by Elena Sakai
Maiko was born of a Filipino mother and Japanese father, and mostly grew up in Saitama prefecture. Because of her exotic physical appearance and her pierced ears, Maiko Nakamura had a hard time “blending in” at school here in Japan. However, she found her own place in music, and naturally, she became a professional singer. Maiko, once a lonely girl with no friends, is now a star with so many fans, especially teenage girls supporting her.
Do you speak Tagalog?
I know some words, and somehow understand when I hear someone speaking to me, but I’m not so sure with the grammar.
So you are half Filipino?
Actually, I’m a quarter. My mother is half Filipino and half Spanish. If you take a look at my mother’s photo, you’ll see that we really look alike. If she were still alive, she’d be around 50 years old. Actually, the reason I started singing was because of my mother. She was a very good singer. Filipinos are good at singing, right? So was my mother.
Can you tell us about your mother?
She used to sing in a choir and took auditions to be on television, too. However, when she found out that she couldn’t realize her dream, she went to college and became a nurse.
So, when I started singing when I was still in junior high school, she became a “stage mama.” I took my first audition for Avex when I was 13.
How was that audition?
It was pretty good, for a first-timer. I went up to the Kanto region block. At first, my father was against the idea of me becoming a professional singer. He heard stories from my mother about the show business in the Philippines, and he wanted to protect me. I told my father how serious I was, and promised that I would succeed. And so I gave it my best, and my father finally said, “If there is even 1% in succeeding, then go for it.” So, that’s how it all started.
How did your parents meet?
My mother wanted to work as a nurse here in Japan, but the nurse license in the Philippines was not effective here in Japan, so she came to Japan as an entertainer with her sisters and worked in an omise. That’s where my parents met.
Nowadays, Filipino nurses can come to Japan to work, but it wasn’t like that back then. But still, she had to support her family.
Your father is pure Japanese? Does he speak English or Tagalog?
My father only speaks Japanese. My mother studied Japanese while she was in Japan, so that’s how they were able to communicate. But eventually, my father learned some Tagalog words, too. It was a mixture of Tagalog and English, but basically, they spoke in Japanese.
What kind of music did your mother listen to?
She liked music that was popular in the Philippines at the time - Mariah Carey, Whitney Houston and The Carpenters. She liked ABBA, too. I used to listen to the music my mother liked, and every day, I would sing. I didn’t have friends. They bullied me because I was half Filipino.
Did you have a complex about being half Filipino?
I had my ears pierced, and had always wore a pair of heart-shaped earrings. My skin was much darker back then, I had big eyes and my hair was curly. Obviously, I stood out, so the kids didn’t like it. Because of my appearances, I was not very good at socializing, or doing something in public.
How did you overcome that?
I needed to make my own place. The bullying became worse when I entered junior high school. It was really bad. I couldn’t even tell my parents about it, and I didn’t have anyone to talk to at school. I needed something to keep me hanging on, and so I decided to make “singing” my advantage, and without telling any of my classmates, I would succeed.
So you’ve never sung in front of anyone until you took the audition when you were 13. Were you nervous?
Yes. I was very nervous. I was frustrated because I could have done better. You practice so many times for the audition, and when you’re there, you can’t even achieve 10 percent of what you really can.
How did you practice after that?
I practiced with my mother. The first thing I would do after waking up was to wash my mouth and sing right away. My mother would play a CD for me, and I’d sing along to it. I really owe it to her. I’m sure that if she were alive now, she’d be my manager.
What kind of music did you like listening to?
I liked Japanese music, since I grew up in Japan, but I like the singers who are really good, like Utada Hikaru. Of course, I listened to idle music, like Morning Musume, and I sing their songs in karaoke with my friends, but the music I really like are the songs of the “good singers.” Now, the singer I like best is Katy Perry. I like the way she performs. When I was a child, I loved Michael Jackson. In high school, I liked Black Eyed Peas, because there is a Filipino in the group. I gradually became interested in Filipino artists, too, like Charice Pempengco. Actually, we are relatives.
