May 28, 1998 — Hiroshima
2011/01/02 ~ 2015/12/31
Sayashi: Back when I was still a kindergartener and I had no vision for my future whatsoever, I got to dance at the center of the stage at our arts festival to “Go Girl ~Koi no Victory~.” I had a lot of people complimenting me and I had so much fun doing it. It made me feel like I was glowing. That was the moment I decided: “I want to be in Morning Musume!“
— That Morning Musume song is what started it all for you.
Sayashi: I told my parents that I wanted to start dancing, and I’m from a very music-loving family so they immediately agreed and I enrolled in an “actors school” in Hiroshima.
— From the very beginning you were dancing in the center at your arts festival, and you were very active at your actors school as well. It does sound like you had a natural talent for dancing to begin with…
Sayashi: Not at all. But I did get to often be in the center at my actors school as well, so that was a big source of confidence for my young self. I’m someone who’s always quick to get bored of things, but dancing was different — I just couldn’t stop. I became convinced that dancing was my most treasured thing in life.
— Would you be dancing in your day-to-day life even when you were very little?
Sayashi: I came to really love dancing around my kindergarten days. But even before then I always loved having my picture taken and I’d be trying out all kinds poses in them. In that sense, it’s easy to see why I eventually went on to aiming to become an idol. Though it might be a bit of an exaggeration to say that I was born to be an idol. (laughs)
— You’d started dancing, but then there was that long period of time when Morning Musume didn’t hold any auditions. That must have made you quite impatient.
Sayashi: I did apply for other auditions as well. But I was only an elementary schooler — at the time I just felt that I should first try doing my best in my hometown, and then one day I would get my chance.
— When you got to appear with the group together in your play, “Fashionable,” it must’ve truly felt like your first step towards realizing your dream.
Sayashi: My dad put in an application to the auditions for that without my knowledge. (laughs) I guess that just goes to show how important it is to be vocal about your feelings. Getting to co-star with the group in that play really was very memorable and getting to see up-close the people I so admired made me even more determined.
— Then, after almost four years without auditions, the group announced that they were once again going to hold one.
Sayashi: It felt like destiny.
— You were only an elementary schooler, and yet you felt that you had to take that opportunity?
Sayashi: There was so much I didn’t get though. I’d always failed all my auditions up until then, so even as I progressed further and further to the next stages of the audition, it just didn’t feel real. But looking back on it now, it felt like I just floated through my way the auditions so naturally… Maybe it really was my destiny to get into Morning Musume.
Chosen as the Center &
The Joy of Performing
— So you’re proceeding further and further in the auditions…
Sayashi: I felt that the only way I was going to pass was if I really emphasized my dancing. The others could all show their personalities through their speaking, but I’m not good at talking to people — I’m an extremely shy person. The only way I knew of expressing myself was through dancing, so that’s what I relied upon.
— That audition footage is something that still gets talked about to this day. Everyone was going, “I can’t believe there’s an elementary schooler whose dancing can be that razor-sharp!”
Sayashi: I had zero confidence though. I only gave it my best.
— And yet pass you did, and you became a 9th generation member of the group. Were you happy?
Sayashi: Of course I was happy. But it was also just so unbelievable to me — I actually felt quite calm. However, the first time I met Tsunku♂… that made me feel as if I was in a dream. It’s like I was meeting Mickey Mouse — like I was meeting a cartoon protagonist. He just looked so “clear-cut” and he had this aura that was completely out of this world. From the very first moment we met, he always spoke to me as Sayashi Riho, member of Morning Musume. Tsunku♂ really was a great person.
— With you passing the auditions, your lifestyle underwent a complete change. You moved from Hiroshima to Tokyo and you began your life as part of Morning Musume. Ever since you first debuted, you were a highly determined girl who would never complain that things were too difficult or that you felt lonely — it seemed like you felt that there’d be no point saying so even if you did feel that way.
