Ryokuoushoku Shakai’s Haruko Nagaya and peppe Talk Breaking Out of Gender Expectations

Ryokuoushoku Shakai frontwoman and songwriter Haruko Nagaya and keyboardist peppe are the next featured artists on Billboard Japan’s Women in Music interview series highlighting trailblazing women in the Japanese music industry. The initiative launched this year in the same spirit of Billboard’s annual event that began in 2007, with a mission to celebrate the women who continue to break new ground in Japan’s music business through contents including interviews, live performances and panel discussions.

The four members of Ryokuoushoku Shakai — two women and two men — formed the now hugely popular band in high school and celebrated their tenth anniversary in music this year. The J-pop group continues to soar, successfully performing its first headlining show at the prestigious Nippon Budokan in Tokyo in September.

But Nagaya admits that until recently, she’d been hitting a wall, feeling that she couldn’t go on unless something changed. She speaks about how she overcame those obstacles and shares her newfound vision in this interview with Billboard Japan, while peppe looks back on watching her bandmate grapple with various expectations and arriving at some of her own realizations through frank discussions amongst the members.

Could you tell us about the women you look up to?

Haruko Nagaya: Mine would be (J-pop singer-songwriter) Ai Otsuka. I’ve always loved music and singing since I was a child, but after encountering Ai Otsuka’s songs, I was drawn to music even further. I fell in love with her very catchy song “Sakuranbo” (Cherry) and she has this gap between the cute first impression and her unpretentious personality that shows through her Kansai dialect. She also comes across as having a great deal of curiosity and those aspects were really attractive to me. Even now, I find that women who have that kind of distinctive individuality and unique gap like I felt with Ai Otsuka at the time are delightful, and I’d like to be that way, too.

peppe: I’ve never admired a single particular person growing up. Instead, I’ve created this image of the kind of person I admire by picking out and listing the good qualities of different people. It’s like I’m trying to incorporate as many of those qualities on that list as possible to bring myself closer to that image in my mind. If I were to explain the image in a nutshell, I guess it would be “a dignified woman. I think when I make choices in my daily life, I’m subconsciously thinking, “What would a dignified woman do?” I want to keep accumulating even minor things like studying English, reading books, and being aware of people’s gazes as much as I can.

I’m sure there are listeners who consider you two as women who inspire them. Do you think being a woman influences your musical activities?

Nagaya: When I write lyrics, that means it’s from a woman’s point of view, obviously. A man could write lyrics with a woman as the subject, but I imagine the essence would elude him, so I think there’s significance in me expressing my honest feelings. Also, as a general tendency, more and more men are able to cleanly hit high notes and their vocal range is widening, so I feel frustrated because there’s a limit to the lower notes I can hit as a vocalist.

peppe: Those kinds of biological differences are limiting, aren’t they? As a keyboardist, it’s unfortunately true that my hands are smaller than men. But that’s a given so I make an effort to exhibit my originality through my way of expression, like how I play.

Nagaya: I also feel that people seem to expect me to present myself in a pretty specific way. I’m moved by the shows and performances of bands that expose their true selves and the things they carry within in a raw and honest way, but the things being externalized that way aren’t only the pretty parts, right? There’s a profundity that’s enhanced by expressing even the not-so-pretty parts. But maybe I’ve been putting up a barrier as well, and it’s like the people around me expect me to be a certain way.

peppe: Nagaya and I talked about this recently. I wasn’t aware of it, but when I thought about it again after she mentioned it, I could sympathize with her in some ways. She’s our vocalist and gets a lot of media exposure, so she must have felt that way often.

Nagaya: There’s a part of me that was reconciled to presenting myself in a way people expected, like uploading superficial content on social media to receive feedback. But even though I was the one doing that, there was a time when I couldn’t be genuinely happy when people wrote things like, “You’re so pretty” as a compliment. I was like, “That’s not what I want you to see, I want you to listen to my songs and look at what’s inside, at all the intensity.” It was frustrating to me that the “ideal Haruko Nagaya” and the “ideal Ryokuoushoku Shakai” had become entrenched in everyone’s mind.