Yes. Her father’s house is just across my mother’s house in San Pedro. We’re not close relatives, and I’ve never met her, but I heard we are related. I only found out 2 years ago, when I went back to the Philippines. My and her father were very close. I was told that the village was excited to have 2 singers (Charice and myself) from the place.
How did you make your debut?
I made my debut when I was 17. There was a Japanese hip-hop group called the “LG yankees,” and they were looking for a vocal. I took the audition and I passed. I participated in a song called “Because” as a featured singer. The song became popular among young people, and song was downloaded one million times. After that, I collaborated with various artists, and at the age of 19, I made my first solo album, and made my contract with a major label in Japan.
Did you always want to have your own solo album?
Oh yes. It was my dream. I’ve been collaborating with many artists, but I finally made my own CD. However, since they liked my voice, I continued to do collaborative work also, and last year, I released my “featuring” best album.
This February, you released a cover album, “Haru Iro Covers (Spring Colored Covers).” Why did you choose to do covered songs?
Last year, when I released my “featuring” album, I thought I had achieved a certain goal, and I was wondering what the next step should be. So I consulted my management team, and they suggested, “Maiko, why don’t you try covers?” Until then, I was focused on making my own pieces, and writing lyrics, but my challenge to sing covered songs was to go back and remember my goals as a singer.
In this album, you have some songs that probably young people do not know. How did you choose the songs?
The people who listen to my music are mainly young people. I wanted them to know that there are so many wonderful songs in Japan, and I wanted to know more about those songs, too. Many of the songs I’ve never heard of until this cover album came up. But all of the songs were so beautiful, and through the recording, I found the beauty of singing in Japanese.
I also wanted more people to hear my song, and the ballads in this album would be nice to listen to, for wide generations.
Which song is your favorite?
“Mokuren no Namida (Tears of a Mulan Magnolia),” originally performed by Stardust Revue, is my favorite. I thought of my mother when I was singing it. It was the first song that I thought about my mother. She passed away when I was 17, the age I made my debut. She was the one who wanted me to succeed in my music career the most. I was so sad, that I didn’t want to face the fact that she was gone, and tried telling myself “I’m not lonely, I’m ok.”
But, when we decided that I would be singing “Mokuren No Namida,” and I read the lyrics, all I could think about was my mother. That is why this song is so precious to me.
Is there a song that you’d like the readers of Jeepney Press to hear?
Well, I love all of the songs but “Furete Mirai Wo (Touch The Future)” is a great one. It’s actually the only up-beat song in this album. It was originally performed by Sukima Switch, a male group, but in this album, you can hear the “female” version of it. It’s nice for listening while you are driving. The arrange is an 80s taste, too.
Have you ever sung in the Philippines?
No, I haven’t but it’s my dream to do so. I was born having two countries, I want to strengthen the connection between Japan and the Philippines through music. Recently, I listen to a lot of OPM. I found a website with information of the latest OPM hit numbers, and I listen to all of them. My favorite singers are Maja Salvador and Sarah Geronimo.
Do you want to sing OPM?
Yes. I want to try making Japanese versions of OPM songs and upload them on YouTube, so both Filipinos and Japanese people can enjoy. And then, in the future, I want to have a Filipino-language program in NHK, so I can learn Tagalog, too!
Can you give a message to the readers of Jeepney Press?
When I was small, I was bullied because I was half Filipino. There were even times when I was confused of which country I belonged to. However, lately, I began to think that what I used to think were my weak points could be my strongest advantages. I think that is what makes me special, and this is something that the other hit-singers don’t have. I want to be someone that could give courage to half-Filipinos like me.
I want to tell them that
I’ve overcome the mean people around me, and now I am standing tall, singing.
Most of all, I want to connect Japan and the Philippines through music.