Sayashi: In all honesty… I was so, so lonely. But since I’d finally made it to this world, I also strongly felt that I wanted to do my best in order to get noticed. That’s why I was trying to look cooler than I really was.
— To think that you were only an elementary schooler…
Sayashi: I was just pretending to be strong. (laughs) I hated losing and I was a show-off, so I tried my best to hide all sorts of things about myself and try to look cool. I couldn’t think like an adult, yet I pretended to be one.
— But then on the flip-side, you would also be in the dressing room playing tag with Suzuki Kanon — you did show us an innocent side of yourself, too.
Sayashi: When I look back on those days I’m a bit relieved to notice that I do have some memories like that. I was acting like a child is supposed to be acting. (laughs)
— When you actually got to stand on stage, however, it must have been difficult for you 9th generation members to try to close the gap between you and your seniors.
Sayashi: Actually, I was almost frighteningly unaware of any of that. There was an enormous difference in talent between us, but my thinking was so childish it never even registered for me. I mean, these were the members who had been dubbed the “Platinum Era” because of how amazing their performing skills were. While I did know that, there was just so much for us to do every day… they expected so much of us. We were just occupied with trying to somehow keep up.
Our seniors had honed their skills and created something perfect, and it was just not going to be okay for the four of us new members to lower the quality of the group. But we didn’t know that. We couldn’t even begin to realize how we might’ve been causing trouble for the group. We were just frantically doing our best every single day.
— At the time, Takahashi Ai and Tanaka Reina were seen as the top two singers of the group. Yet, it seemed like they wasted no time in promoting you to one of the lead singers as well.
Sayashi: I was genuinely happy about that. I didn’t feel pressured at all. I think it was because my seniors had straightened everything out in terms of the environment in the group — I was able to simply feel happy about the things that made me glad, or sad about the things that didn’t. I was discovering new things every day and of course I also discovered the joy that could be found in performing. I got to constantly do so many new things. I was just so happy about it all.
— However, they also wasted no time in bringing the 10th generation to the group, suddenly making you girls their seniors. What with Takahashi’s graduation and new members joining the group, it was a turbulent couple of months for you, wasn’t it?
Sayashi: I’m embarrassed to say this, but at the time I had no inkling how that was when things would start getting tough for us. I was only sad to see my beloved senior graduating — I felt no sense of responsibility about us soon having to lead the group. Niigaki Risa and three other seniors were still in the group so I just thought, “We still have a solid foundation. We’re okay.“
— The 9th and 10th generations both joined the group around the same time and you were close in age as well. Did you feel an affinity towards them or was it more of a rivalry?
Sayashi: It’s not that I was super serious about thinking of her as my rival, but… when Ayumi first said that she was good at dancing, I was thinking to myself “right, well… I guess I’m going to fade into oblivion then.” (laughs) But while I did think Ayumi’s super energetic dancing was great, it was a different type of dancing compared to mine. It’s hard to explain in words, but… it’s just different. That’s why I felt that I could keep going with my own way of dancing and that I wasn’t going to “fade into oblivion” like I’d first thought. I realized that the two of us could keep improving our performance skills in our own ways.
Unable to Break Free
From Her Complexes!
— Was it right around the time of “One Two Three” that you began to change?
Sayashi: That was around the time I first started feeling a sense of responsibility. It was a memorable event for Morning Musume, what with it being the group’s 50th single. I received a lot of lines on that song and I was even in the center for the CD covers, so it was like… “Huh? What’s this now?“
— You became aware that it was now “your time,” so to say.
Sayashi: It’s not like anyone directly told me that. No one ever said, “you’re the center now.” But the fact is that I started getting opportunities to stand out more, which mystified me. So then I started thinking about what the purpose of me being in that position was, and it made me feel more responsible about the group.
— It was also during this time that the group’s songs and choreographies changed — you showed us the first prototype of what is now called your “formation dancing.” It was something new for the group; something that materialized thanks to you being there.
