A few weeks ago, a memorable video made the rounds of the usual Internet hangouts. It featured a pale, beautiful, blond-haired singer named YOHIO with huge dark eyes, wearing pigtails and a Lolita-style ensemble and playing a white guitar.
How a Swedish teenager brought Japan to its knees
The song, called "Sky*Limit," is a full-on Japanese rock ballad, evocative of a musical subgenre called visual kei that celebrates dramatic fashion and a androgynous look not unlike that of David Bowie's Ziggy Stardust.
However, YOHIO is not Japanese. In fact, he's not even female.
Raised in a musical family, the Swedish teenager was already in a visual kei band called Seremedy at the age of 14. After making the rounds at several conventions, the band signed with Nintone Records/Universal Music Japan in 2011. And this year, YOHIO released his solo debut album, "Reach the Sky."
To promote the album, YOHIO appeared at Shinjuku Station Square in Tokyo and drew a crowd of 6,000 [Japanese website]. He's also appeared on several Japanese television shows.
YOHIO proudly describes himself as a "bishouen" - a Japanese word that literally translates to "beautiful youth." The trend of men toeing the line between masculine and feminine looks has long existed in the culture, as evidenced by the popularity of male idols with distinctly feminine stylings.
A Swedish native suddenly becoming a Japanese superstar is apparently not an impossibility, but it certainly does turn heads. According to his blog on the Japanese social networking site AMEBA, YOHIO's interest in Japan was stirred up by seeing anime when he was a 10-year-old. His interest pushed him to learn the language, follow Japanese blogs and keep up with Japanese celebrities on Twitter. And now, only six years later, he's performing in front of Japanese audiences on stage.
YOHIO is not the first foreigner to take a love of the culture to such heights. British teenager Beckii Cruel made a name for herself with a Japanese audience in a more unusual way: by posting videos of herself dancing to well-known songs from anime on her YouTube channel. Cruel often cosplayed as her favorite characters in these videos as well. She attracted the attention of Japanese fans, who loved her performances so much that she ranked as the 17th most subscribed YouTube channel in Japan.
Japanese performers have attempted the same breakthroughs in America, but not always to the tone of success. Bestselling Japanese pop artist Utada Hikaru has broken record after record in her home country, including three albums in Japan's top ten bestsellers of all time, but both of her English-language releases have been flops in comparison. Pop idol Jin Akanishi also attempted a similar debut by teaming up with hip-hop artist Jason Derulo, releasing an English language single called "Test Drive." In a rarer display of success, this effort was decently well-received, topping the US iTunes dance charts the week of its release.
It's clear that if foreigners strike just the right nerve, the Japanese will accept them with open arms. But what is that special formula?
Zac Bentz, Japanese music expert and the owner of ZB's A-Z of J-Music, says that Japan's curiosity about what's going on in the rest of the world lends to their open-mindedness towards stars like YOHIO.
"YOHIO’s style and presentation is rather commonplace in Japan, but if he tried to make the same moves in America, he would be laughed straight out of the country, " Bentz explained.
"Japan is not only used to this sort of thing, but they’re also curious about what’s going on in the rest of the world in a way that not many other countries are. So when they see someone doing something “their” way, it’s a sort of reverse culture shock, like, 'Why do you like what we’re doing so much? How did you find out about this in the first place?'"
Go, the man behind the J Rock NYC website, says that Japan's acceptance of YOHIO is rooted in issues of self-esteem.
"YOHIO is a unique novelty, of course, but more essentially, I think the younger Japanese like seeing THEIR stuff being copied, instead of Japanese bands copying American and British punk, rock, and metal acts and always being five years behind the curve. I think YOHIO's Japanese fans just like having their scene being reflected back at them, that the globalness of it all reinforces its importance, and helps justify and enhance their own fandom. Also, he's ridiculously fun to look at (and listen to)!"
Bentz also believes that foreigners strike a chord with native Japanese by showing that they have mastered the language.
"The language barrier is a huge thing, so I’m sure it’s even more amusing to have this dude come seemingly from out of nowhere with all the requisite trappings to fit into the visual kei scene right out of the gate. "
"It’s probably a fantasy come true for a lot of fans. Something new from outside, but that they can understand perfectly at the same time."