American Chris Hart finds J-pop home
Leaving San Francisco, singer Chris Hart has made himself at home in J-pop.
His album of cover versions of Japanese pop tunes is rising on the charts. And the crooner is scoring on this nation's equivalent of American Idol, being billed as a genius who understands the musical soul of Japan.
His success highlights a music industry that's still booming, and increasingly eager to internationalize. It's even ready to eclipse the U.S. music world, where CD sales have plunged with the arrival of digital technology.
Hart, 29, says he is living his dream. And he doesn't mind a bit that his fame has come so far from home.
"I am a part of the J-pop world now," he said in a recent interview, using the term for pop music in the world's third-biggest economy.
Hart has won over Japan by focusing on adaptations of local hits such as Home, a 2008 ballad popularised by singer Yusaku Kiyama about the joys of becoming a father.
Hart's rendition, released as a single in May, surged to No. 13 on the Oricon music charts, Japan's equivalent of Billboard. A month later, Hart released his first album, Heart Song, which reached third on Oricon.
That's saying a lot, given the size of Japan's market.
Japan's music industry is estimated at US$4.42 billion, closely trailing the US at US$4.48 billion, although Japan has less than half the population, according to the International Federation of the Phonographic Industry, which tracks such data.
While other countries have shifted to digital music, CDs still make up 80 per cent of Japan's music sales, according to the Recording Industry Association of Japan. Only 34 per cent of music sales are CDs in the US, and 58 per cent is digital.
Recent albums from established Japanese acts such as B'z and Southern All Stars are setting off a CD revival. AKB48 and other groups featuring young women, known as "idols," are boosting CD purchases among the younger crowd. The CDs sometimes come with concert tickets and other benefits, so some fans are buying multiple copies of the same one.
"Japanese people tend to want the physical CDs or the gifts and trinkets that come as perks with many albums. Music companies are getting creative," said Tomonobu Yonai, a spokesman for the recording industry group.
Hart's career took off with an appearance in a popular Japanese TV show called "Nodojiman The! World," in March 2012, where foreigners compete in karaoke.
Hart blew away the judges, mostly singers and celebrities who not only praised his technique but also his understanding of the lyrics and the emotions of the tunes. He was crowned "the world's best foreign J-pop singer."
"I feel embarrassed to come on stage," said singer Masahiro Nakai after Hart covered one of his songs in his clear, smooth tenor. Akiko Wada, another singer, called him "just perfect."
Hart started learning Japanese when he was 12. He wanted to study Korean because his aunt was of Korean descent, but his school offered only Japanese. He was quickly drawn to Japanese culture. A year later, he went on a home-stay program in Japan, where he fell even deeper in love with Japan.
Hart started a rock band performing Japanese songs in San Francisco, while working over the years as a police officer and a clerk at a cosmetics company. In 2009, Hart stumbled on an opportunity to go back to Japan with a job at a vending machine company.
He uploaded videos of himself singing in Japanese on YouTube. To his surprise, he got invited to be on the TV show.
Although some music critics say Japanese tunes are bland and unsophisticated, Hart believes music is more personal and emotional in Japan, rather than focused on catchy riffs.
That's why he prefers to call his fans "family." Hart has also made a point of adopting Japanese mannerisms, such as bowing.
"People feel more inclined to buy the album out of the support, like a friend," said Hart, wearing his trademark fedora and vest.
In a recent outdoor concert in Tokyo, hundreds of people, some with children in their arms, crowded the stage as Hart sang in near-perfect Japanese.
"I think it's really special that somebody from another country sings Japanese songs because he thinks it is great music," said Akane Kawano, a 31-year-old receptionist.