Sayashi: Oh, you’re exaggerating. At the time, the only thing going through my head was pretty much… “this song’s so cool!” Seriously, that’s the only thing I was able to get from it. (laughs)
— Still, that’s how you were perceived. But as more and more people began to take notice of you, you started to feel pressured. This had an effect on your voice.
Sayashi: My voice was changing, and there were times when I’d just lose my voice altogether. I’d always had a complex towards my poor singing, and Tanaka Reina — who was right there beside me — is one of the best singers that Morning Musume has ever had. I got too lost in my thoughts, worrying about how I might make people angry or how I’d be a nuisance if I made a mistake. “What do I do? What do I do?” It was terrible. When I’d make a mistake during a live broadcast, I’d get so depressed about it… I let it all get to me. I spent so much of my time worrying.
— It must have been difficult, being a junior high schooler who was also the center of everyone’s attention like that.
Sayashi: I was fully aware of my own lack of ability, though I also knew that people expected a lot from me. Still, I would often end up feeling pressured.
— Did you try talking to anyone about your worries at times like that?
Sayashi: Talking about it… No, I couldn’t. I know really should’ve. (laughs) Even the fans would often tell me to just let it all out. But I didn’t know how I might even start doing so. I mean, of course now I’m able to look back on those days more objectively, but at the time I didn’t understand how talking about it with someone was even a possibility. I would sometimes ask my parents some trivial questions, but that’s not really the same thing. That’s why I never found any answers.
— It’s a whole different category of problems compared to the usual worries about one’s school life or such.
Sayashi: Maybe I should’ve relied on my generation-mates, but I kind of thought that I was in the wrong for even having such worries despite being in such a blessed position. And besides, we were all children so I felt that they couldn’t have understood how I felt anyway without them first experiencing the same thing themselves… Ultimately, I never completely opened up to anyone about what was bothering me.
Being the Center:
Pressure, Responsibility, Frustration
— Were you ever able to feel joy in being a part of Morning Musume, despite everything that was weighing on your mind?
Sayashi: Yes, thanks to being taught the fun that could be found in singing. Singing became such an important thing for me, comparable to the joy I’d felt when I was accepted into Morning Musume. Sure, I had tough times too, but that joy was the biggest thing.
I have so many complexes in regards to myself, and I think I’m probably someone who is hit by one’s complexes even harder than most. I have a plain-looking face, I have no waist, my voice doesn’t carry well, I have weirdly shaped nails, my fingers are too short… There’s so much. (laughs) But little by little, being in Morning Musume would dissolve many of my complexes. I realized that something that was a big deal for me wouldn’t matter at all to others, and some fans would even tell me that they actually liked some of those things about me. It took time, but their encouraging words became a big help for me.
— The handshake events became an encouragement for you.
Sayashi: Yes. Although being told that someone likes my “plain-looking face“… it was like, “is that supposed to be a compliment?” (laughs) No, but I really could tell that the fans telling me things like that wasn’t just them trying to comfort me — it was genuine. That made me happy. Even though we weren’t related or anything, my fans understood how I felt so well… I could never really convey through my words and actions how I felt, and yet, it felt like I was depending on my fans in my heart. It really did become such a big encouragement for me, and it was because I could finally understand what it felt like to have people supporting me that I strongly felt like I in turn had to pay everyone back through my performances.
— Did you treasure that bond you had with your fans?
Sayashi: Human connections can be so strange. I realized that even someone like me could have an influence on others, and I felt that if me simply being there can make someone even a little bit happier, then nothing is better than that.
— It’s definitely true that you being there gained the group new fans, and it also gave other girls the ambition to strive towards becoming idols themselves.
Sayashi: I’m very grateful.
— Meanwhile, you continued towards becoming the absolute ace of the group. Tanaka’s graduation prompted another big change in the group, didn’t it?
Sayashi: It was like, “now we’re in trouble…!” Everyone had their specific roles in the group. Michishige Sayumi was our mental support, while Tanaka was our performance support. So now with her graduating, I felt that I had to take over from her in that department. I felt that I had to be the one to push the group forward, but there was so much I lacked. And knowing that about myself became a burden for me.
