August 10, 1981 — Hokkaido
1997/09/14 ~ 2004/01/25
Abe: In the beginning, it was a source of pressure for me being in the center and being the face of Morning Musume. But at some point down the line, I came to think of it as my destiny. I started to think, “this is the reason for my existence,” and once I did, I became able to overcome anything and everything, no matter how bad it felt like I couldn’t stand it anymore.
— Ever since the group’s formation, you were “Nacchi” — the center, ace, main vocalist, and face of Morning Musume.
Abe: Even as far back as elementary school, I always had difficulty doing the same things as everyone else. I’d always want to do something no one else was doing. So when I became a member of Morning Musume, it was this feeling of… “Me? In a group? Being an idol?“
— The same group that first began right there is now 20 years old.
Abe: It feels like a huge miracle. I think of it as fate. The bonds between us five original members are to the point where I think we must have been close even in our past lives. I mean, we ended up together despite all our age differences and different places of birth. Moreover, we were the ones who failed the audition; the ones who weren’t chosen. The group was formed through pure happenstance and lucky timing. It really is just a miracle.
Towards a Dream…
And Towards Morning Musume
— You first applied for the auditions with the hopes of becoming a singer and a solo artist.
Abe: It was a dream of mine. The town I was born and raised in was totally rural and so ASAYAN was pretty much all I knew. Even at my school, if you didn’t watch ASAYAN you couldn’t keep up with the times — that’s how popular it was. It’s like ASAYAN was the only audition I could trust. (laughs)
I wanted to apply earlier in junior high school but my parents objected, telling me it was too soon. So then when I was in high school and they were advertising the Rock Vocalist Audition, that’s when I decided to take up the challenge. And since they even had a preliminary round in Hokkaido, I felt that was the audition I had to place my bets on.
— Did you take any vocal lessons or anything of the sort?
Abe: Not in the least. It was all self-study. (laughs) But I really liked singing, and I felt singing was the only “right” thing for me. I was one of those kids who would be singing all day long. On my days off, I would start my morning by throwing an album into the CD player beside my pillow, and as soon as I was awake enough, I would sing the whole album from beginning to end. I would only get up from bed once the whole album had finished playing. Then, after breakfast, I would head to karaoke with my friends. I was one of those kids who just really, really liked singing.
— There were things happening during the audition that gave one a sense of what was to come…
Abe: After the first round of the auditions ended and I was about to go home, Wada — Sharan Q’s manager at the time — came up to me and said, “You aren’t wearing any makeup today, right? Don’t wear any when you come in tomorrow either.” I knew who Wada was because I’d seen him on TV, so him saying that to me immediately got my hopes up. Then, at the semifinals, Hatake said, “Abe’s pretty much the winner, isn’t she?” It felt like I’d skipped over some kind of a hurdle that everyone else had to deal with, and in my childlike innocence it made me even more hopeful.
— I bet everyone back home was excited, too.
Abe: My teachers and classmates at school were all going, “You’re going to end up winning this thing! You’re going to be star!,” and I’d be going, “Well, I don’t know… I’m not so sure.” But naturally I enjoyed being told things like that.
But then, of course, I ended up completely failing the audition. I couldn’t tell you how depressed it made me feel. I was in such a state of shock, I was just crying all day long. I already knew the result, but I had to keep it a secret until it was aired on TV, so I couldn’t say anything about it at school. I wanted to avoid even seeing my friends. I’d become so sure I would pass the audition… but reality proved to be otherwise. I didn’t know how I was going to live from that point on. I even felt that I would have to move somewhere else; that it was too embarrassing for me to stay where I was.
— And then at that very moment, you received a fateful phone call…
Abe: I got a phone call from the ASAYAN staff room directly to my school — looking back, I’m surprised the teachers agreed to play along. Anyway, during that phone call, they told me not to ask any questions and simply come to Tokyo.
— What was going through your mind as you waited for your flight to Tokyo?
Abe: I was filled with expectation. Just this feeling that there was something in Tokyo waiting for me. I had this vague idea that maybe I would have to do a second audition… And then they got us into a room and suddenly started talking to us about forming some kind of a group. The cameras were pointed at us and I couldn’t really grasp what was being said to me. The only thing I could do was nod. I couldn’t even begin to think about the future — there was only expectation along with anxiety about something new beginning with us five people.
