time and the number of adults around me increased, I realized that my mom was pretty awesome and started noticing the great things about her. I still remember a lot of the things she said to me and I think I listened to her because I longed to be like her at the time.
She sounds like a lovely person. Could you share something she said that you still take to heart?
Among many things, she often used to say, “If you borrow something, return it cleaner than when you borrowed it.” I still think back to this and it’s become my foundation of sorts. I mean, literally, it’s important to treat something you’ve borrowed with care and return it in a clean state, but recently I’ve been interpreting it more like, “Even my body is something being borrowed and must be returned to the gods in a clean state.” I know this sounds kind of woo-woo [laughs] but because of my mom’s words, I’ve come to think that I need to be prepared to return everything in a beautiful way. I’m grateful to my mom for giving me words during my childhood that are like hints still relevant today as an adult.
Has your image of an ideal woman changed with age and experience?
It hasn’t changed much. I admire cool women and have always wanted to be one. When I was younger, I think I was aiming for a more superficial, visual coolness, but now I know that the quality has to come from within and adjusting the surface isn’t enough. “Being cool” is about how you live your life, and age and experience helped me realize that.
What’s your definition of a cool woman?
Someone who has the ability to be open to the ideas of those around her and to organize them. Maybe it’s because I work in the music industry, but I feel that it’s easier to stick to your own opinion and that it’s more difficult but important to take in the ideas of the people around you. Thankfully, I’m surrounded by talented people and consider it my role to do what I can to let them show their strengths and enjoy themselves.
That’s a great way of thinking. When did you start thinking this way?
Since my debut, and this idea hasn’t changed for a long time. I started working in the industry when I was 18 years old, completely clueless, and wouldn’t have been able to do anything without the help of the people around me. They took me by the hand and taught me every step of the way each day, and I’ve always thought that I just happened to be the one with the role of singing in front of the audience.
Are there any parts that have changed?
In terms of lyrics, there are some aspects that I interpret differently now than in the past, when I had less experience. When asked to sing songs from the past, some artists seem to feel, “But my current ones are good, too,” but I consider it a valuable opportunity to express a new aspect of those songs that can be performed because I’m the person I am today. In the past, I think that by singing those songs, I was trying to bring myself closer to the image of the strong woman being depicted in them.
As you said, many fans must consider you as being strong and cool, but is there a gap between who you really are and your public image?
I’m glad if people consider me that way, but that image and the actual me are probably completely different. But that doesn’t mean the image of “Mika Nakashima” is something we intentionally created. It’s just that I was too nervous and shy to speak well when I appeared on music programs on TV, or that my facial features look cold. All of those things added up to create the image. I’m actually a lively person that gets everyone involved, and am loud in my dressing room. Meeting people and chatting with them helps me relieve stress.
Did you find it stressful to have that gap between your public image and real self?
It was actually nice for me that people thought of me differently. I must have been intimidating or something but not too many people came up to me, so that worked out well because I’m pretty shy. I don’t really mind if people come up and talk to me, though.
You wrote all the lyrics and music for your self-produced album released in May. How does the songwriting process affect you?
When I write lyrics, I feel kind of glad that I have my emotional ups and downs. There were times when I felt bad about myself for being that way, but I’m able to write songs because I feel all kinds of emotions. I have to face myself when I’m writing lyrics so it releases stress and I find words I want to say to myself. I also sometimes hold up an ideal, thinking, “I want to be the kind of person who would say such things.”
Does being a woman influence your musical activities, including songwriting?
I thought about this again for this interview, but I personally don’t think it’s influenced me too much. It doesn’t matter if I wear a skirt or pants onstage, or use “boku” as the first person (generally used by men) in my lyrics. One thing I did think of, though, is that women (in Japan) are more likely to be accepted if they’re “innocuous.” For example, I have tattoos. Sometimes when I upload a photo of myself wearing something that shows a tattoo, some online media writes an article on it. I’ve been fortunate enough not to bear the brunt of this general tendency to put people down for standing out, but it’d be sad if there are artists who hold back from expressing something because of it.
Are there any female artists or songs that empower you?
To be honest without being shy, the artist I like the best right now is me. My songs are the ones I want to listen to. I probably feel this way because of the things I’ve accumulated over the past 20 years. I had no confidence at all in the past and used to stand on stage feeling apologetic. I made countless mistakes, and there were times when I was depressed because of my hearing problems. But now I’m able to create works that I think are fabulous. I can’t quit this job until I give back to the people who’ve supported me.
Listen to an exclusive playlist curated by Mika Nakashima below or here.
—This interview by Rio Hirai (SOW SOWEET PUBLISHING) first appeared on Billboard Japan.