Jerome White Jr. grew up on the North Side in the 1990s. He graduated from Pitt in 2003. But today, known simply as 'Jero,' he's one of the hottest popular music sensations in Japan. How did that happen?
Dmitri Ragano, a fellow Pittsburgh native who just happens to be fluent in Japanese, met up with Jerome last month. He explains Jero's appeal -- his mastery of a traditional folk music called Enka, blended with hip-hop rhythms and style. And he explores how Jero's success reflects growing openness in an insular -- and aging -- society
Growing up on the North Side in the 1990s, Jerome White Jr. enjoyed sports, dance, hip-hop and other hobbies common in his neighborhood. But he also had a passion for an art form from the other side of the world, a music introduced to him by his grandmother.
Jerome's maternal grandmother was originally from Yokohama, where she met his African-American grandfather during his military service. The family eventually moved to Pittsburgh. She loved a traditional music genre known as "enka," which is very popular in Japan but hardly known outside of Asia. As a boy, Jerome would go to his grandmother's home in the North Hills to watch videotaped enka performances from her native country and practice singing along.
Now at the age of 26, Jerome is living out a dream. His boyhood passion for an exotic music morphed into a singing career here in Japan -- and an adventure he could never have imagined.
During the past few months, he has become an overnight sensation in the Japanese music industry. Under the stage name "Jero," he has become the first major enka performer to come from outside of Japan and achieve stardom.
His first single, "Umiyuki," had a record-breaking debut on the local pop charts. Since the record was introduced in February, his life has been transformed into a whirlwind of performances to sell-out crowds and televised appearances on prime-time variety shows.
Jerome White Jr. is a handsome, polite, young man who dresses in hip-hop outfits and sings in fluent Japanese. This is the story of how he became a nationally recognized Japanese celebrity beyond the world of music.
American perceptions of Japan, articulated in novels such as Michael Crichton's "Rising Sun," often focus the country's xenophobia and intolerance of non-natives, even those who might have Japanese ancestry such as Jerome.
In some ways, the cliche is true: Japanese culture remains deeply insular and wary of integration in an era of increasing globalization and multiculturalism. Common attitudes among Japanese about a large-scale influx of foreign workers into the country, for instance, border on a paranoia that would make immigration fears in the United States seem mild by comparison.
Historically, it is an island country whose shogun leaders deliberately isolated the society for centuries before Commodore Perry's gunboat diplomacy forced an opening to the outside world. In Japanese, the word for foreigner is "gaijin," whose characters translate literally as "person on the outside."
Yet the way that Japan has embraced Jerome shows there is a flip side to these attitudes. There is also an enduring fascination with foreigners who come to the country, learn the language, show an appreciation for the culture and offer unique talents.
Since the economic bubble of the 1980s a generation ago, there has been a succession of telegenic gaijin celebrities: Mormon attorneys. Hawaiian sumo wrestlers. African sociologists. They speak Japanese fluently in the mainstream media and become public personalities.
In some ways, Jerome can be seen as the latest foreign star, whose hybrid background and ability to bridge cultures hold a special interest for the Japanese psyche. But the Jero phenomenon is tapping into something deeper.
The non-Japanese part of Jerome's background is a big part of his appeal. Jerome is three-quarters African American. As a student at the University of Pittsburgh, he was active in the Black Dance Workshop and led his own choreography group.
In his onstage performances here, he leads back-up dancers through steps with a hip-hop flavor, giving his renditions of the venerated music form a streetwise edge. African-American youth culture is extremely popular with young Japanese who go to great lengths to study and emulate it.
Jerome's vocal talents, honed through years of practice and study, have gained him enormous credibility with more traditionally inclined fans of Japanese music. He is the first foreign singer ever to achieve mass-market sales in this genre. His first single "Umiyuki" (which translates as "Ocean Snow") started at No. 4 in the local pop charts in February -- the highest debut ever by an enka singer.
Enka music evolved during the first half of the 20th century, when Japan was going through an intense period of modernization. It was the first genre to combine the country's classic five-tone scale with Western harmonies and modern synthesized instruments. The lyrics are deeply sentimental, often focusing on hardship, love and resilience. Jerome thinks of this music as "the Japanese version of the blues."