I would think the others felt the same way. It was possible that we were headed for a debut, but the fact still remained that we had all failed the audition. We could only place all our bets on this thing. We were given the huge challenge of having to sell 50,000 copies of our single by hand, and it felt that if we wanted to achieve everything more we first had to succeed in doing that. And so, with that, we all decided that we had no choice but to do it.
— Did you ever imagine the kinds of incredible crowds you would be getting at the events where you were selling your single?
Abe: They would be lining up two subway stations away from the venue. Apparently, they even dispatched police officers for our events. (laughs) But we had no idea we were the cause. If anything, we were actually worried it wasn’t enough people in attendance. Knowing this, the staff would pick a spot where the cameras weren’t filming and they’d be whispering, on purpose, loud enough for us to hear, “this is not good…” That’d make us doubly afraid that we would all soon be having to go back home, and so we’d start making teru teru bouzu dolls… (laughs) Just because we felt that less people would come to our events if it rained. That’s how desperate we were. We were doing everything we could think of. We were just praying.
— As a result, you successfully sold 50,000 copies of your single and your debut was going to happen. What were your impressions of the other four members?
Abe: In the beginning, I saw them all as my rivals. I felt like I didn’t want to lose to any of them. Kaori was the same age and from the same town as me, so she felt the closest to me. Ayappe looked so cool and she was like this older, big sister type — I admired her. Asuka was so tiny, and yet she was so imposing just because she’s from Tokyo. And Yuu-chan was just… intense. (laughs)
Yuu-chan was nearly 10 years older than me, she had so much vigor, and it was also my first time being exposed to the Kansai dialect so directly which was a bit scary. Her nails were just dazzling, and whenever she got out of the bath she wouldn’t have any eyebrows — it felt like I was seeing something I wasn’t supposed to see. So there were all kinds of “culture shocks” with her.
— Nakazawa continued to be scary even after she became your leader…
Abe: It was just pure terror. (laughs) I would take my shoes off at the entrance, and just as I was about to straighten them, she would tell me in this low voice, “straighten your shoes!” I would feel that kind of dread with everything — I felt constantly afraid when I was around Yuu-chan. Back then our relationship wasn’t yet to the point where we could have normal conversations, so even with just her sitting down next to me I would feel afraid. And she’d always be eating like shrimp crackers or something! (laughs) Even just that crunching sound of her eating them was scary to me.
But of course with Yuu-chan being the oldest and being tasked with being the leader in charge of the rest of us, she must’ve had a sense of duty in that she needed to “watch over the children.” But I couldn’t have understood that at the time, so I was just constantly frightened of her.
— Today, however, there’s great mutual trust between you two. At what point did you become able to let your guard down around her?
Abe: I think it was after Yuu-chan’s graduation. In my own case, I was only able to fully let my guard down with the other members after I myself graduated. That’s when it got a lot lighter. I started off with the mindset that I had to see all the other members as my rivals, so back then it was tough trying to figure out the right amount of distance to keep between me and the other members.
— You suddenly got a lot busier in your work, too. You became unable to lead a normal life.
Abe: We hardly had time to breathe. We were constantly in “on” mode, desperately trying to deal with everything that was being thrown at us. We were using all of the studios available to us, and when we’d get on the elevator to move to a studio on a different floor, we’d sometimes have to do two or three minute interviews with someone. Our schedules were planned by the minute, and sometimes even at the studio we’d have people going, “look this way!,” and they’d take our picture. We’d of course have no idea what that picture would be for or where it was going to be used. Looking back on it, I feel so bad about that kind of stuff because I’m sure I didn’t manage to give my best. In any case, there was a mountain of work for us every single day.
— Naturally, there was zero time for you to ever relax.
Abe: I would ride my bicycle from home to the station, but then someone snapped pictures of me doing that and they were published in a weekly magazine with the headline, “NACCHI UPSKIRT PICTURES!” From that point on, I wasn’t even allowed to go outside anymore.
— To a teenage girl, that kind of a lifestyle must have felt suffocating.
Abe: Wada would feel bad for us, and sometimes if there was a long wait time he would bring Disney or Ghibli movies for us to watch in our dressing room. I felt touched by his kindness, but at the same time I also felt sad because I could tell how he was thinking, “I’m sorry I can’t do any more for you.“
— Amidst all that, you were given the role of the center.
