Haruko Nagaya And Peppe Of Ryokuoushoku Shakai Discuss Breaking Free From Gender Expectations
Haruko Nagaya of Ryokuoushoku Shakai and keyboardist peppe are the next featured artists in Billboard Japan’s Women in Music interview series, which highlights trailblazing women in the Japanese music industry. The initiative debuted this year in the same spirit as Billboard’s annual event, which began in 2007, with the goal of celebrating the women who continue to break new ground in Japan’s music industry through content such as interviews, live performances, and panel discussions.
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Ryokuoushoku Shakai’s four members — two women and two men — formed the now-famous band in high school and are celebrating their tenth anniversary in music this year. In September, the J-pop group successfully performed its first headlining show at Tokyo’s prestigious Nippon Budokan.
Nagaya, on the other hand, admits that up until recently, she’d been hitting a brick wall, feeling as if she couldn’t go on unless something changed. In this interview with Billboard Japan, she discusses how she overcame those obstacles and shares her newfound vision, while Peppe reflects on watching her bandmate struggle with various expectations and coming to some of her own realisations through frank discussions amongst the members.
Could you tell us about the women you admire?
Haruko Nagaya: Mine would be Ai Otsuka (J-pop singer-songwriter). I’ve always loved music and singing since I was a child, but after hearing Ai Otsuka’s songs, I was even more drawn to it. I fell in love with her very catchy song “Sakuranbo” (Cherry), and she has this gap between her cute first impression and her unpretentious personality, which comes across through her Kansai dialect. She also comes across as being very curious, which appealed to me greatly. Even now, I find women with that kind of distinct individuality and unique gap that I felt with Ai Otsuka at the time to be delightful, and I aspire to be the same.
peppe: Growing up, I never had a single person whom I admired. Instead, I’ve created this image of the type of person I admire by highlighting and listing the positive traits of various people. It’s as if I’m trying to incorporate as many of the qualities on that list as possible in order to get closer to that mental image. If I had to describe the image in a single word, I’d say “a dignified woman.” When I make decisions in my daily life, I think to myself, “What would a dignified woman do?” I want to keep accumulating as many minor things as possible, such as studying English, reading books, and being aware of people’s gazes.
I’m sure there are listeners who regard you two as role models. Do you believe your musical activities are influenced by your gender?
Nagaya: When I write lyrics, it’s obviously from a female perspective. A man could write lyrics about a woman, but I imagine the essence would escape him, so I believe there is significance in me expressing my true feelings. Also, as a general trend, more and more men are able to hit high notes cleanly, and their vocal range is expanding, so I’m frustrated because the lower notes I can hit as a vocalist are limited.
peppe: These biological differences must be limiting, don’t you think? Unfortunately, as a keyboardist, my hands are smaller than men’s. But that’s a given, so I make an effort to express my uniqueness through my mode of expression, such as how I play.
Nagaya: I also have the impression that people expect me to present myself in a certain way. I’m moved by shows and performances by bands that expose their true selves and the things they carry within in a raw and honest way, but what’s being externalised in that way isn’t just the pretty parts, right? There is a depth that is enhanced by expressing even the ugly parts. But perhaps I’ve been erecting a barrier as well, and it’s as if those around me expect me to be a certain way.
peppe: Nagaya and I recently discussed this. I wasn’t aware of it, but after she mentioned it, I realised I could sympathise with her in some ways. She’s our lead singer and receives a lot of media attention, so she must have felt this way a lot.
Nagaya: A part of me was content with presenting myself in ways that people expected, such as posting superficial content on social media to receive feedback. Even though I was the one doing it, there was a time when I couldn’t be genuinely happy when people wrote things like “You’re so pretty” as a compliment to me. “That’s not what I want you to see,” I said. “I want you to listen to my songs and see what’s inside, all the intensity.” It bothered me that the “ideal Haruko Nagaya” and “ideal Ryokuoushoku Shakai” had become ingrained in everyone’s minds.
Did you express this to your bandmates?
peppe: We all talked about it before the Budokan concert. I thought it was difficult (to navigate), but there were some things I realised because she told us about them and we all became aware of them. I’m sure each member is dealing with it in their own way, but I’m glad I now know how she felt.
Nagaya: I recall Peppe saying, “We (the other members) were also too reliant on those public expectations.” We’re glad people have high expectations of us because it makes it easier for us to live up to them. And there is no pushback in this manner. But I couldn’t go on like this any longer, so I decided to go all out for the Budokan performance. I didn’t care if my makeup or hair was sloppy, or if my face looked strange; I just went all out until there was nothing left inside of me. Now I try to stand on stage with the intention of conveying what’s inside, even if my pitch is a little off.
peppe, What was it like for you to be so close to your bandmate’s transformation?
peppe: I could sense her love of music. I consciously wore pants to avoid being perceived as feminine, but I may not have been thinking about things like that as deeply as she was. Despite the fact that we’re in the same band and are both women, we don’t feel the same way, and I have my own way of proceeding. In that sense, I believe the band would disband if we didn’t know how each member was feeling at any given time, so I’m glad she told us. We were able to discuss it in front of the entire crew as well as the band members, so perhaps it was time for a change.
Nagaya: It was a huge relief to be able to talk about it. I was able to get rid of a lot of stumbling blocks and change my stage behaviour, which also helped. I believe the same is true for the lyrics I mentioned earlier. Even though I’m a woman, I want to convey genuine feelings by exposing even the most pitiful and ugly aspects of myself. I want to sing about everything, including the part of myself that wants to be strong but can’t always be.
I don’t just want to reach women; I believe that by letting everything out, the music will be relatable to both men and women. To reach a wider audience, I considered changing the first person in the lyrics to “boku” (usually used by men). But now I want to create things that reach people on a deeper level, rather than just through a specific word choice.
In that sense, Ryokuoushoku Shakai is a band that many people, regardless of gender, support.
Nagaya: Gender attitudes can differ from generation to generation. Because we don’t hear many biassed opinions from our fans, I believe that many of them have balanced values. We’ve been doing music since we started the band, hoping to become a household name, so we’re grateful and happy that many people, regardless of age or gender, are listening to our songs now.
That is so true, Peppe. However, I have the impression that the ratio of women in the industry is still low. As a mixed-gender band, having female staff members on hand would be ideal, but they are not always easy to come by. Now I don’t mind as much, and if I’m not feeling well, I don’t hesitate to express my concerns.
This is unrelated to music, but until recently, the main host on (Japanese) TV was always a man, and his assistant was always a woman. I hope we can achieve the kind of balanced society in which competent people, regardless of gender, can do their jobs in appropriate positions.
Perhaps we are in a period of transition when many things are changing. What advice would you give to yourself in the first year of your career, looking back?
Nagaya: I sometimes wish I had spent my youth in this era. Things appear to be becoming more lenient. People are interested in various fashion styles, hairstyles, and values, and the general vibe is more accepting of people for who they are. That sensation is very appealing to me.
peppe: When we were students, it seemed like everyone was chasing the same thing, which created a trend. It was terrifying to deviate from that path.
Nagaya: Now that a wide range of styles is accepted, it’s easier to do what you want. I wonder what it would have been like if I had spent my youth during these times, but I suppose I feel that way now because I’m this age. If I were still that age, I might have felt some peer pressure. But I want to tell my younger self, “You’re limiting your options by setting your own boundaries.”
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