Interviewed by Kelly Sun
Written by Isao Tokuhashi
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James Collins (United States)
There are many idol groups in Japan. Male groups belonging to Johnny & Associates are popular, not only within Japan but also abroad, with other Asian countries making up the lion’s share of the market. Female groups too, such as AKB48 and their peers, receive widespread support across all age groups.
Idol members are typically Japanese citizens. While there are some who have roots in foreign countries, they remain minorities.
However, an American man is causing quite a stir in the supposedly “homogenous” Japanese idol landscape. A grad student studying Journalism at a Japanese University, James Collins is responsible for producing an idol group with a unique twist which sets his group apart; the members are all foreigners. The band’s initial name caused quite a stir when it was buzzed on the internet upon launching the band.
Learning of the above, we were interested to ask James why he chose to form an all-male, all-foreign, idol band, right here in Japan.
Boy band like no other
I’m a producer of the foreign male idol group “COLORFUUUL”. It’s a bit like a Johnny’s group. Members come from South Korea, China, America, Canada, England, and the Philippines. The name “COLORFUUUL” comes from the fact that we are all from different countries, backgrounds, and speak different languages in addition to Japanese. We represent a more multi-cultural and diverse Japan, an image that hasn’t been given a strong face until now.
Universal! Unified! Unique! As Japan’s first all foreign male idol group, COLORFUUUL (Formerly Guyjin48) is bringing a brand new twist to the Tokyo music scene! With an upbeat sound and addictive Japanese style, COLORFUUUL aims to help create excitement and promote culture through the Universal language of music! Unified by a common love for Japanese culture and language, COLORFUUUL offers a totally Unique experience with members from all over the world living in Tokyo! Let’s explore Japan and promote culture together! Let’s be COLORFUUUL!
The group was originally called “Guyjin 48”. The word “Guyjin” derives from “Gaijin” (外人, foreigner). I had no intention of offending anyone with the name, of course. However, there were a few who saw it in a negative light. Perhaps they thought it was a little inappropriate or even racist.
I decided to change the name to COLORFUUUL after speaking with a number of people, both Japanese and non-Japanese. It wasn’t an easy decision but it’s one that I’m happy to have made. Another reason was that I was worried the “48” part of the name would get me in hot water with an existing major idol group in Japan. I thought it would be best to avoid any potential legal problems too.
I announced the project on Craigslist to look for members in December 2016 and received a fairly large number of applicants. I quickly realized there were a lot of foreigners looking for an opportunity like this. I of course wanted to get everybody involved but ultimately settled on the lucky six. A member of a famous Japanese hip-hop group wrote three songs for us in 2017 which ended up on our first mini-album; Let’s Be Colorfuuul!
Nearly a year and a half has passed since I first began the project and we are finally getting ready to make a stage debut. Our first mini-album is done and even though there is still a lot of work to do before we are able to consistently create content and make regular stage appearances, things have come a long way since that very first Craigslist post. It has been an incredible learning experience for everyone involved.
I’ve never managed an idol group before, so I faced a lot of hurdles. For example, recruiting has been a problem of legitimacy from the beginning, starting from zero. I was just putting ads on Craigslist and seeing if people would respond to them. A lot of people didn’t know if it was a real thing or not because I didn’t have an office or a registered business. People saw the name of my group and they would think it was a joke. But once the first article about us came out, I got a lot more applications. I think once we actually have something to show, like a music video, things should become a lot easier in terms of proving we are a legitimate group.
“We are here!”
I came up with the idea of the all-male foreign idol group five years ago. I was trying to learn Japanese while exploring different types of Japanese music. When I came across AKB48, I instantly thought “Why isn’t there a foreign version of the group?” Of course, AKB has been creating groups in foreign countries all over Asia, but there are no foreign groups right here in Japan. The reason I chose to start a male group instead of a female group was because of the name, Guyjin48. I really wanted to use the name so it needed to be an all-male group.
