BERKELEY — The Center for Japanese Studies (CJS) at UC Berkeley has presented Jero, the Japanese-African American enka singer, with the second Berkeley Japan New Vision Award.
The center hosted an invitation-only award ceremony April 8 at the Doe Library’s Morrison Room on the UC Berkeley campus, followed by a public on-stage interview and mini-concert in Wheeler Hall. Jero received the award from Duncan Ryuken Williams, immediate past chair of CJS and associate professor of Japanese Buddhism.
Born Jerome Charles White Jr. in Pittsburgh, Pa., on Sept. 4, 1981, Jero began singing enka at the age of 6 because of the influence of his Japanese grandmother. In 2003, after graduating from the University of Pittsburgh with a major in information science, he moved to Japan to pursue his dream to become an enka singer.
Two months after arriving in Japan, Jero entered the NHK “Nodo Jiman” competition broadcast on TV. While working as a computer engineer, he actively participated in numerous singing contests, and was scouted by Victor Entertainment. After two years of voice training, Jero released his debut single, “Umiyuki” (Ocean Snow), in February 2008. It entered the Oricon single CD sales chart at No. 4, the highest ever for an enka singer’s debut single.
In the same year, Jero won the Best New Artist Award in the 50th Japan Record Awards. He was also selected to appear on the NHK “Kouhaku Uta Gassen,” a prestigious New Year’s Eve concert, in 2008 and 2009.
Jero has transformed the Japanese music industry. His albums, “Yakusoku” (2009), “Covers” (2008), “Covers 2” (2009), and “Covers 3” (2010), have garnered critical acclaim and have been credited with reviving popular interest in enka music. He also appears regularly on Japanese TV shows and commercials.
He went on his first U.S. concert tour last year, appearing at the Palace of Fine Arts in San Francisco and the Japan America Theatre in Los Angeles.
His biography, “Enka Transcends Borders: African American Singer Jero and a Family History Spanning Three Generations,” is forthcoming from Iwanami Shoten.
The Berkeley Japan New Vision Award was established in 2009 to award an individual who has, in recent times, dramatically transformed the public’s vision of Japan. Singing traditional Japanese ballads in an American idiom, not only has Jero rekindled an interest in enka among the younger generation of Japanese, but he has also opened up the possibilities for fluent Japanese-speakers from around the world breaking into the entertainment and other industries in Japan.
Given his mixed-race background (he is one-quarter Japanese), he has also become a symbol for the acceptance of a more multiethnic society for 21st-century Japan. The ceremony and concert were held in conjunction with the Hapa Japan Conference, hosted by CJS, the Hapa Japan Database Project and All Nippon Airways on April 8 and 9.
In 2009, the inaugural award was presented to Clint Eastwood for his “Flags of Our Fathers” and “Letters from Iwo Jima,” which depicted one of the most horrific World War II battles in the Pacific from both the American and Japanese points of view.