Erika Sawajiri: Inside the head of Japan's outspoken star
"Restricting talented people is the biggest problem in the entertainment business in Japan," says 24-year-old Erika Sawajiri. "This is the 21st century and it has to change."
The sheer frankness of the enigmatic model, actress and singer is certainly an unusual, and I must say refreshing, occurrence in conservative Japan. She has gained a reputation as a difficult, thorny character. But now, in her first ever English-language interview, Sawajiri simply comes across as honest, direct and passionate about changing how Japanese entertainers are treated by their agencies.
She has been a revelation to the orderly, deferential world of Japanese entertainers, causing controversy after controversy ever since her infamous "betsu ni" ("not really") responses at a press conference in September 2007.
Speaking near-fluent English, and without hesitation -- a real rarity in Japan -- confidence and self-assurance clearly runs through her veins.
An exceptional background
Perhaps Erika Sawajiri was born to be an exception. Born to a Berber (indigenous north-African) mother and a wealthy Japanese father, her upbringing was anything but standard.
"My mum was born in Algeria but moved here from Paris when she was 24 or 25, met my father and stayed. My grandparents died already and I never met them, so I have no contact with my mom's side, but she has six brothers and sisters that I met when I was a child," she explains.
"I never learned Berber or French, though I will someday, but my mother always listened to Arabic music and Gypsy Kings when I grew up and that makes a big impression."
Growing up mixed-race in Japan is still a rarity, and many feel excluded from Japanese society, as they are considered neither foreign, nor fully Japanese. In recent years attitudes in Tokyo at least have begun to change, thanks to a growing number of celebrities, especially singers, with mixed background. Artists like Crystal Kay (Korean and African-American), Thelma Aoyama (Trinidadian and Japanese) and Kaela Kimura (British and Japanese) have started to change public opinion on what it means to be Japanese. Though some like Angela Aki (Italian-American and Japanese) have spoken of challenges growing up in such an ethnically homogenous nation.
"I never went to an international school, so I think I'm totally Japanese," says Sawajiri. "But I had a long-held ambition to go to another country, especially in Europe and at 21 I decided to go to London."
Fame and unhappiness
By the time she went there to study English for a year at Bell International Institute, she had already gained more life experience than most and was glad to lead a more normal life for at least a while.
"My family was quite rich when I was young," she says. "My father had a stable of horses amongst lots of businesses, but suddenly he disappeared when I was about nine years old. We had a big house in Tokyo until then, but we had to move to an apartment as my mother had a hard time to make a living. She had to sell a lot of things, the house, jewelry and so on. It was a tough time. Then one day, suddenly my father came back when I was 15. He told us he had cancer and was going to die. We lived together for one month with my two brothers."
Her elder brother then died in a car accident while Sawajiri was in her first year of high school.
Sawajiri began modeling as a student but made her breakthrough in the 2005 TV series "1 Litre of Tears," in which she played Aya Ikeuchi, a girl suffering from spinocerebellar degeneration (SCD). Signed to Japanese management company Stardust aged just 13, she would go on to star in further TV dramas like "Song of the Sun" and launch her singing career with two consecutive no.1 singles on Sony, the first time a debutant had achieved the feat since 1983. Her star could hardly have been rising faster. Yet it was all about to come crashing down. And looking back, Sawajiri is glad it did.
"Actually I was not really happy because I wasn't satisfied with those songs. In fact I don't know how they could possibly reach no.1. I thought everyone must be crazy to buy them. I didn't like those songs, it was just pop."
Fighting the Japanese management system
Like the vast majority of talent in Japan, she was tied to a contract in a management firm that controlled what she could and couldn't do. Most talents simply receive monthly stipends as 'employees' of their agencies in Japan, restricting innovation amongst music artists and forcing actors into shows they would never choose themselves. They are also made to work extraordinarily long hours. Even some of Japan's top stars such as Aya Ueto have admitted being severely burdened emotionally by the system. Some have been banned from having normal private lives, leading to social isolation. Many fall off the tracks.
"It was hard in Tokyo before I went, every day was working and I couldn't sleep. I would get just three hours so it was so hard every day," says Sawajiri. "I just stopped and went to London, I wanted to live a normal life as a girl. I had to learn English, that was tricky, but it was a really good experience, I just went to school and after class we went to a pub to talk or drink beer."
At a press conference for the filmed "Closed Note" in September 2007, seemingly unhappy with the film she had been cast for, she gave a series of short, terse answers to the press. Roundly criticized by Japanese media for breaking Japanese etiquette and being disrespectful to her co-stars, she issued an apology two days later on TV Asahi's Super Morning.
"That apology was a mistake!" says Sawajiri. "My agency told me I had to apologize, I kept refusing, I absolutely didn't want to do it. I told them 'this is my way'... but in the end I surrendered. That was my mistake."
Controversy and regrets
Sawajiri then got involved with Japanese media creator Tsuyoshi Takashiro, 21 years her senior, whom she married on January 20, 2009. Now pending divorce, she is full of regret for the time spent with him too.
"It was a hard time in London with him, I don't have a good memories, it was a tough time, a nightmare. Fortunately I made friends amongst local people and they would take me to parties or clubs and that was fun because the nightlife is amazing." After a year in London, she packed her bags for Barcelona where she stayed for another year. Japanese media got wind of a potential separation when it emerged Takashiro was in New Zealand.
Then in September 2009, almost two years since her self-imposed break, her management dropped her, meaning she would lose her highly anticipated movie comeback role in 2010 as the lead in "Space Battleship Yamato."
"I always wanted to come back and start working again, that was the plan, and now I have a plan to do a film that I really want to do, one that I want to play a role for since it's so important for me to choose a film as my acting comeback."
Coming back to life
Working from an agency set up in Spain, she would cause outrage once more when faxes appeared on the desks of Japanese media in March 2010 announcing her comeback, with six (rather tame) rules stating what media could and couldn't do. Perfect fodder for the media to uphold her reputation as a troublemaker.
"It was not me and I never knew about it!" exclaims Sawajiri. "The truth is those six conditions were my husband's idea. I believed him and trusted him, but he did wrong."
"When the problem with my ex-husband -- legally we are still married -- is solved, things are going to change. But I don't know when it will be solved yet."
2010 has seen Sawajiri step out onto the big stage once more, debuting her new English songs at The Girls Awards in May ("Now I want to try dance music," she says) and gracing the cover of seemingly endless glossy magazines.
For anyone living in Tokyo, Sawajiri appears everywhere. "I am afraid of overexposure because I had that experience in 2007, but it's not that bad now. Honestly I want to do shoots and sing and do things right now, this is the moment and I want to show my creativity any way I can. Even as a hobby I love photography and do some graphic design."
With rumors of her signing a deal with an industry giant soon, this time Sawajiri is adamant that they won't have a hand in her management and has strong words of criticism for the entire structure. "I think [restricting talent from having normal lives and expressing opinions] is a problem with the entertainment world in Japan, in fact it's the biggest problem. I think the whole system is so old. The managers themselves are old but we have to change this situation."
Not since the days of 1980s idol Seiko Matsuda -- when the leading singer challenged traditional Japanese thinking by refusing to retire upon marriage -- has a female entertainer had the balls to stand up for what she believes in, dividing opinion in the process.
For now, living permanently back in Tokyo, as she seeks to reshape how stars can balance personal and creative freedom with success, Sawajiri is working freelance and solo. "I want to cope with the entertainment business of Japan by setting up my own office," she says. "We live in the 21st century so it's time to get up to date."