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JULY 24, 2000 VOL. 156 NO. 3

The Songbird Who Made Okinawa Cool

Kyodo News.
Japanese pop singer Namie Amuro was a knockout at her concerts in Hawaii in May.

Namie Amuro put Okinawa on the map. OK, that's a preposterous idea. Amuro is what, all of 22? She sings J-pop fluff and her most striking attribute is her hair. To say she is the most famous thing about Okinawa is to denigrate the memory of the tens of thousands slaughtered during the long and horrific World War II battle. It trivializes the frustration Okinawans have endured living as a colony first under U.S. military stewardship, and later as a welfare state of Japan.

Yet Amuro, pretty as can be with her cappuccino-toned skin and butterscotch hair, did indeed do something remarkable for her home island when she splashed onto the pop music scene in 1995. She gave troubled Okinawa a new image. She made Okinawa cool.

Amuro was discovered by Masayuki Makino, a promoter enchanted by the girl when she tagged along with a friend to his acting school in Okinawa. "She is a talented flirt," he now says. He put her in a song-and-dance troupe called the Super Monkeys when she was 14. The monkeys weren't so super, and the group fizzled. Amuro, whose childhood ambition had been to be a flight attendant, appeared in TV dramas and as a giant furry rabbit on a children's show before turning to singing and topping the charts with her breakthrough 1995 hit, "Try Me." They did try her, and they loved her. She was a star at age 17. Her records were bestsellers; tickets to her concerts sold out within 10 minutes of going on sale.

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JAPAN: Caught Between Two Worlds
Is it an American outpost or a Japanese backwater? Neither? Both? Host to this week's G-8 summit of the world's most powerful leaders, Okinawa is an island in search of an identity
Namie Amuro: The singer made it hip to be Okinawan

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Amuro is stunningly beautiful, there is no question. One quarter Italian and three quarters Okinawan, she's exotic in homogenous Japan, but the image is familiar enough not to be threatening: tanned skin, pencil thin eyebrows, long, straight hair dyed light brown, mini-skirts and platform boots. She can sing, she can dance, sure. But it's that look that catapulted her to the top of the heap of Japan's teen queens. Flocks of "Amuraas" soon appeared all over Japan, young girls mimicking her style, down to the tattoo shaped like a bar code she wears on her right wrist. The "Amuraas" are gone now, but they have evolved into the hordes of teenage girls with bronzed skin, silvery gray hair, white lipstick and eye shadow and gravity-defying platform boots. This strange and decidedly unflattering persona is not Amuro's at all. The skin is browner, hair color lighter, skirts mini-er, platforms taller. But it has its roots in Amuro's natural Okinawan beauty.

This is not something the pop diva cares to discuss. "We don't want to emphasize the Okinawan connection," admonished one of her managers, Akira Kobayashi. But we did. So we asked Amuro about Okinawa anyway, much to the consternation of Kobayashi and six other black-suited handlers who hovered around her during an interview last week. "It's OK," she told the overly protective Kobayashi. Then to us: "If I had a strong feeling about being Okinawan, I would have stayed in Okinawa and done Okinawan music." The voice coming from the petite young woman is surprisingly husky. "I don't feel like I should be this way or that way because I am Okinawan. I just like to do the music." Okinawans looking for an inspirational role model should look elsewhere. There's nothing particularly Okinawan about her music, anyway. "It's a fashion," says Rinken Teruya, leader of a popular Okinawan band. "It mimics American music. She could be from Hokkaido."

Amuro's brief career has been filled with drama. At the height of her popularity in 1997, she shocked fans—and Japanese sensibilities—by announcing she had secretly married a dancer, whose stage name is Sam, and was three months pregnant. "She was finished," said Makino, her mentor, who has since parted company with Amuro. Her abrupt life change started yet another trend: marrying young. Then she disappeared from public view for a year. In December 1998, she made a comeback on the NHK television network's singing competition. At the end of her performance, she collapsed in tears. Japanese love a good cry; the TV show's ratings soared. Amuro was back. "No, I didn't cry deliberately," Amuro said with a laugh last week. "The audience welcomed me so warmly, I couldn't stop myself." Her next single topped the charts. She sang the theme song in the latest PokEmon movie, and her husband and son appeared in a government campaign urging Japanese to have more babies.

But her troubles weren't over. In March 1999, Amuro's mother, Emiko Taira, was murdered by her own brother-in-law—the climax, Okinawa police reported, of an ugly family feud. "It was very sad and has not been easy," Amuro said. "The only good thing is I married and had a baby before she died, so she saw her grandchild and could play with him. Now that I am a mother, I have to avoid being sad because that could affect my child."

In her younger, carefree days, Amuro sang peppy pop songs. The tempo of her new music has slowed a bit, like the ballad Never End she recorded in honor of the G-8 summit. Next she wants to write her own songs. Maybe give a concert in Okinawa, where she has never performed as a solo act. As for the next Amuro-driven trend? She shrugs. "I just want to be myself," she said, but then revealed a new conservatism that comes with motherhood. "When I was younger, I was more adventurous and I would wear anything. Now, I only wear clothes that look good on me." Whatever she wears, Japan had better learn to like it. Because schoolgirls still want to be like Amuro. And they don't care where she came from.

--With Hiroko Tashiro/Tokyo

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