- You grew up in the town of Onagawa in Miyagi Prefecture, which was severely damaged by the Great East Japan Earthquake.
When I was little, Onagawa was a rural fishing town of about 10,000 in a natural setting close to the mountains. Skipjack tuna and saury fishing boats lined the harbor of its coastal whaling port, and there were plenty of hot-tempered fishermen around. I remember once in high school when I was caught walking with a girl near the harbor, a fisherman I didn't know yelled out, "What do you think you're doing with that girl?" [laughs] These rough fisherman types would frequent the hundreds of tiny bars in town, and my mother ran one of them. My teachers at school were customers, too. One time, my teacher got a little too drunk and forgot his bag there, so I had to deliver it to the teacher's room the next day. I was your typical athletic type in junior high and high school and played on the basketball team. I would practice all day and night at school until I had to catch the last train home. I never really studied until I had a test to take, but I still got pretty good grades.
- Do you ever miss your hometown?
I do. After the earthquake, I went back to Onagawa to help with reconstruction activities only to realize how attached I was to the place. After all this time, I still feel like I'm an "Onagawan" at heart. But during junior high and high school, all I wanted was to escape the countryside as soon as possible. My mother wanted me to go to a university in the Tohoku region, but I was adamant about going to Tokyo. Even though it meant I had to spend an extra year studying to get in, I had my sights set on Keio because I loved its preppy image. After I passed the entrance exams—which were highly competitive with an acceptance rate of less than 5%—my name was even published in the local newspaper in Onagawa. That's how rare it was to get into Keio. My mother, who was so against me going to Tokyo, was all too happy to see my name printed there and would brag about me to her customers.
- We've heard that you originally wanted to be a diplomat when you first came to Keio. Is that true?
That was just a vague ambition of mine. When I first heard about the profession from a friend in junior high, I thought it sounded cool. You have to remember that this was during the Cold War. At the time, I loved reading Hiroyuki Itsuki's popular novels set in the former Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, so I thought that I, too, might someday become a diplomat for Japan in the Soviet Union. [laughs]
- But in a twist of events, you decided to become a stage actor?
Well, diplomats need language skills, don't they? I had a classmate who also wanted to become a diplomat, and he invited me to join the Keio English Speaking Society (K.E.S.S.). The society had four sections: debate, speech, discussion, and drama, and I chose drama because it seemed like it would be the most fun. I became more fascinated by acting than English. At first, I was behind the scenes most of the time, but in my third year, I was finally selected as a cast member for the role of an electrician. The lead was a friend of mine, and we both got excited by the idea of acting in a play in Japanese, so on a whim, we decided to try out for Bungakuza, one of the most famous theater troupes in Japan. I never thought that I would be chosen since only 30 people are selected from a pool of more than 1,400 applicants. The chances were even slimmer than me getting into Keio! [laughs]
Somehow I managed to sail through the first and second rounds. Of course, I was happy with the results, but it also felt bizarre. I spent the next year learning how to act at Bungakuza while working part-time. I did everything from office work to road construction, serving food at a beer garden, and delivering Chinese food.
- So you were trying to make it as an actor even while you were still in school. How were your studies going?
I kept up with my studies, so my grades weren't that bad. I'm a hardworking country boy at heart, so I'm actually quite studious. [laughs] I think I was good at concentrating. Just before graduation, I auditioned for the TV drama Warera Seishun and landed my TV debut as the series' main character. Since shooting started in January 1974, three months before graduation, I was prepared to quit school without taking my graduation exams. But producer Hirokichi Okada was a graduate of Keio, and he convinced me not to drop out. He even adjusted the shooting schedule around my exams. Thanks to him, I graduated in March 1974, and the first episode of Warera Seishun aired the following month, on April 7.
- So, right out of college, you became the star of a popular TV series overnight?
That's right! My song "Fureai," which was featured in the series, was also a big hit, so 1974 became a pivotal year in my life. One day I was a poor college student living in an apartment without a TV, refrigerator, or washing machine. The next, I became a superstar, so I didn't know my left from right. But I decided then and there that every job was worth doing well. Fortunately for me, even after Warera Seishun, I was able to keep working with producer Okada and his team to make more and more TV series together. I was even able to co-star in a detective series alongside Yusaku Matsuda, a fellow member of Bungakuza. I think I was very fortunate to meet the people I did.