Abe: Before I could even begin to think about feeling pressured about being the center, I felt like I was using up all my strength to the point of complete exhaustion on stage. In fact, there were several times when I was just calmly thinking to myself, “I might actually die on this stage today.“
There were multiple times when I was standing there, watching all those people holding thousands, tens of thousands of glow sticks, and I could just feel my consciousness fading away. But, at the same time, I kind of didn’t even hate the thought of it. “Maybe it wouldn’t be all that bad if I did die right here.“
— What would make you think that?
Abe: I just really wanted to meet everyone’s expectations. I already felt that way from the very beginning, but the feeling only got stronger with time. And with the concert venues getting bigger and bigger, and seeing the words “Morning Musume” all over the place wherever you went, I could sense exactly how popular the group was… which made the feeling even bigger yet.
Responding to those expectations would have a direct correlation with our sales and viewership ratings, and seeing that would make me happy. It motivated me. After all, I was only a 16-year-old girl from the countryside — being able to have a taste of something like that, it made me realize just how special it all was in the grand scheme of my life. So I just genuinely wanted to give it my all.
— It feels like the center of an idol group would have to take responsibility for a wide variety of things…
Abe: I could be wrong about this, but on that front I personally feel that I was, thankfully, able to always do what needed to be done. But I bet all my juniors who came after me had it so tough… The era and their circumstances are completely different, and yet, they’re going to be compared to their seniors. That kind of pressure is something I personally didn’t have to deal with when I was a member.
— What was the secret behind you being able to handle it?
Abe: Back then, I had dedicated my whole life to it. I had quit school, I didn’t have any family or friends around, and I couldn’t even confide in the other members because I could only see them as my rivals. I was in that battle mode every single day. And yet, I had finally been able to debut after having gone through all those hardships… I wasn’t about to give in. This was something I myself had wanted to do, so I had no right to complain. For me, the only option I had was to keep pushing forward.
— The people around you held big expectations for you as well.
Abe: Even Wada had bet everything on us despite the fact that there was nothing special about us. He’d be saying how he would shave his head if we didn’t make it into the rankings, and then we’d look at our viewership ratings and Oricon rankings together. He taught us from the very beginning how this was a world where everything you did would be reflected in the numbers.
It was like the results of our daily activities were being put on this report card, and we just had to accept those results and turn them into energy as we took on the next thing. I didn’t know how exactly I was supposed to do my best — I just wanted to always exceed the expectations that had been placed on us. That’s what I devoted myself to.
Fighting to be the Center;
Torn by the Pressure
— Right as you were struggling with all this, Goto Maki joined the group.
Abe: Gottsuan really felt like something special. Someone joining the group all by herself, and with those looks… And on top of that, she immediately became the center. Of course I felt very conscious about her. All the TV shows and society as a whole liked to portray it like it was “her versus us,” so even I felt myself flare up because of that. Their intentions with adding her as a member were apparently to stir things up within the group, and at least in my case they were very successful in accomplishing just that. (laughs)
But despite my strong feelings of not wanting to lose to her, Gottsuan herself was always so relaxed. I just couldn’t figure her out. The Morning Musume name… The feelings of all the staff and the other members… It felt like, unlike me, she wasn’t burdened by any of that. And yet, she had something special that the rest of us didn’t. I felt so envious of that appeal of hers.
— It felt fresh how she was this idol and yet at the same time she was so cool.
Abe: Yes. But me and her didn’t even get into some big conflict or anything — we actually ended up becoming pretty close. I’d go to sleepovers at her house, and since I’d moved to Tokyo all by myself and everything, I really liked the fun and coziness of that Shitamachi area she lived in. People from her neighborhood would be coming over and going, “oh, it’s Nacchi!” It was my first time meeting people who were so open. It felt so new to me.
— I’m surprised to hear you say there wasn’t conflict between you two.
Abe: More than Gottsuan, it was actually the other members who would be giving me all these pep talks. “You were singing the wrong lyrics there!” “Your pitch was off during that part!” “Get your act together, Nacchi! You’re the center, aren’t you?!” They were all singing harmony or backing vocals, but of course they all wanted to be singing the parts I got to sing, so they wanted me to do it properly. I’d be told things like that by Yuu-chan and Kei-chan.
Especially with “Furusato,” since I was the only one singing, the members were very eager to voice their opinions. Kei-chan had a good pitch, so she would be very strict when it came to singing. Even during concerts, she would often tell me to be careful. “I think your singing was off-key there. Please go check.“
— Being in the center, I’m sure you were unbelievable busy as well as under pressure. It must have been exhausting for you, in both body and mind.