— Was the pressure that bad?
Sayashi: Looking back on it now… yes, it was. But then I also felt that if I was going to be in Morning Musume, I wanted to be the center. There’s pride in being able to sing and dance at the center. So it wasn’t just pressure — it was also pride.
— Did you feel frustrated when you were removed from that position?
Sayashi: Of course I did. Just being in Morning Musume was in itself a wonderful, happy thing… but no longer being the center was equally frustrating.
— Not only did Oda Sakura join the group alone, but she was also noted for her exceptional singing ability. That must have stung…
Sayashi: I felt jealous of everyone with a talent like that. I myself merely liked singing and dancing — it’s not like I had any special talent. Kanon and Masaki with their perfect pitch, Harunan with her great speaking skills… I felt envious of everyone’s strong points. Sure, maybe I had some strong point, too. But whenever I saw anyone who had something I didn’t have, or someone who excelled at something… I felt so frustrated. I’d feel so down. “Why am I not as good as this person?” That’s why I felt even more strongly that I had to be aware and protect and push the group forward.
— Were you able to do anything concrete towards accomplishing that?
Sayashi: No. If I was still in the group now, I think I could tell the members how I’d like us to do things. But at the time I just didn’t have the courage. It makes me ashamed to say this, seeing as we were working together and all, but I was running away from the problem by telling myself, “maybe if I personally just work harder…“
— You were thinking, “follow my lead!”
Sayashi: I was always thinking if maybe I should just say how I feel directly, but instead I chose not to… I was just avoiding the problem, wasn’t I? I was afraid that if I told them directly, I would come off as somehow self-important… I was thinking about it so negatively. That really was no way for someone to act in a group like that. That’s something I feel very sorry about.
— Still, you had your emotional support in Michishige during the time when she was the leader, meaning you were able to dedicate yourself to performance, right?
Sayashi: Yes. At the time, I was thinking more about the group than I was about myself. How is Morning Musume perceived? What kind of an impression do we give people? Those were the questions that were on my mind. In that sense, Michishige was very reliable. I was completely dependent on her.
— This period was called Morning Musume’s “second big break”…
Sayashi: I was just so impatient about us having to produce results. Also, compared to the times before and after that period in time, we were just extremely busy. TV shoots, events, concerts, worldwide handshake events… I wanted to give everything my all, but I was just so awkward… I was always telling myself to stop being so awkward, but it just didn’t seem to work. I was constantly thinking about how pathetic I was.
— It feels like that accelerated even more around the time Michishige’s graduation was announced.
Sayashi: I was thinking about how I wanted to go even higher, but I may have been thinking about it only in terms of our performances. The other members were probably all equally as serious about bettering the group — in their own ways — whereas my feeling of wanting to aim for bettering the group through our performances alone was just my own ego. I felt that me talking about it to the members might get in the way of what they were trying to do… so I just didn’t say anything.
— You felt that if you were to just improve on your performances even more, that would gain the group more attention.
Sayashi: Right. But we were just so busy, the truth is that we couldn’t have created an environment where it would’ve been possible for us to improve even if we’d wanted to — I mean, if you want to truly become good at something, you need to put in a certain amount of time. Still, even if we didn’t do as many lessons as I would’ve wanted, I personally did everything I could to better myself.
— That’s how much you wanted to improve Morning Musume.
Sayashi: I’m confident in saying that I’m the person who felt that way the strongest. I had a drive to remain the “gateway” to Morning Musume… There was that pride.
The Future of Sayashi Riho:
Dreams of a 20-Year-Old
— Then, at the age of 17, you made the decision to graduate. How did you tell Tsunku♂ that you were thinking about your graduation?
