By MIKEY HIRANO CULROSS
Rafu Entertainment Editor
Jerome Charles White, Jr. sat in his subterranean dressing room at the Japan America Theatre on Tuesday, listening to his iPod and seemingly unaware of the flurry of activity unfolding on the floors above him. Stage technicians were preparing for his concert, managers were shepherding members of the press to and fro and at least a few wide-eyed fans stared at the larger-than-life poster of him on the facade of the Japanese American Cultural and Community Center.
The singer from Pennsylvania is so famous in Japan that he needs but one name–Jero. He has surged out of what seems like nowhere (how many Japanese could quickly find Pittsburgh on a map?) to almost single-handedly revolutionize the music genre of enka, the heartfelt postwar ballad style whose songs often border on being maudlin and regularly end with the singer close to tears.
For decades, enka has been the territory of the older generation in Japan, but Jero has exploded onto the scene and the Japanese charts at the age of only 28. Add his African American heritage and his urban style of dress and you’ve got an act that is truly in a class by himself.
Jero made his West Coast debut on Saturday in San Francisco, followed by sold-out appearances at the JAT on Tuesday and Wednesday.
Jero grew up in a home that was filled with music, much of it being the Motown sound that his single mother, a sales clerk, loved to have chiming through the house. But it was his grandmother, Takiko, a native of Yokohama, who introduced the young boy, all of 5 years old, to a sound that touched his soul.
“It was different. I was always attracted to things that are different,” Jero recalled, sporting his off-kilter New York Yankees cap and leaning into a dressing room chair. “One thing that appealed to me was the fact that it was sung in Japanese. I remember my mother and grandmother always speaking in Japanese and I would always want to participate in their conversation.”
His mother, Harumi, was the daughter of Takiko and an American serviceman, who moved his family back to his hometown after World War II. Not wanting her son to develop improper speaking habits, she spoke only English to Jero, insisting that he formally study Japanese if he wanted to learn it. The young man quickly reasoned that enka was a way into the chat.
“I thought this would be one way to join the conversation, even though I didn’t know what the lyrics meant or what they were talking about. I wanted to speak Japanese in some way, shape or form,” he said.
Listening to Grandma’s records and watching the artists perform via Betamax videotapes, Jero developed an affection for singers such as Misora Hibari, and made a promise to his grandmother that someday, he would be singing on programs such as the Kohaku Uta Gassen, the New Year’s singing contest watched yearly in millions of Japanese households.
Studying diligently in high school, Jero won a Japanese speech contest at the age of 15, and after graduation, continued his studies at the University of Pittsburgh. He spent part of his junior year at Kansai Gaidai University in Osaka, and that’s when he decided to fulfill his promise to his ailing grandmother.
“It was always a dream, but right around the time I was an exchange student, my second time in Japan and my third year in college, I decided I would come back and activity pursue singing,” he explained.
After earning his bachelor’s degree and moving to Japan in 2003, Jero entered the Nodo Jiman TV singing contest, attracting plenty of surprised attention. As Takiko’s health deteriorated, his resolve to reach the top of the enka world strengthened. He made the official announcement of his professional debut shortly after she passed away in 2005, a sequence of events that has left a sizeable hole in his heart.
“It has, but I believe she was the reason, she gave me the opportunity to do this and even though he’s not here to see everything, I believe when you lose something, you gain something else in return. This is what I have gained after that loss.”
After being named Japan’s best new artist for 2008, Jero kept his word and sang on the Kohaku to open 2009, then again for 2010. His debut single, “Umiyuki” (Ocean Snow) debuted at number 4 on the charts and is known nationwide. He said he consistently meets fans who say that’s their favorite song to sing at karaoke.
But days for foreigners are not all wine and roses, especially those who dare to venture into a realm so closely held to Japanese hearts, as enka is. For every Konishiki in sumo or baseball-playing Tuffy Rhodes, there are scores of outsiders who are instantly ostracized and never make so much as a ripple. Jero admits he is surprised by his popularity, in a field so quintessentially Japanese.
“Oh definitely. I’m often told that I am re-introducing something that many people have forgotten about, or that they may know but have never been exposed to. They know enka is a type of music, but they never actually listen to it,” he explained.
“When I first started, with all this media attention, it seemed like something new, and Japanese people often cling onto something new, be it fashion or music or anything else. I think that kind of helped me, but that can also be a downfall, because when you’re not new anymore, in Japan, they love to build their idols up and then let them fall. I just wanted to do my best and show that this is not a one-hit wonder, one-stop shop kind of deal, this is something I’ve wanted to do since I was a little kid and I will continue to do my best.”
Jero made his first U.S. singing appearance at the National Cherry Blossom Festival in Washington D.C. last year, followed by a performance at his alma mater, the University of Pittsburgh. He said his old friends and classmates were more than a little surprised.
“The first thing they always say is that they didn’t know I could sing,” he said with a grin. “When I was in high school, I was always known as a dancer. I was into hip-hop dance, and even if they didn’t know my name, they knew me as that boy who could dance. So when they find out about me singing and everything in Japan, they always want to know what happened to dancing.”
Despite his decidedly un-Japanese attire, Jero said he has no desire to sing R&B or hip-hop.
“For one thing, I can’t rap (laughs). I love R&B and listen to it all the time, but as far as singing is concerned, the only thing I’ve been doing is enka, that’s what I’m used to, it’s in my nature.”
So why not wear a kimono on stage, as many enka singers do?
“It’s not necessary for me to wear kimono. I wasn’t brought up wearing one and I think everybody’s perception of enka equals kimono, when that’s not really the case. There are many enka singers, male and female, who never wear kimono on stage. Enka is the music, not the style of dress.”
Like anyone living away from home, Jero admitted he often gets homesick, that he craves home cooking and that he misses mom and friends, but that’s part of the job. He plans to stay in Japan for the foreseeable future, and has done some acting, which he may pursue further.
Appearing at the Japan America Theatre during the JACCC’s 30th Anniversary Gala on Tuesday night, he told the audience, “I never thought in a million years that I’d be in the U.S. singing enka.”
And while he wishes his grandmother had lived to see his career blossom, he knows his is a mission that continues to be accomplished.
“The dream has come true,” he said. “I told her that I always wanted to sing enka, and I hope to continue to get more people into the genre. There are those people I loved to listen to and still look up to. I just love everything about them and I always dreamed of becoming one of them.”