“We were able to recognize our limits, and in the future we want to break through those barriers and go to the next level.” member Noel Kawashima tells Billboard over video chat from the seven-member outfit’s current home in Los Angeles, flanked by his partners on both sides.
The J-pop idol unit — consisting of Kawashima, Genta Matsuda, Kaito Matsukura, Kaito Miyachika, Kaito Nakamura, Ryuya Shimekake and Shizuya Yoshizawa — captured attention both in the States and back home thanks to their time on the talent competition show, particularly for their audition performance, featuring Broadway-ready pizazz and heaps of energy.
The significance though, goes further. Travis Japan’s appearance was the rare moment where a contemporary J-pop group appeared on U.S. network television, perhaps the first artist to do so since Babymetal went on The Late Show With Stephen Colbert in 2016. More tellingly, it signals a change in attitude towards the music market beyond Japan for one of the country’s largest entertainment companies, a behemoth at home but historically reluctant to venture abroad.
Travis Japan – named after American choreographer Travis Payne, who helped put the group together in 2012 – belongs to Johnny & Associates, a talent agency founded in 1962. In the decades since, they’ve created some of the most popular pop groups in Japanese music history, such as SMAP, Arashi and Kinki Kids. Many outside Japan have long been interested in their groups, while their idol training system — which includes a developmental department called Johnny’s Jr., which Travis Japan have belonged to since forming — inspired the way pop acts form and debut in South Korea.
Johnny’s, though, long shunned the internet entirely in favor of physical media and the ability to control how their acts were presented to the world, to the point where artwork for physical releases couldn’t be shown on online retailers such as Amazon. As pop embraced the internet and looked global, Johnny’s — and J-pop — stayed grounded.
The group, however, shows how the situation is changing. They were one of the first Johnny’s groups featured on the agency’s debut YouTube channel — launched in 2018 — while their time on America’s Got Talent coincided with a longer stay in Los Angeles.
“In my opinion, we didn’t have any ‘let’s do X’ in our mind. We wanted to find out what that ‘X’ was,” Genta Matsuda says. “We wanted to broaden our horizons, experience as many new things as we could.” That included appearing at the city’s annual Anime Expo event or taking part in the World Of Dance competition.
And also staring down harsher judgment. While their first performance on America’s Got Talent went well, Travis Japan’s semi-final appearance aired earlier in September received more pointed criticism from the judges. ”It seemed like a parody,” judge Howie Mandel said, referring to their singing and flashy wardrobe. It was like a Saturday Night Live sketch. If Liza Minnelli goes to Japan and puts together a boy band, this is what it looks like.”
“As Johnny’s acts, there’s this feeling that we are always supported and protected by a whole network, the agency goes to great lengths to create this idol image where there’s never really a chance for an idol to show their bad side,” Kawashima says, noting they have nothing but love for the judges. “We could step out of that bubble and test our strengths.”
For Johnny’s and J-pop at large, the web is no longer something to shun, but has been embraced, with streaming up in the country and a wider range of artists making their music available internationally. While acts under Johnny’s umbrella have yet to come around to subscription streaming, more have turned to YouTube, with young acts such as SixTONES and Snow Man showing greater global ambitions.
Travis Japan, which regularly sees millions of views on music uploads to Youtube and perform at sold-out shows at home,, plan on staying in Southern California for a little while longer, where they hope to continue improving in the wake of the show and think of their next move. “Both us and Johnny’s are setting off into uncharted waters,” Kawashima says, adding they are thinking of how to go forward now.
Below, Travis Japan talks with Billboard about America’s Got Talent, adjusting to LA and their inter-group relationship.
Since your time on America’s Got Talent came to an end, what have you guys been up to? What has life been like?
KAITO MATSUKURA: We’ve just kept practicing, going to our dance lessons. The very next day, actually, we were back at the dance studio to learn, and then doing vocal training as well.
NOEL KAWASHIMA: Usually, we have one vocal training class in a week, but after America’s Got Talent, we’ve upped it to two or three in one week. We realized we have to practice even more than we had been before, because the judges told us we had to. [Laughs.] So…we signed up for more.
