I have received a lot of love from the people of Japan, and now I feel true happiness.

日本語
Interview by Isao Tokuhashi
Edited by Jennifer A. Hoff
Mail to: info@myeyestokyo.com

 

Yolanda Tasico (Philippines)
Enka Singer

Japan is filled with a wide variety of music, including J-pop, K-pop, Western music, world music, and so on. All of these are popular among people of all ages, but we must not forget the type of music that has moved the hearts of Japanese people since ages past. That would be: “enka” (演歌”).

Enka, which has been popular since pre-war times, has been regarded as “that which sings the heart of Japan”. Since the 1980s, however, it has also been sung by singers from abroad. Long before Korean pop culture became popular in Japan, Korean singers had always enjoyed great popularity singing it here in Japan. Finally in the 2000s, an enka singer from the U.S. debuted and became a big hit.

Today, we would like to introduce you to Yolanda Tasico, the first Filipino enka singer in Japan. The majority of enka songs are created and made to be sung set in cold regions such as in the northeastern part of Japan, but we have finally entered an era in which a singer from a country with everlasting summer is now singing enka too.

We were charmed by Yolanda’s cheerful personality and midsummer sun-like smile that only a native to a tropical country could bring; and we thoroughly enjoyed a talk that was full of laughter even under the rainy sky, in front of Ueno Tokyo’s Shinobazu Pond.


The song called “ARIGATO,” written by Yolanda, is a reflection of her experiences in Japan and her feelings toward the country.


▼Click to expand for the lyrics of “ARIGATO”


*Interview at Ueno Park

 

Chasing a rare opportunity through tears

I sing every day to become a singer like Hibari Misora, a singer whose unique low voice has attracted people from all over Japan. I feel proud when people hear my catchphrase, “the first Filipino enka singer,” and are surprised to see me but end up loving me. Not only am I able to heal the hearts of people who listen to my songs, I myself am also healed by singing. That is why singing is like “medicine” for me.

I’ve been living in Japan for almost 30 years now. But my first visit to Japan was even earlier, in 1985. I was still in my teens at the time, and when I learned in the Philippines that there was an audition being held for performing in shows held on stages at hot spring resorts (onsen) in Japan, I thought that it would be a big opportunity for me.

I’ve loved singing since I was a child, participating in music events as a representative of my school and winning many singing contests that were broadcast on TV. I began to feel that becoming a professional singer was not just a far-off dream, and I had come to strongly desire to earn money in order to help send my four younger sisters to college. Singing in Japan would allow me to achieve all of these goals at once—I was so excited.

On the other hand, I was not completely free of hesitation. I had heard from my grandparents that Japan had occupied the Philippines in the past, and I had seen the “scary people” that were the yakuza and samurai on the news and in dramas on TV. But I knew that not all Japanese people were like that, and the hope that I could earn money by my beloved singing, was what pushed me to do it more than anything else. Moreover, my mother supported me so much that she accompanied me to the audition. Fortunately I passed it, and signed off on my first performance contract for working in Japan. But at the same time, it meant, “No matter what happens to me, I can’t go back to my home country for six months.”

After I first landed, I headed over to Naruko Onsen in Miyagi Prefecture with the other performers. I cried every night for the first month out of loneliness for not being able to see my beloved family and from the anxiety of not understanding the language being spoken around me at all.

I performed a variety of styles of music on stage at the onsen, including jazz, pop, soul, and the traditional Japanese enka. Singing soothed my sadness, and I eventually became accustomed to life in Japan when I started to get closer to a dancer who had already been to Japan many times, who taught me some basic Japanese. Also, good food saved my life (laughs).

 

Setting down the mic to become a “shufu” (housewife)

My routine of auditioning and going to Japan, then returning to the Philippines after six months of shows continued on for the next six years. I remember that during my several visits to Japan, the enka song “Kawa no Nagare no Yō Ni” (“Like the Flow of the River”), which was Hibari Misora’s last song, was a huge hit.

Although I didn’t receive that much compensation for my singing, I was able to send most of it to my family thanks to the show producers who paid for my rent and utilities.

Then one day I met a Japanese hotel worker while I was staying at Kawaji Onsen in Tochigi Prefecture. He was in charge of serving meals to guests, and we shared an elevator almost every day. Eventually we exchanged phone numbers.

Soon after, I married him and I took a break from my singing career to become a homemaker. No one asked me to do that; it was what I wanted to do. To me, family is the most important thing in life—and I wanted to be living happily, with family.

By having a child, I thought that I would be able to fulfill my modest dreams with my husband. However, we gradually began to see differences in our values, and I felt happiness slipping away from us. Eventually, after about five years, our marriage came to an end.

