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'There Were Times I Nearly Gave Up'
Japanese pop diva Namie Amuro grows up

Okinawan Namie Amuro was the It-girl of Japanese pop in the late '90s. A star at just 17, she piled up hit records and sold out her concerts in minutes. The diva -- who inspired the bronzed skin and bleached hair now gracing Japanese teenagers -- took time out recently during rehearsals for the G-8 summit on Okinawa, where she'll perform her latest song Never End, to speak to TIME Tokyo bureau chief Tim Larimer and Hiroko Tashiro. Edited excerpts of the interview:

TIME: What is the message in your new song Never End?
Lyrically, it's a simple song. I don't think the song has to be listened to in a certain way; the interpretation depends on the listener. I tried to sing the song straight from my heart and not add too much color to it. I think everybody is going to have different interpretations of it.

TIME: How did you feel when you first sang the song?
It's a nice song and the melody is soothing. Prime Minister [Yoshiro] Mori said he envisioned Okinawa's blue sea when he first listened to the song. It's the perfect song for Okinawa.

TIME: We understand the late Prime Minister Keizo Obuchi telephoned music promoter Tetsuya Komuro and asked him to write a song for the G-8 Summit. Did you ever talk to Obuchi in person before he died?
I first met Obuchi at an anniversary party last November or December, and that's when he asked me to sing at the Summit. I knew that Obuchi had spoken to Komuro before I met Obuchi.

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TIME: What does it mean to you to be Okinawan?
If I had really strong feelings towards Okinawa, I wouldn't have gone to Tokyo. I would've stayed in Okinawa, played Okinawan music and learned more about Okinawa. But I don't think that I should be a certain way because I'm from Okinawa. I want to do my own music, and share it with as many people as possible.

TIME: You took a break two years ago when you were in your prime. How did you spend that time?
Watching TV programs that I couldn't watch before, like dramas and music shows, and watching the news. I was hardly at home while I was working, so, when I had my break, I either went out or watched TV.

TIME: You broke into tears at your first concert after your long break. What were you feeling?
I had been working for a long time, had a sudden marriage, and gave birth to a child. The fans let me take a year off for personal reasons, and they had been waiting for me. And I was insecure about how my fans would accept me when I returned. But when I started singing, everyone, not just my fans, gave me a warm welcome.

TIME: Cynics thought your tears were very calculating because Japanese audiences respond favorably to that kind of emotion. Some people say you planned to do that, to raise your popularity.
I can't cry voluntarily. I heard the crowd applaud when I bowed, and it made me think, why are these people applauding me. That's when I broke into tears, though I tried to hold them back.

TIME: A lot of changes have occurred in the past few years; you got married, gave birth to a son, and your mother died. How did those changes affect you?
A lot of good and bad things came all at once, but I think I've been through the worst. Now I want to enjoy my family, and continue working my own way. I won't be disheartened easily.

TIME: It must have been really hard for you when your mother passed away. How did you cope with that?
It was sudden, and I couldn't organize my thoughts. But my mother passed away after she saw my son. I can't afford to dwell on her death because it will affect my child. I have a husband who I can rely on, and have a son to take care of. We're a family, and I shouldn't keep thinking about the past.

TIME: You used to sing dance songs mostly, but your latest song is a ballad and seems more mature. Did giving birth have anything to do with that
No, it's just the current music trend. I'm just going with the flow.

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TIME: How would you describe yourself now compared to when you were a teenager?
When I was younger, I was more daring and tried everything out, but now, I'm not as adventurous as before. I just want to wear what looks best on me.

TIME: How do you feel when the younger generation imitates you?
I don't mind. But, I must say, some of the makeup and hairstyles of teenagers nowadays really surprise me.

TIME: You have one of the most recognizable faces in Japan. Do people stare at you when you shop for groceries?
A lot of people turn their heads but everybody is also busy shopping. And there aren't too many young people shopping at grocery stores these days.

TIME: The man who discovered you, Masayuki Makino [principal of the Okinawa Actors' School], says that if it weren't for him, you may have ended up a flight attendant.
I did have some thoughts about becoming a flight attendant but I wouldn't have gone through with it.

TIME: Do you have any fashion secrets? Do you put wasabi in your hair or anything like that?
Not really.

TIME: What's next for Namie Amuro?
I want to get to know more musicians and continue to pursue my music. I want to show different aspects of myself, and I want to keep trying different things. Up until now I sang songs that were known, so all I had to worry about was how to express them. But to understand music, I feel that I need to write my own lyrics and compose songs. And that is what I am doing.

TIME: Is there a theme that you're interested in?
Romance, because it's a broad theme, and because I don't have a lot of experience with romance myself.

TIME: Do you have plans to get more involved in Okinawa?
I only go back to Okinawa for work, but I'd like to have a concert there.

TIME: What would you say to young Japanese girls who want to be stars?
I would tell them that it's really hard and strict, so they just have to stick with it, and that it's not an easy world to live in. I think that if you just want to be successful temporarily, it's not that hard. But I'd like to keep singing for as long as possible, so everything is important to me. There were times I almost gave up but sometimes my own music put me back on my feet again.

TIME: Japanese pop music is criticized for not being original.
There are a lot of influences, but everybody is trying to find their own style and music. I think it's just that those styles haven't surfaced yet. I think Japanese hip-hop and soul artists are especially trying hard to establish their own style and originality.

TIME: What do you like about Okinawa?
I really feel relaxed in Okinawa whereas in Tokyo I'm always busy. The beaches are beautiful and really soothe my heart.

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