Did you share this feeling with your bandmates?

peppe: We all discussed it before the Budokan concert. I thought it was difficult (to navigate) but there were some things I realized because she told us and we all became aware of it. I’m sure each member is handling it differently, but I’m glad I now know how she felt.

Nagaya: I remember peppe kindly saying, “We (the other members) were also being too dependent on those public expectations.” We’re glad people hold us up to high expectations and it’s easier to (go) along with it. And there’s no pushback that way. But I couldn’t keep going on like that anymore, so I decided to go all out for the Budokan show. I didn’t care if my makeup or hair was messed up, or if my face looked weird, I just went all out until I had nothing left inside. Now I try to stand on stage intending to convey what’s inside, even if my pitch is off somewhat.

peppe, what was it like for you, watching your bandmate’s change up close?

peppe: I felt her passion for music. There were times when I consciously wore pants to avoid being seen as feminine, but I might not have been thinking about things like that as deeply as she was. Even though we’re in the same band and were both women, we don’t feel 100 percent the same way, and I have my own way of proceeding. In that sense, I think the band itself would fall apart if we don’t know how each member feels at any given time, so I’m glad she told us. We were able to talk about it in the presence of all the crew as well as the band members, so maybe it was the right time for a change.

Nagaya: It was a great relief for me to be able to talk about it. I was able to get rid of a lot of hang-ups and change my behavior on stage, which also helped. I think the same goes for the lyrics I mentioned earlier. I want to convey genuine feelings by exposing even the most pathetic and ugly parts of myself, even if I’m a woman. I want to sing about everything including the part of me that longs to be strong but can’t always be that way.

It’s not that I only want to reach women, but I think that by (letting everything out), the music will be relatable to both men and women. There was a time when I thought about changing the first person in the lyrics to “boku” (generally used by men) to reach a wider audience. But now I want to create things that reach people in a deeper way, not just through a particular word choice.

In that sense, Ryokuoushoku Shakai is a band that’s supported by many people regardless of gender.

Nagaya: How people feel about gender can differ from generation to generation. We don’t hear much biased opinions from our fans, so I think many of them have balanced values. Since we started the band, we’ve been doing music hoping to become a household word, so we’re grateful and happy that many people are listening to our songs now, regardless of age or gender.

peppe: That’s so true. But as far as the industry is concerned, I sometimes feel that the ratio of women is still low. As a mixed-gender band, it’d be nice to have female staff members around, but they’re not always easy to find. Now I don’t mind so much, and when I’m not feeling well, I don’t hesitate to talk about it.

This veers away from the topic of music, but until recently, the main host on (Japanese) TV would always be a man and his assistant a woman. I hope we can achieve the kind of balanced society where competent people can do their jobs in appropriate positions regardless of gender.

Maybe we’re in transition when many things are changing. Looking back now, if you were to give advice to yourself in the first year of your career, what would say?

Nagaya: Sometimes I wish I’d spent my youth in this day and age. It feels like things are becoming more lenient. People are into different styles of fashion, hairstyles, and have different values, and the general vibe is more accepting of people as who they are. I really enjoy that feeling.

peppe: When we were students, it was a bit more like everyone chased the same thing, which led to a trend. It was scary to stray from that line.

Nagaya: Now, a wide variety of styles are accepted, so it’s easier to do what you want. I wonder how it would have been like if I’d spent my youth in these times, but I guess I feel that way now because I’ve reached this age. If I were still that age, maybe I’d be feeling some kind of peer pressure. But I want to tell my past self, “You’re setting your own boundaries and narrowing your possibilities.”

Listen to exclusive playlists curated by Haruko Nagaya here and peppe here.

This interview by Rio Hirai (SOW SWEET PUBLISHING) first appeared on Billboard Japan.

Joe Lynch