Abe: I’d be getting these breakouts of shingles, and I’d be collapsing on stage from hyperventilation. And that wasn’t just me; it’d happen to other members, too. But since we were in the “dream-selling business,” we couldn’t ever show that side about ourselves. Even if we were completely worn out behind the scenes, we had all these people waiting for us… So we wanted to respond to that demand.
— There were times when it was obvious that you were in poor health.
Abe: When I look back at polaroids from those days, I’m not even smiling in them. I guess I managed to somehow muster up the energy to smile when it was time to go on stage… Looking back, I feel like I should’ve just tried to relax more, but back then I’d painted myself into a corner. But then again, if I hadn’t done that, I wouldn’t have been able to get through it all. I felt that, as merely my own true self, I wouldn’t have been able to stand up there in the spotlight. If I didn’t do my best, I wasn’t even going to compare to the others. I felt like I had to work countless of times harder than everyone else.
— You then saw more and more juniors joining the group.
Abe: Up until the 4th generation, the new members were all the type who would learn by watching us. That is, they would listen to my advice and I would give it to them. But I wouldn’t do things for them by my own initiative. I wasn’t proactive about them like that.
— Even your juniors were your rivals, after all.
Abe: In the beginning, yes. I considered them all to be my rivals. But! This may sound strange, but during the latter half of me being a member, that feeling of rivalry just disappeared completely. On the contrary, I thought they were all so cute! I just felt like, “I love the members so much! I don’t want to part with them!” My love towards the members was just off the charts. And to think how in the beginning I’d been in that constant battle mode… (laughs)
— Your relationship with Tsunku♂ changed, too.
Abe: Some of the members call him their father, but to me he’s my teacher. During recording, he would lecture me one-on-one and teach me about ways of singing and all kinds of other things. I’d go into the studio with only a bottle of water, a pen, and my lyrics sheet, and we could keep recording four hours straight without any breaks. But we were always so focused that it would be over in a flash. Then, after I was done, Tsunku♂ would call another member into the booth and he’d start lecturing that girl from the beginning. He’s such patient and focused person. I have so much respect for him.
— From all those recording sessions with him, I would guess that “Furusato” especially stands out from the rest.
Abe: When it was decided that I would be singing that song by myself, he told me, “You’re going to do just fine, Abe. Sing it not as if you were singing it to your many fans, but as if you were singing it to just one person standing right there. If you sing it like that, I’m sure it’ll be okay. Just believe in yourself and sing.“
So I just stood there in that dimly-lit booth, not thinking about anything else, and I sang it like I was doing so for a single person. I wasn’t able to hide how anxious I felt, and Tsunku♂ could tell, so he just kept reassuring me. “It’s okay.” Tsunku♂ has always been saying how singing is all about the soul. It’s not about whether you’re good or bad or if you have technique or not — it’s about singing with your heart.
— Would he teach you about things aside from singing techniques?
Abe: Tsunku♂ has taught me so much that the recording staff would tell me how my appearance from behind when I was singing made them think I was Tsunku♂. You couldn’t give me a greater compliment than that. Back then, I was learning the songs by listening to Tsunku♂’s demos of them, so maybe I was being possessed by him without even realizing it. In any case, his influence was enormous. We’re all here because of Tsunku♂, so it was only obvious how that could happen.
— It’s like Tsunku♂ and you early members had become one in body and soul.
Abe: For me, rather than his words it was more like his simple messages to us that were really powerful. One time when he came in for a final check before the start of a tour, he afterwards sent me a message that just said like, “I leave it to you.” That would remind me of my task.
Actually, aside from the singing, Tsunku♂ never directly advised me on anything else. But things like manners and how to behave ourselves was something we learned entirely from watching him. He wouldn’t say any of it directly, but it feels like us members would be able to see something like his “soul,” and that’s where we learned all those things.
— It feels like that formed the basis of these 20 years of Morning Musume.
Abe: I’m not sure whether this is really the case, but I would think even my juniors in the group now can feel it. That, and just singing from the soul. That’s another thing I hope will continue to be passed down forever.
— Despite all kinds of other things changing, that is the one thing that never will.