The genre grew in popularity after World War II and is regarded as a favorite of the generations who grew up in the aftermath of the war. Born into the destruction and famine of the war, these generations lived through the country's rise from the ashes to become one of the world's richest nations.
In many ways, enka's durability as an art form is a testament to the ongoing influence of these post-war generations, still visible and vibrant in a country with the longest life spans in the world. Many of the fans coming to Jerome's sell-out performance are in their 70s and 80s. (His most troubling experience with fame so far was when "an old lady followed me home one day. After that, I started to get a little paranoid.")
The impact of graying population, combined with young families having fewer children, has made Japan an older society. Men and women now well past retirement age expect to either continue working or at least stay active longer than they ever imagined.
The late writer Peter Drucker predicted the combination of life extension and declining birth rates would have among the most transformational and unpredictable effects on the world in the 21st century, partly because these trends have no precedent in human history.
Japan as a nation is at a forefront of these demographic shifts. They have already had a profound impact on many aspects of society. Concerns that the country will face a shortage of younger workers in the future have led government lawmakers to rethink longstanding aversion to mass immigrations and consider increased incentives to attract foreign workers.
Discussions on aging and the lifestyle of seniors aren't treated as niche or marginalized segments in the mainstream media. Instead they are increasingly integrated in art and broadcasts for the mass market. Books filled with brain-teasers and word games aimed at helping the elderly stay mentally active top the best-seller lists. A highly rated roundtable talk show earlier this month, for instance, asked attractive, young celebrities in their 20s and 30s what kind of seniors they aspire to be in the future.
Cross-generational appeal, then, is another key facet of Jerome's persona.
His hip-hop background excites the 20-something Japanese in baggy pants who listen to Snoop Dog and Mary J. Blige. His authentic crooning delights the lifelong fans who came of age in the 1950s to the sounds of Hibari Misora, the beloved singer known at the "Queen of Enka" who died in 1989.
Jerome describes his fan base as "a mix of young and old. There's a little more of the older fans but lots of younger people. I like that I can bring this type of music to young audiences."
Jerome is frequently the focus of several prime-time television shows, where interviews about his upbringing in Pittsburgh and his current life are conducted in Japanese. Jerome's command of the language is very rare among foreigners and has been another key factor is his popularity. In addition to conversational fluency, Jerome also learned the written script, which includes two sets of phonetic alphabets and thousands of kanji characters derived from ancient Chinese. He publishes a blog (blog.goo.ne.jp/jeroenka) to communicate with his fans.
Jerome says he spoke a little of the language with his mother and grandmother growing up. Then he took Japanese classes at Perry Traditional Academy. During high school, Jerome was a drum major in the high school band and also danced, but at this point he never sang outside of home.
At the University of Pittsburgh, he majored in information science but also continued to study Japanese. It was during his sophomore year that Jerome first came to live in Japan, studying at a college in Osaka, a bustling industrial city of 2.5 million in the center of the country. Jerome made many Japanese friends during his time there, most of them sharing his interest in dance and hip-hop. (The stage name Jero, which is easier for Japanese to pronounce, was his nickname when he was an English teacher.)
After graduating from Pitt in 2003, Jerome taught for an English school in Wakayama, a satellite city of Osaka. There he met someone from NHK, the national broadcasting company, who told him about an amateur singing contest. After auditioning, he was selected for to compete on the show. "I was extremely nervous," he says. "It was my first time singing in front of a group of people and it was televised."
He continued singing in karaoke contests until he was contacted by Victor Entertainment, a subsidiary of the electronics firm JVC. The company was interested in Jerome as a potential recording artist but also felt he needed to continue training.
He moved to Tokyo and took a job as a computer engineer while studying proper breathing and vocals from a traditional enka teacher. A few years later, the entertainment firm worked with Jerome to release his "Umiyuki" -- and he was launched his current life as a professional singer.
Despite sudden fame of the past few months, Jerome remains modest and unaffected. "This is not an act," he says. "This who I am. Hip-hop clothes are what I wear on a daily basis."
More than anything, he is happy to sing for a living, although the demands of being an up-and-coming performer in one of the hardest-working countries in the world takes its toll.
"I am hoping to keep doing this. But it's a tough schedule. I only get one day off a month now. That's the big American side of me that like's having days off."