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Ayano Tsuji, Playing a Delicate Instrument

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Ayano Tsuji, Playing a Delicate Instrument

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Ayano Tsuji, Playing a Delicate Instrument

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JOHN YDSTIE, host:

Anyone who's ever traveled to Japan has probably been struck by the contrasts embedded in the nation's landscape. In Tokyo, ancient and modern elbows seem to jostle for position on a 21st century plateau. Tiny Buddhist temples are nestled against modern skyscrapers. Senior citizens in kimonos shuffle amid the rush hour subway crowds.

Producer Rob Rand recently visited the Japanese capital, where he encountered a musical contradiction. He brought back this report.

ROBERT RAND reporting:

Japan is a country where the pressure to conform is inescapable. There's an old proverb that says, the nail that sticks out gets beaten down.

(Soundbite of J-pop music)

RAND: Years ago, the Japanese music industry created something called J-pop, and it's imposed a standard that sounds pretty much like this.

(Soundbite of J-pop music)

RAND: It's an all-girl group called Morning Musume, and they're one of the most popular groups in Japan.

Steve McClure is Asia bureau chief of Billboard Magazine.

Mr. STEVE McCLURE (Asia Bureau Chief, Billboard Magazine): The typical mainstream J-pop girl singer is, to put it charitably, somewhat vocally challenged. The emphasis is on looks, specifically cute looks, and not so much on vocal ability.

RAND: In Japan, as in any country with a dominant popular culture, there are alternatives to the hegemony of pop music. One of them is a singer and songwriter named Ayano Tsuji.

(Soundbite of Ayano Tsuji singing)

RAND: Ayano Tsuji describes herself as the nice nail that stands out. While to Westerners her voice may not differ that much from a J-pop singer's, Tsuji says it does.

Ms. AYANO TSUJI (Singer and Songwriter): (Through Translator) My voice is pretty low for a women. I don't sing high. I don't shout. I sing as if I'm talking normally, as if I'm speaking to myself in a natural way, and that's why the understated sound of the ukulele and my voice go together well.

RAND: That's right. Ayano Tsuji plays the ukulele. She says it all began in high school about ten years ago. She didn't like J-pop, but she did like folk music. She wanted desperately to play folk guitar, but her hands were too small; she couldn't wrap her fingers around the guitar's neck. So out of necessity she downsized.

(Soundbite of ukulele music)

RAND: She picked up a ukulele, found that her hands could handle the instrument perfectly, loved the sweet melancholy sound and has been playing it ever since.

(Soundbite of Ayano Tsuji singing)

RAND: The ukulele is native to Hawaii, not to Japan, and you're probably wondering whether Hawaii had anything to do with Ayano Tsuji's decision to pick up the instrument. It didn't.

Ms. TSUJI: (Through a Translator) No, I don't perform Hawaiian music. My songs have nothing to do with Hawaii, but Hawaii is very popular here in Japan, so people who like Hawaii get into my music.

RAND: One of the distinctive feature of Ayano Tsuji's songs is her choice of language. Her lyrics shun the use of English.

(Soundbite of Ayano Tsuji singing)

RAND: It's another example of how her work diverges from J-pop, whose refrains often echo with Americanisms

Ms. TSUJI: (Through a Translator) I'm interested in reflecting the beauty of the Japanese language in my lyrics. I don't want to use English words; I want to use the language that real Japanese people use everyday.

(Soundbite of Ayano Tsuji singing)

RAND: Ayano Tsuji has paid a price for her refusal to conform to the J-pop model. While she's managed to get a contract with a major record company, she has not become a star in Japan.

(Soundbite of Ayano Tsuji singing)

RAND: Ayano Tsuji did have a hit three years ago when this song became a best-selling single in Japan. It's success was due to the fact that it was a theme song in a popular animated film, but that proved to be a one-shot deal. Today, Ayano Tsuji mostly plays gigs in parks and in pubs and goes her own way.

Mr. McCLURE: Whenever there's a highly conformist culture or a highly conformist, more specifically, a highly conformist to music industry, there's always room for an alternative. She's a palatable alternative, put it that way. She's not threatening.

RAND: Billboard Magazine Asia Bureau Chief Steve McClure.

Mr. McCLURE: Here's an unassuming girl with very nice songs, very pure, crystalline voice who's playing a nice simple instrument like that ukulele. It's got a definitely appeal to people living in the crazy metropolis of Tokyo or wherever.

(Soundbite of Ayano Tsuji singing)

RAND: This song, called Amaoto, The Sound of Rain, is classic Tsuji. It's subject matter is simple: the pain of lost love and the healing power of nature. Will I continue to love you and become a melancholy clown, she wonders.

Ms. TSUJI: (Through a Translator) If my songs were a motion picture, they would not be an action film. They would be a slow, typical love story in which there is some happiness and much pain. This reflects everyday life, and that's what I want.

RAND: Ayano Tsuji's music could very well be a balm for those who toil everyday in the urban rush of Tokyo, but that's not where she wants to be. She goes there because that's where the recording industry is based. She much prefers the quiet of her native Kiyoto, the ancient Japanese capital. She writes her music there. It's a nice place for a nice nail to hang.

For NPR News, this is Robert Rand.

(Soundbite of Ayano Tsuji singing)

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