Sayashi: I was always the type who was very proactive about communicating with Tsunku♂. Even though I’m an extremely shy person, he was someone who I was just instinctively drawn to depend upon. The more serious I was in trying to face some issue, he would respond in kind with the same level of seriousness. When I first told Tsunku♂, he could sense that I was probably still hesitating… so he bluntly told me to stop trying get someone to make the decision for me and think about it on my own. His words were such an encouragement to me. They still resonate with me to this day. His words are what made me confident and responsible for my own decisions.
— I feel like it’s because he’s someone who knows what goes on behind-the-scenes that he can sympathize with those kinds of worries and other kinds of feelings.
Sayashi: The person who knew best what I was feeling was myself. Same goes for the timing, too. After he told me that, my way of thinking became clear — I stopped making those mental detours.
— So you have no regrets in regards to your graduation?
Sayashi: None. At 20 years old, I’m now the version of myself that I envisioned back then. I have no regrets.
— It can sometimes be difficult to fill that gap between one’s ideal and reality, but it sounds like you’re getting closer to your ideal. You must be happy.
Sayashi: I’m glad I got the opportunity to look back on everything before becoming an adult. Also, I’m not just saying this, but I really am glad to have been a member of Morning Musume. Being in Morning Musume was the only thing I was cut out for. I mean, even now I’ll have times when I feel like singing our songs — that’s how much I love them. That’s something that has never changed for me.
— It’s obvious that these past two years have been very fulfilling for you.
Sayashi: I used to be too afraid to watch TV performances where I’d messed up a line, or variety shows where I was too nervous to speak, or other instances of me messing up. But now, I can watch all of it. People who never have to look back and who can just keep looking ahead are amazing, but I’m the kind of person who has to get over their past before they can move forward. Now, I’ve finally reached the point where I’ve gotten over everything.
— There’s been quite the change in your thinking.
Sayashi: Ever since around the beginning of 2015, I started feeling this sense of impending crisis as a person. Singing and dancing were the only two things I could do. I was a member of Morning Musume, but now as I’m becoming an adult, that means I’m also going to become a member of society.
Up until now I’d always lived my life walking on the one path I believed in. But I realized that even if I somehow managed to reach the very top, it wouldn’t last long. I want to become a member of society; an adult who can fulfill some kind of a role. I want to build myself a foundation that will allow me to do that. That’s why, after my graduation, I’ve become more proactive in asking my seniors in life for help whenever there’s something I don’t know. Before, I’d always tell myself I just wasn’t cut out for something, and asking for too much. Now, I’ve gained some composure — I can just tell myself, “So what even if I can’t do this thing right now? I’ll be able to do it in the future!“
I do believe I’ve grown as a person in these last two years. In that time, I’ve become able to understand myself.
— I can’t help but feel, “if only you’d realized all this just a little bit sooner…”
Sayashi: I’m content with myself though. (laughs)
— What is the biggest realization you’ve had since your graduation?
Sayashi: After really facing myself, I’ve realized that I really do love dancing. As a little girl I thought of dancing as my eternal treasure… and I’ve come to find that that love actually was the real thing.
— And you’d like to transform that feeling into something substantial?
Sayashi: After my graduation, I went overseas to study language and dance. Going forward, I’d like to continue living overseas and improving even further. I still feel like I haven’t reached my full potential yet, so I want to keep improving my dancing to a level where I’m finally satisfied with it. And since I do think I’ve grown a little bit mentally, too, I’m thinking it might be possible for me to pursue, for example, the path of a dance instructor. I’m just considering all my possible options right now.
— It’s so nice to see how you’re just beaming with hope now. One can really tell how much you love dancing.
Sayashi: For me to be able to find myself a viable path like that is all thanks to the days I spent in Morning Musume. I’ve become able to support Morning Musume in some small way, and I really do love Morning Musume just as much as I love dancing.
Looking Back on the Greatness
of the Group She Left
— Do you still get curious about Morning Musume now?