I wanted to go back a bit. Travis Japan has spent a lot of 2022 in California. When did you decide to spend time in the United States?
KAITO MIYACHIKA: It has been a goal we’ve had actually since we came together. Our group was made with help from [American choreographer] Travis Payne, and from the start there was always the intention of doing something overseas. It’s part of our DNA. At that time, no plans were set, but it was always in the background of Travis Japan. Two years ago, though, we started talking more about wanting to make it a reality.
KAWASHIMA: Two years ago was when we brought it up with our company.
MIYACHIKA: Then the global situation changed our plans. But we never abandoned that ambition, and made it happen this year.
Travis Japan has been based in LA for most of the year. What do you like about the city?
KAWASHIMA: The personality of the city, and the way it lets us open up ourselves and our minds. We don’t have to hide anything. We can express our feelings with other people, like friends here or other students at the dance studio. Oh, and the climate! The weather is great.
SHIZUYA YOSHIZAWA: I’m a big basketball fan, and I found a local court in our neighborhood. When I get a chance, I like to go there and shoot hoops. I’ve also had the chance to meet a lot of people on the courts, which has been a great way to learn more about L.A.
How about challenges to getting used to L.A.?
MATSUKURA: I was shocked by how people introduce themselves to one another. It’s not like Japan — people stare one another in the eyes, hug another. That took time to get used to.
MIYACHIKA: There isn’t a lot of public transportation here. Japan has way more compared to here.
Before America’s Got Talent, what were some of the experiences that stuck with you?
MATSUKURA: The World Of Dance competition really stuck out to me. The Orange County leg of it actually happened the day after we arrived in the United States. We had one day in the country and then we were in this competition. Being able to advance to the championships was great, and that was special too. Each of us contributed to the choreography, so it was a group effort. We were able to show off our individual skills, but also bring them together as a team.
KAWASHIMA: The producer of America’s Got Talent saw us perform at World Of Dance, in Orange County. He contacted us after that, and asked “do you guys want to be on the show?” Like…of course, absolutely, why not!?
How did it feel being on the stage?
KAWASHIMA: We were so nervous. We had to speak in English in front of the judges, audience and…many, many cameras. We were almost too nervous to perform. But the show must go on.
Did any of you have any background in English? Were you studying it, seeing as Travis Japan had global ambitions from the start? Or was it something you kind of crammed for before the show?
KAWASHIMA: I’m fortunate that I had the chance to study abroad in Australia, and experience being a kindergarten teacher while I was there, for one month. But none of the other members…they only have the English education you get in Japanese schools.
So did they make you do everything requiring English?
KAWASHIMA: Yes. [Laughs.]. That’s because the audition phase for America’s Got Talent was filmed in April, so not long after we came. We’ve been studying more since.
What did you want to show the United States, or the world for that matter, about Japan and Japanese music?
MATSUKURA: Just getting to show off the potential and the skills that Japanese artists have to the world, especially the dance skills and synchronicity that Travis Japan specializes in. We wanted to show off what Japan — and especially the younger generations in Japan — can offer to entertainment in the world.
How has your relationship with one another changed since coming to L.A. and going on America’s Got Talent?
MATSUKURA: Going into these new circumstances gave us a new perspective on how each of us reacts to the situations we are in. One instance that I remember is seeing how Noel take charge and used his English skills during the interview portions of America’s Got Talent. Seeing how he took responsibility and pushed himself showed us — well, first it actually let us relax a bit and get in the right mindset for the actual performance — but it also made us realize the special things we can each contribute to the group, and make these new experiences happen. It inspired us to figure out what we do.
KAWASHIMA: That’s so nice of you to say.
What do you want to do together while you are still in LA?
GENTA MATSUDA: What I want to do is continue strengthening our relationship as a group, and also just enjoy the time we have left. That includes going to Disneyland. In Japan, Tokyo Disneyland is popular, but we really want to experience the original park. And we want to have fun together and celebrate the work we’ve done.