But I did not return home. My child was just beginning elementary school, and I wanted to raise him in Japan, where there were people who had given me a chance to become a singer, and who have been continually supporting me even after I realized my dream.

 

An enka singer seizing her happiness

After my divorce, my passion for singing became unstoppable again, and I actively participated in more karaoke competitions. At one competition, one of the judges, the enka singer Taro Kinugawa, told me that my voice would suit enka the best. I had been singing mainly pop songs until then, but his words led me to step into yet another unknown world. It was at that moment that I became the first Filipino enka singer.

Mr. Kinugawa taught me everything I needed to know as an enka singer. One of his most memorable phrases was, “Enka is sung from the heart.” Until then, I had been singing Japanese songs at shows and karaoke competitions, but at the time, I just sung without really thinking much about the meaning of the words. Mr. Kinugawa taught me though how important it is to grasp the meaning of the lyrics and to sing using the appropriate emotion.

On the other hand, I am still from the Philippines, so I always give a hug, whether it’s to a man or a woman around, when I get into the mood during a show. I always hug people I care about, whether they are Filipino or Japanese. That’s me, Yolanda (laugh).

I really love interacting with the elderly people who have become my fans, because I feel as if I am talking to my father and mother. I often sing to them in the countryside and at nursing homes, and they listen to my songs with tears in their eyes, hugging me with joy afterwards. They shake my hand, never letting go. They give me gifts: pickles, fruits, and vegetables—and I feel their heartfelt love.

After becoming an enka singer, I had another special encounter. I happened to meet the representative of an international peace organization called the Global Peace Foundation Japan, which led me to the disaster-stricken area. Through attending their meetings and singing at their events, I was given the opportunity to visit Kesennuma in Miyagi Prefecture, one of the places that was severely damaged by the Tōhoku earthquake and tsunami in 2011. I felt a strong connection with the city because, as you will recall, my first visit to Japan was to Miyagi Prefecture, singing at the Naruko Onsen there.

In Kesennuma, I had the opportunity to experience rice planting and harvesting and was served delicious onigiri rice balls made from the rice that had been harvested, which made me feel as if I had returned to my hometown. I also had the chance to talk with Seietsu Sato, a former firefighter who had tragically lost his wife in the disaster in Kesennuma, and I felt a deep heart-to-heart connection with him.

Seietsu Sato, who was the commanding officer of the Kesennuma City Fire Department at the time of the 2011 Tōhoku / Great East Japan Earthquake, restored his own rice paddies that were destroyed by the tsunami. He hosts the “Inekari (Rice Harvesting) Cup” every year with volunteers, to promote exchange between people coming from all over Japan and local residents. The “Cup” in the event’s name comes from Sato’s many years as a coach of a local boys’ volleyball team. After the rice harvest is over each year, the participants enjoy rice balls made from freshly harvested rice and play volleyball together with local children in the paddies. The “Taue (Rice Planting) Cup” is also held every May.
**Photos provided by the Global Peace Foundation Japan

 

Having received so much love from the people of Japan, I now feel true happiness not only as a singer but also as a human being.

 

What is Japan to you?

It’s a place where I feel at home.

People in Japan are kind and have very good manners. Those manners are now ingrained in me. So even back home in the Philippines, I bow and say “Arigato (thank you)” in Japanese when I pay at a restaurant or supermarket. Cashiers give me a funny look, though (laughs).

Although I’ve been living in Japan for a very long time, my life in Japan began with a complete lack of understanding of the language. I couldn’t buy anything, because I couldn’t speak or read any words. I couldn’t make friends, I couldn’t express my feelings, and I was worried if I would be able to get to the places I wanted to go because I couldn’t read any of the signs. But as the lyrics of the song I wrote, “ARIGATO,” go, my eyes brightened up at once, after I learned the language.


Yolanda sings “ARIGATO” at the Philippine Expo on June 12, 2022.

I’m incredibly grateful to everybody and for being able to be here in Japan, so I have nothing to really say about it in the form of criticism. But if I had to name one thing that is missing in Japan which we have a strong belief in in the Philippines, it would be the value of “family relationships”.

In the Philippines, family is very important and dear to us. But in Japan, I feel that families tend to fall apart as people grow older. If more people cherished their family more, I am sure Japan would be an even better place!

Japan is the place where I started my professional career and grew as a singer. It is the place that supported me in becoming the first Filipino enka singer. I am very happy just to be in this amazing country.

 

Yolanda’s links

Official Website: tamuoe.com/
YouTube Channel: youtube.com/channel/UC2rT32lmcsHXncPmrMWPWRw
TikTok Channel: tiktok.com/@tamuoe
Facebook page: facebook.com/Tasicos-Music-Office-Entertainment-100131649399199