James Collins is an American living in Japan with a dream. And that dream is managing one of Japan’s first all-foreigner J-Pop idol groups.
His vision of an international boy band in Japan, who dance and sing in Japanese, has been in the works for more than two years. The group, Colorfuuul, is made up of young-and-alluring foreigners, but their reaching the status of ultra-sensations like AKB48 or Arashi is a long way off.
It’s been a rocky start for Collins, a Virginia-native who moved to Japan in 2013 to pursue a master’s degree in journalism. The band, originally called Guyjin48 (“gaijin” -- actually pronounced "guy-jean" -- means foreigner in Japanese) had five members, an EP and was set to debut during this past summer with its new name “Colorfuuul.”
But three out of the five original members dropped out. The boys who are left are Roma from France, who collects stamps and does figure skating, and Jay from South Korea, who plays guitar and loves anime.
Facing an industry dominated by ironclad entertainment groups like “Johnnys,” Collins insists the band is not about cash but about culture. Still, Colorfuuul represents what boy bands are about. You know, the jutting cheekbones, matching outfits and that debonair “girl-I-know-what-you-need” look in their eyes — but with an altruistic approach by Collins to unite culture, music and bend Japan’s stiff us-vs.-them social barriers.
Even with setbacks, Collins is moving forward and is currently auditioning for new members. Colorfuuul will continue at the moment as a two-person band and has had two concerts in the Tokyo area since last month.
Japan Today had a chance to catch up with Collins, who discussed the three u’s in the name, why he wanted to do this in the first place, and of course, the haters.
I am interested in how and why a journalism student at Waseda University decided to take a left turn and start a pop culture project? Why not do a project in journalism or politics?
I thought of creating an all-foreign idol group back in 2013 when I first moved to Japan, well before my journalistic aspirations at Waseda University. Sitting in my tiny apartment watching an AKB48 music video, I imagined an interesting variation with foreign vocalists who sang original songs in Japanese to a Japanese audience.
As a sociologist by training, I look for connections, similarities and synthesis. Moreover, journalism is about outreach and communication, so the connection between my studies and our project seems natural to me and far from a left turn. Also, I have to pick a topic to report on in Japanese for my last semester at Waseda. What topic could I understand better than something I have created with my own hands?
Why did you change the name from Guyjin48 to Colorfuuul?
Some people were strongly against me using any play on the word gaijin. My music producer also suggested that the name Guyjin would probably not be met with Japanese approval. Though I thought the name was clever and catchy, I decided it best to avoid the potentially negative connotation. The name Guyjin48 came to me in an epiphany one day five years ago and I became quite attached to it. Coming up with a new one took quite a while.
Why does Colorfuuul have three u’s?
The three U’s in Colorfuuul stand for Universal, United, and Unified. Colorful is obviously a widely used word, so we needed a way to distinguish ourselves. Inserting three U’s was the solution. Someone told me to make it 8 U’s. Three is enough.
What is the significance of the name Colorfuuul?
The name actually came from a Japanese graphic designer who accompanied us on a group photo-shoot. He thought the members had great personalities and the multinational aspect was very colorful, so he said we should make that our name. Each of our members speaks Japanese and embraces Japanese culture, but each was shaped by his unique native land. We represent a colorful blend of old and new.
In a previous interview, you said the band “could help people have a better understanding and acceptance of foreign cultures.” How do you think the band has done this so far?
That is a pretty difficult question at this point. We are just starting. With the (Tokyo) Summer Olympics approaching in 2020, and as it attracts a foreign influx to supplement its graying workforce, Japan is gradually creating an environment that is easier to navigate for both foreign residents and their Japanese neighbors. I just hope we can contribute to making that transition as smooth as possible by promoting mutual respect, while celebrating the culture and traditions of the country we have chosen for study, work, and life.
Why is it important to you for the group to have international representation?
I certainly could have made the group entirely one ethnicity or one nationality, but that would have defeated my purpose. I wanted to feature the variety of people living in Japan, showing that although we come from different backgrounds and cultures and were raised differently, we are all focused on being a part of Japanese society and communicating in Japanese.
How have fans responded to the band so far?
There has been quite a bit of good reaction from J-Pop fans overseas. Once we get our media break in Japan, I am sure we will have a mostly positive reception here as well. I must note that our diversity may attract criticism based on historical antagonism and cross-cultural misunderstandings. In today’s world of social media and unrestrained instant reactions, it’s only a matter of time. Still I hope that we can be a catalyst for conversation and change in the minds of those people who may harbor negative stereotypes.
What kind of negative feedback have you gotten about the band from other foreigners?
Most of the negative feedback has been from J-Pop fans living in the West who are used to things a certain way and the complaints are what you would expect: not enough diversity, not my style, not my sound. It’s unavoidable and sometimes people don’t even need a reason.
On top of that, some foreigners might see me in the image of an exploitive outsider, guilty of cultural appropriation for pure profit all the while remaining apart from Japanese culture. It might reflect badly on them as foreigners in their adoptive society if that were true. However, the truth is that I feel even more at home in Japan than I did back in Virginia and want to make my contribution.
Who writes the music, lyrics and produces the music?
Shinnosuke, the trackmaster from Soul’d Out* is our music producer. By remarkably good fortune, I met Michael Bodin of Last Call** while I was teaching English (he was also teaching) and described my idea. He found it interesting. We got back in touch when I committed to forming the group. Michael remembered our conversation and was able to arrange an introduction to Shinnosuke.
Is it difficult to strike a balance between appealing to a Japanese audience and have the members represent different cultures? How do you deal with that?
As a group we have a shared respect and passion for Japanese culture and language. I make sure we never forget that. We are not really trying to provide a crash course in multiculturalism. Each member of Colorfuuul represents the bridge between the world and Japan with his voice. It is the harmonious blending of those voices in Japanese that we want people to hear and feel. The impression of unified difference is what I want to convey.
Do you have any personal experience of the Japanese system or Japanese people not being accepting of foreigners?
I expect my experience is not uncommon. There are plenty of people who either avoid interaction completely or deal with me based on some general stereotype they have picked up. They are used to foreigners who come and go for their own selfish purposes without letting themselves be touched by Japan.
For example, when people look at me they don’t expect me to speak Japanese and are incredibly surprised when I do. Whenever I am introduced as an American by Japanese friends and associates they will always add that I am one of the smart ones (or good ones). Still I know I am on probation, expected eventually to do something wrong. There are a lot of reasons for Japanese people to think that way, but there are many reasons to think otherwise. Getting people to realize this is, of course, another reason for Colorfuuul.
What type of meaningful change in Japan do you hope to bring about with Colorfuuul?
I hope this can become a platform for a more positive conversation regarding the changes occurring in Japan. No one disagrees that Japanese culture must be preserved even as Japan invites the world in. Japan is one of the most unique and interesting cultures on the planet.
The prevailing argument has been that an influx of foreigners into Japan will somehow diminish Japanese culture and that it will inevitably be a bad thing. I don’t believe it. There will always be people who make the effort to learn the language and adopt the customs, who will respect and honor the virtues of Japanese culture. So, I guess I would really like this project to be seen as a kind of mini preservation society for Japanese culture, as well as a means to attract more like-minded people from overseas to visit and live in Japan.
*Soul’d Out was a Japanese hip-hop group that started in 1999.
**Last Call is international male duo with members Michael Bodin, a Filipino-American, and Steve Sato, who is Japanese-German.
Check out more about Colorfuuul on their website: www.colorfuuul.com.© Japan Today