- "Fureai" became a big hit song, keeping the number-one spot on the Oricon chart for ten consecutive weeks, which propelled you into the limelight as a singer.
Actually, it was already decided that the main character in the Seishun TV series would release a song for each series. I've always liked music, but I never thought I would be a singer. I had been crazy about The Beatles and Japanese Group Sounds since I was in junior high, and when I was in college, I probably wrote more than 100 songs on the guitar. I started touring Japan in 1974, the year I made my debut, and continued to tour every year until 2019. Two years ago, I played my 1500th concert. Unfortunately, the coronavirus pandemic has stopped me from touring, but I want to keep honing my craft as a singer until the day I can sing in front of a live audience again.
- How do you balance your careers as an actor and singer?
At first, I intended on being a serious actor, and my career as a singer was just something I did on the side, but as I toured, my thoughts on my singing career changed. Concerts are a form of entertainment that exists solely for the enjoyment of an audience. If you don't show them a good performance, they won't come to your next one. It's an unforgiving business, not something that can be done simply as a side gig. That's why I have taken the stance of working at 100% in both my acting and singing careers. Of course, that means a lot more work, but recently I've started playing the piano and saxophone in addition to my main instrument, the guitar, and I'm having more fun as I continue to pursue music in my own ways.
- What were some turning points or life-changing events in your career as an actor and singer?
Honestly, perhaps due in part to the value I place on each and every job that I do, my 45-year career has been relatively steady without too many ups and downs. A while ago, I counted to see how many TV series I had played a leading role in. That number was 34. I surprised even myself at such a large number! Speaking of which, I once played the role of Yukichi Fukuzawa as the main character in the 12-hour drama Wakakichi ni Moyuru: Yukichi Fukuzawa to Meiji no Gunzō, broadcast on New Year's Day by TV Tokyo in 1984. After it aired, I received a letter from one of my college teachers, Hiroshi Kato, who praised my acting, saying he was very impressed with the show. Professor Kato was a star economics professor when I was a student, and his classes were always full. I was happy to receive such high praise from such a great teacher.
I also fondly remember later talking with Professor Kato about Yukichi Fukuzawa and Keio University. If I'm not mistaken, this TV program is now part of the official archive at Keio University. I'm glad that I could contribute, in my own small way, to my alma mater through acting.
As a singer, I think my encounter with Keisuke Kuwata of Southern All Stars was highly influential. He wrote the song "Koibito Mo Nureru Machikado" (lit. "The Street Corner Where Even Lovers Get Wet") for me. It's the type of song that I could never have written or sung before meeting him, and he greatly expanded my repertoire as a singer.
- Did the coronavirus pandemic have a significant impact on your work?
Yes, of course. I can't tour like I used to, and I'm flat out of work. But I think that we can now see the light at the end of the tunnel. So many researchers around the world are now desperately working on the development of vaccines and therapeutic drugs. Even if the world does not return entirely to the way it was, in a year or two, the pandemic should be behind us. As long as you keep your eyes on hope, you can move forward and get on with life. I try to value each day, taking life one good day at a time, which prepares me for future opportunities.
- Could you say a few final words to current students?
The coronavirus pandemic has been a difficult time for us all, but I hope that young people will believe in the light of hope for a better future. For many years, I chased my dreams, one after the other, as both an actor and singer, which has made me who I am today. I had my share of hardship, but looking back, it was a lot of fun. I never lost sight of my dreams at the time. I hope that young people today will never forget to cherish their dreams amid the current crisis. Remember that the Keio alumni network will always be there to support you. The bond between Keio graduates is something truly unique. When you find out that someone you meet is from Keio, it's like you suddenly become family. I admit that from the outside, it might seem a little strange, but you always feel right at home in the Keio family. [laughs] In my career, I have seen plenty of Keio graduates in showbiz, including stars like Tetsuya Bessho, Yuzo Kayama, and the late Yujiro Ishihara. With the support of your Keio family, rely on each other and have fun. Never forget your dreams and carve your own path to pursue a life worth living for you.
- Thank you for your time.
Actor & Singer