Miu Sakamoto spoke with Billboard Japan for its Women in Music interview series featuring female players in the Japanese entertainment industry. The WIM initiative in Japan launched last year to honor artists, producers and executives who have made significant contributions to music and inspired other women through their work. The first 30 interviews in this series were recently published in Japan as a “Billboard Japan Presents” collection by writer Rio Hirai, who continues to speak with women to highlight their stories.
Sakamoto celebrated 25 years in music last year. She grew up surrounded by numerous high-profile adults from a young age — she’s the daughter of world-renowned musicians Ryuichi Sakamoto and Akiko Yano, for starters — and moved to the United States at the age of nine. Her upbringing instilled in her a relatively unbiased way of seeing the world through encounters with various people, and she’s now trying to reflect this in her own parenting. The 43-year-old singer, actress, and writer shared her thoughts on where she currently stands in terms of her career and motherhood.
Did you look up to any women when you were little?
I lived in Koenji (a bohemian district in Tokyo) until I was nine years old and grew up not being very aware of differences between men and women. I’m not very good at noticing gender differences. So I don’t think I looked up to any particular woman, but did love beautiful things. I adored a British band called Japan. They disbanded in 1982, but they were also big in Japan at the time, and when they came, they’d do stuff with my father and hung out at our house. I also liked David Bowie and the hair & makeup artist Chiaki Shimada.
Which reminds me, I remember being fascinated with doing makeup. The men I saw growing up, including my father, wore makeup when they appeared on TV or on stage, so it never even occurred to me that most people thought wearing makeup was something only women did.
Of course if you see men wearing makeup all the time, you wouldn’t end up with such a bias regarding gender norms.
Exactly. I also liked Butoh from a young age and when I became a teenager, I liked Visual-kei bands and gothic style. Beautiful things that transcend gender.
Did you become more aware of gender inequalities as you grew older?
I tried to study gender issues when I became an adult and especially since I returned to Japan, but to tell you the truth, I wasn’t very keen on the way some people advocated feminism in a vocal way.
Why do you think you felt that way?
Since men and women are built differently physically, I thought they’d have respective specialties and roles. I’m sure there are exceptions, but… Because I didn’t think in a discriminatory way, or in terms of gender norms like, “This is how things should be,” I had no idea how people who have had such things imposed on them felt at all. I was never told by my parents to “be like a girl,” and I don’t think my brother was ever told to “be like a man.” That’s why, to begin with, I didn’t get why women had to fight (for their rights).
But I gradually learned through junior high and high school how hard it was for women to win rights in all aspects of society throughout history. Once I realized that it hasn’t been that long since women won their rights and that we’re still in the middle of that process, I began to feel that we still need to continue the movement.
The thing is, though, I’ve still never suffered from having my femininity forced on me, so maybe I’m still a bit fuzzy about it all. That’s why I don’t feel like we necessarily have to constantly reject “being like a woman.” Sometimes it feels limiting to stick too closely to equality in form.
I’ve spoken to more than 30 women so far in this series, and many of them aren’t comfortable with being too vocal about asserting women’s rights. But I don’t think asserting women’s rights is the same as oppressing men or people of other genders. I’m hoping this series will someday lead to a future where we don’t have to focus on “being a woman” as a theme. You mentioned earlier that you were raised in an environment without gender norms. What do you take care to do in raising your child?
To raise her among adults with various values, I suppose. Like what I mentioned earlier about the members of Japan playing with me when I was little, I grew up in an environment with a diverse range of adults around me. There were lots of people who were really wild, too. I’ve seen many cases where people who don’t do well socially are outstandingly talented in one particular thing. I mean, my father was like that. [Laughs] I think that’s very human, and no one is perfect. Looking back, I think my way of thinking has a lot to do with my childhood environment.
In a world where people are criticized if they stray a little bit, it’s meaningful to have that sense that imperfection is human nature. I’m sure it would change society if more people thought that way. Is there anything you take care to do in raising a girl?
I never make fun of her appearance. I’ve always had hang-ups about my own appearance, so I make an effort to never say anything negative to her. Of course it comes naturally and not because I decided to do so, but I persistently tell her that she’s so cute, every day. Maybe it’s something that I wanted for myself growing up.
I don’t think anyone feels negatively about their appearance from day one, and we start comparing ourselves to others as we grow up. Going through that, it must be reassuring to have someone close to you affirming you in that way.
Yes. I gained weight after we moved to the U.S. I started extracurricular activities and became muscular and strong, and also wore glasses because I had bad eyesight. Meanwhile, my brother was pale, slender, and had a beautiful face. So my relatives would casually compare me to him. They’d say things like, “Miu, your physique is made for an easy delivery” and things like that. The concept of “lookism” wasn’t widely known back then. More than the fact that I was a minority as an Asian, I suffered an inferiority complex about my appearance during my adolescence.
You’re right, that bias of “this is how beautiful women/men should look” is what causes people to feel inferior about their appearances. As an artist, do you think being a woman affects you in any way?
As a singer, I think being a woman affects me in terms of how I use the voice I have. My voice is my identity and I want to use it to help society. That’s why I continue to appear on radio (as a host) on top of my singing projects.
In 2022, out of the 100 most popular groups on Billboard Japan’s year-end tally, the gender breakdown of artists and acts was 58 male, 27 female, and 15 mixed. The percentage is pretty much the same every year. Any thoughts on this?
My take is that I don’t think this result necessarily means that female artists have limited opportunities, but rather, there’s an imbalance in the style of consumption in Japan and the age group that can spend money on music. I don’t know the real numbers, but I don’t see how there could be such an imbalance in the share of opportunities (based on gender), because I really don’t feel it myself.
Then there’s the reality that there are far fewer women in management positions in the Japanese music industry.
OK, that is so true. Women who are good at their jobs have to fight in the ways of the man’s world to some extent, and they are under a lot of stress. It’d be best if everyone could work in a way that suits their own physical strength, and I hope someday people will be able to choose jobs based on their individual abilities rather than what gender dictates.
Do you and your partner ever talk about how to divide household tasks?
I happen to be a better and more avid cook than my partner, so I’m in charge of cooking. But when I’m away from home because of tours and things, he handles it. We don’t have specific roles and our general rule is, “the one who’s better at it, does it.” I like cooking because my parents always told me that I should be able to cook. And it wasn’t because I’m a girl, they told my older brother the same thing.
So the balanced way you were raised is still being reflected in your current life. Is there anyone who makes you think, “Seeing this woman gives me courage”?
Well… I have many wonderful friends, but I think it would be (actress) Rinko Kikuchi. We’ve been good friends since we were single and she hasn’t changed at all since she got married and became a mom. I think that’s because she has her own individuality at her core. She’s such a natural kind of human being.
It’s often said that when women have children and their life stage changes, they’re referred to as the mother of their kids or face “mommy track” problems that prevent them from getting jobs they want. But obviously women aren’t just moms even after they become one. I think it’s great that such a high-profile person is expressing that. Did anything change for you personally after becoming a mom, or conversely, did anything remain the same?
I don’t feel like I’ve changed, but when I look back at pictures of my daughter when she was still little, I’m sloppily dressed and my face looks different. I wore clothes that allowed me to breastfeed right away and took her to work, and didn’t have much emotional leeway. I’d breastfeed like it was normal even in the radio studio, so the guests were taken aback. [Laughs] When I kept doing that, people around me got used to it and even the security guys were really nice to me. But I don’t feel that my core has changed. In fact, my boundaries as both a mother and a singer are fading and I’m becoming freer.
—This interview by Rio Hirai first appeared on Billboard Japan