Japanese school trains pop stars Music: A controversial private school turns teens with a lust for show business into the stage and recording idols of a generation.

Sun Journal

January 21, 1998|By Jon Herskovitz | Jon Herskovitz,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

NAHA, Japan -- The hothouse that nurtures Japan's pop-music talent is in a shopping mall here, where the Okinawa Actor's School is creating singers with talent, mass appeal and some pretty funky moves.

The school's graduates have dominated Japan's pop charts and transformed the Japanese music industry. Over the past two years, the Top 40 list has continuously featured at least one graduate of the school, and 18 singles on the Top 100 chart for last year were by Okinawa Actor's School graduates.

The school's most famous product is Namie Amuro, the reigning queen of Japan's pop scene. Amuro, 20, went from singing at grocery store openings in Okinawa to winning back-to-back awards as the top pop artist in Japan. Amuro put the school on the pop map when she debuted in 1992 in a group called the Super Monkeys. She has tallied album sales of more than 6 million and singles sales of 10.9 million.

And she has inspired a generation of Amuro wannabes called "Amurah" who mimic her fashion and hairstyle.

The husky-voiced Amuro sings with a backup chorus of three African-American women. She moves fluidly across the stage, in contrast to past generations of pop stars -- known here as "idols" -- who were cute as puppies but had about as much dance mobility as retired football players.

It was the Okinawa Actor's School that polished Amuro's moves, and 430 hyperkinetic students -- also cute as puppies -- are trying to follow her footsteps to stardom.

Movement, music and energy are the core curriculum. Students are constantly in motion, trying out the latest hip-hop dance moves. Almost every corner of the school rocks with song.

Lingering in the hallway between classes, students trade tips on dance moves. "One, two, and push it in the shoulders," a 15-year-old-guy counts out, as a couple of other students mimic his moves perfectly.

There is no school uniform, except for the universal kid uniform of baggy clothes and brand-name sneakers and sweats.

The Okinawa Actor's School opened in 1983 with a handful of students as the brainchild of Masayuki Makino, who still heads the school.

"Japanese pop is decades behind the U.S.," Makino says. By that he means that the talent level, dancing skills and emotional expression most Japanese artists put into a song are strictly for amateur night. He envisions his school as a farm system for tomorrow's major-leaguers.

The school invites youngsters with talent and works with them to develop their ability by stressing the fundamentals of dance and song. Makino hopes to open the school to students from around the world in the coming years.

For Makino, the school is as much about educational reform as it is for producing entertainers.

"Under the current Japanese education system," he says, "there is no chance for kids to build their heart and spirit."

So the school tries to break its students free of the rigidities of the Japanese school system. "This school is for building individuals," Makino says.

He requires successful applicants -- who range in age from 8 to 20 -- to drop out of the regular education system once they enroll at the actors' school.

That can be a competitive disadvantage. Japan has hundreds of singing, dancing and acting schools, and a population of stage mothers dreaming of stardom for their offspring. The stage mother often gives way to the education mother when prospective parents check out Makino's school, for once a child leaves the regular school system, it is virtually impossible for that child later to enter college or find a salaried job with a Japanese company.

For this reason, the school's critics charge that Makino's star factory's principal product is not "icons" but dancing fools.

But in Okinawa, Japan's poorest prefecture, the risks of dropping out of school do not seem so great -- even college graduates find it difficult to get a good job. So about 90 percent of the student body is from Okinawa.

On a large dance floor with mirrored walls, a lesson is about to begin. Seven girls start by singing scales.

Then they repeat the scales with a few set moves led by the instructor. Then comes free movement. As the music blares, some of the girls try out moves they picked up in the halls, while others brush up on steps they learned before.

Nana Asato is one of the smoothest dancers in the class. She dropped out of school at 17 to enter the school.

"My parents were against me entering this school, but since I was a child I wanted to be a dancer," Asato says. "I am not looking to become a star, but I want to be up on stage as a dancer."

Takayo Senaga was 16 when she was scouted by the school principal at a Namie Amuro concert in Okinawa. Senaga, who speaks some English, says, "I want to be a pop star."

But in Japanese she adds, "Actually my dream is to write a book. I want to write about what I have felt since I joined the school."

The two girls and their classmates have all seen firsthand how quickly they can go from students to nationwide stars. Their classmates once included Hiroko Shimabukuro, 13; Eriko Imai, 13; Takako Uehara, 14; and Hitoe Arakai, 16 -- now known collectively as Speed.

The group made its debut in 1996 and its first album was released last summer. The album has sold 2.3 million copies, and the group has had four million-selling singles.

Like other acts from the Okinawa school, Speed combines hip-hop with Japanese pop and bounds with energy.

Its members are on television almost nightly and have signed five major endorsement contracts, including a deal with Epson printers.

Speed parted ways with the Okinawa Actor's School in 1996 when it signed up with a recording company -- which enrolled the singers at a junior high school in Tokyo.

Pub Date: 1/21/98

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