I was looking for a chance to say “We foreigners are here!” out loud. Actually, there are those who don’t learn the language and perhaps don’t do a very good job here. So I think a lot of Japanese people have a less-than-kind image of foreigners. But honestly, a lot of foreigners are here to study the Japanese language, speak Japanese and get jobs here. I wanted Japanese people to be exposed to the foreign population in Japan who are working hard towards integrating into Japanese society.
I think Japanese celebrities are typically expected to be very pro-Japan, not endorsing multi-culturalism. I know there are some idols or entertainers from abroad or half-Japanese in the Japanese entertainment world, but there’s still a lot of resistance in Japan towards becoming more open to foreigners. So there are a lot of celebrities who have to keep a public image of being like “I’m pro Japanese Japan”.
I was actually an English teacher at the time of conceiving the idea of the band and a half-Filipino, half-American friend of mine, Michael Bodin, was teaching English in the same city. We went out to eat as a group a couple of times. I told him about my idea in the summer of 2013. After that, he got a lot of contacts in the Japanese entertainment world because he went on to win the “Nodo-jiman” (のど自慢, singing contest) in 2016 and then once again this year. He helped me find my composers and choreographers.
I really think we can bring the message “We are here!” to the Japanese audience because all of our songs are in the Japanese language.
Setting the hardest goal; to master the language
I’ve been in Japan for about five years. I came here to learn the Japanese language. I’ve been doing so for about seven years now; two years in the US and five years in Japan. My father lived in Tokyo when he was three years old in 1956. Also, around ten years ago he began to come to Japan for work, so he started to learn the language. One day he suggested that I begin to learn another language and I thought Japanese would be an interesting challenge.
Before I started to learn I knew close to nothing about the language. I came to Japan six years ago for the first time when I did a summer abroad trip for a month with my college. My mind was blown because it was such a huge culture shock. It was my first time out of America and I was just a typical American back then. After that I liked Japan and I wanted to learn the language more. I really enjoy learning new things and being challenged so Japan provided a great amount of stimulation and still does.
I thought the only way to learn and master the language was to live in the country. I tried to completely dedicate myself to the language and culture. I wanted to go all the way. My Japanese level was really bad at that time. I set my goal really high – getting my Master’s Degree in Japanese. It seemed to be an impossible task and it’s sure been a tough past three years. I totally shut off all my English-speaking friends and I was only speaking Japanese every day. I had no connection to the foreign communities here while I was learning Japanese. I passed the N1, the highest level of the Japanese-Language Proficiency Test (JLPT), within a year and a half.
I want to be a part of making Japan a better place
I’m taking a postgraduate course in journalism at a Japanese graduate school in Tokyo, but I want to be a producer. I have a great interest in journalism but producing an idol group is way more fun to me. It is, of course, an incredible challenge with a lot of moving parts but I think that’s what makes it so interesting. There is never a dull moment.
My future goal is to use this group as a platform to create many other things. Also, whatever the members’ career goals are, I want them to have success through this. I hope this group means they get to have a lot of cool and meaningful life experiences in Japan.
Me too, of course. I’d like to use this group as a way to meet people who are like-minded, who are at the top of their field, and working towards a similar goal.
I’d like to be a part of making Japan a better place. The nation is facing a population decrease and there is a rapidly increasing need for foreign labor. People need to open their eyes more to the problems that they are facing and prepare themselves for change. So my project will be a small contribution to making it an easier process. That’s the first of my goals. In addition, I want to encourage other foreigners to embrace Japanese culture and make an effort to integrate into Japanese society.
What is Japan to you?
Japan represents a lot of hurdles for me as a foreigner and particularly as an American who initially couldn’t speak Japanese.
Living in Tokyo is a challenge as a foreigner. I could have learned a language that was easier for a native English speaker like Spanish or French. But I knew Japanese is many times harder. I also knew Japanese culture was a world away from American culture.
So Japan is a “challenge” but I came here because I wanted that challenge. I want to continue to embrace that challenge.