Sayashi: Of course. I don’t go to their concerts very often, but I’m one of the so-called “stay-at-home fans.” (laughs) When I was still in the group I was just responding to all the cool melodies, but now I finally understand the depth of Tsunku♂’s lyrics, too. Especially all of “The Vision” — that one really moves me. As a person… as a young person walking on this path of life, it just really touches my heart, and the choreography is just so clean and pure… It makes me cry so easily. I’ll be weeping when I’m watching the music video. (laughs)
— It’s pretty amazing how the song can have that effect on you even now after you’ve graduated.
Sayashi: That’s Morning Musume for you. I recently got a message from Nakazawa Yuko. It said: “thank you for raising Morning Musume up to where it is today.” I was so happy to be told that. It made me feel so proud, like maybe I too managed to contribute something to the group in its 20-year history.
— I absolutely feel that you brought a breath of fresh air to the group.
Sayashi: But I don’t think that’s because of my talent or anything like that. It’s because there was something I possessed, and that thing had good compatibility with Morning Musume.
Someone as indecisive as me actually getting into Morning Musume… Deciding on my graduation on my own… All the people I got to meet… And despite just going with the flow, I somehow ended up in the best possible environment. I definitely feel that I’ve had a blessed life.
— By the way, if you had to say that your life in Morning Musume was either a fun or a difficult one, which would it be?
Sayashi: Half and half. Maybe just a little bit more “fun.” All those casual moments with the other members were so much fun — I’m so lonely nowadays. (laughs) People sometimes talk about how I was supposedly lonely when I was in Morning Musume, but that’s not true at all. They were all my friends who I could trust. Yes, I was stubborn and I was a child. But I really loved them all and even now there are times when I really want to see them.
Morning Musume = Traditional Performance Art
— Morning Musume shouldn’t end after just 20 years — it should keep going on and on, right?
Sayashi: I would be sad and lonely if it didn’t. Before, I used to think of my seniors as something special. I mean this in a good way when I say I didn’t think of them very deeply. I think that’s the reason we were able to create our own style of performance; a new Morning Musume. But there’s also something very hierarchical about the group… like a spirit that says it’s all linked together. It really is like a new traditional performance art.
— What do you think is the secret behind Morning Musume having lasted for so long?
Sayashi: The constant change. You can’t always be worrying about the past and letting it stop you from moving forward. I don’t know what the future holds for the group, but I want to always keep watching over them. As someone who was previously involved with them, I now watch over them like a mother. (laughs)
— What is Morning Musume to you?
Sayashi: That’s hard… Before, I would’ve answered “family“… But now, I’m going to say “home.” (laughs) “Home” just seems more fitting to me. In my mind, “family” is fantasy and “home” is reality. It has lots of both the good and the bad… Maybe the father alone does his best to support his household, or maybe — in this current day and age — it’s both parents working. To me, the home represents those kinds of realistic, varying patterns.
Morning Musume, too, changes depending on the era. It becomes a different type of home, us members are brought up in that home, and then we go on to leave that home behind to find our future paths and establish ourselves as our own individuals. I grew up in the 2011-2015 home, and through it, I was able to discover my future self. And especially since it consists of so many different kinds of members, too… I’m just going to answer this question with “home.”
— By the way, what kind of a home was it?
Sayashi: A well-balanced home, where everyone knew who they were. A home that really stood out. A home that was happy then, and will always continue to be happy in the future.
— Looking back on your happy Morning Musume days, do you not have a longing to be back on stage?
Sayashi: I love being on stage. It’s not like I’ve forgotten how to express myself there, but I just need time to get myself fully prepared. Also, I don’t want a life that reads like it has a storyline. I don’t want to give up that control. If I do get up on stage again, I’d want to appear all out of the blue. That’d be the most “me.” And it’s also for the sake of Morning Musume — the group who taught me that it’s okay for me to just be myself. So make it unexpected, please. (laughs)
“The Matenrou Show”
Sayashi: While I have fond memories of lots of songs, at the end of the day I’m drawn to the really danceable ones. I love the music itself, and this song really sounds like we were all having fun. Even now it makes me happy when I’m watching the music video.