Abe: The times have changed in all kinds of ways in the past 20 years. I’m sure it must’ve been difficult for the group to keep going despite all that. But thinking about it like that, you realize just how amazing music is. No matter what the circumstances, music will always continue to be there. The power held by music really is incredible, and it’s something you can believe in.
For me, when I felt cornered and like there was no one I could trust, music alone was the one thing I could still continue to believe in. When I decided to keep doing my best by just believing in the music, it was such a weight off my mind and I was able to keep pushing forward.
A Woman Reborn
— Having sometimes been called the “mothership of Morning Musume,” you weren’t even a part of any other units. It was quite the shock, then, when that same “Nacchi” announced her graduation.
Abe: Ultimately, it was the office that suggested the idea of graduating to me. But even before then, I’d been constantly asking them about just when I was going to have my own solo career. I’d also protest about me not being allowed to take part in other units. “Why am I only allowed to be in Morning Musume? I want to challenge other things outside of the group, too, and show different sides of myself!” So then they’d tell me, “if you as the face of Morning Musume go taking part in other groups like that, it’ll just confuse people.” I’d reluctantly try to see it from their point of view. And that’s when I was suddenly suggested the idea of my graduation.
— So for you it wasn’t exactly something you had been wishing for?
Abe: I guess I had been expecting it. But the first thing it made me think of was the other members and their faces. As I was riding the train back home that day, I was just thinking to myself about how they would all feel about it; what kinds of expressions they would have on their faces when they were told. Having seen off many graduated members myself, I knew full well how sad it was to lose a member you had been working with. Around this time, I was so close to all of the members and my feelings towards the group were stronger than ever, so it made me think about all that even more.
— By that point, you had been in the group for nearly six years. How did you spend the remaining time until your graduation?
Abe: The countdown towards my last day was me constantly thinking about how this was my last music video, how it was my last CD jacket shoot, how it was my last interview… I was closing the curtains, one-by-one. It felt like a separate graduation ceremony for each of the jobs I had within Morning Musume. I’d get emotional, and it was like I was locking each door, feeling complete gratitude towards the fans, towards the staff, and towards the other members.
Maybe it’s because I ended it in such a thorough manner that I really don’t have a single regret about it. I felt like I had done everything I had been meant to do in Morning Musume, and I was able to graduate with this feeling of, “thank you very much.“
— But you were then left with concern towards about all your juniors.
Abe: I didn’t really convey this in words back then, but to me it felt like I was passing the baton to them. The members had by that point become dependable, so rather than “concern,” it was actually just this feeling of… “I leave it to you.” And then, on the day I graduated from Morning Musume, that was the day Abe Natsumi of Morning Musume died.
Abe: It was after the graduation ceremony. Later that night after I went home, taking with me the huge amount of flowers I had received as presents, that sense of accomplishment I had, the feeling of nervousness finally easing up, the exhaustion and the fatigue all hit me at once… and I just fell asleep in the living room.
But then while I was asleep, my mother — who was in Tokyo — decorated the room with all the flowers I’d received. So then, as I opened my eyes, my field of vision was entirely filled with flowers. For just a fleeting moment, I was so surprised. “Wait… am I alive?” After getting up and regaining my senses, they were showing news reports of my graduation. I could hear my fans crying and going, “Nacchiiiii!” It really did feel as if I had died. But I had no regrets as a member of Morning Musume — I’d done everything I could.
And then it was the beginning of a new morning. It felt like the start of a new life.
— In that sense, it was a rather refreshing graduation.
Abe: I’d made it to the finish, so I did have a certain sense of fulfillment. The only thing is, for the next couple of days I was completely burnt out. But I guess that can’t be helped, considering how major of a development it had been in my life thus far. Morning Musume really was something special to me.
— Is that feeling something that hasn’t changed even after your graduation?
Abe: Of course. “Special” — that’s really the only word I can use to describe it. It’s always been that way, from that very first day when they told us and we made a decision, not knowing anything. It was always something special to me.
— What, then, is this “special” Morning Musume to you?
Abe: It’s my youth. Between the ages of 16 to 22, that “student life” period that everyone praises to high heaven, I dedicated all of it to Morning Musume and I was able to have experiences that one normally doesn’t get to experience. All the people I met, everything — my youth is all there.
— I’m sure you must have felt a lot of heavy emotions as well, but was it ultimately a good youth?
Abe: Of course there were lots of difficult things as well, but there were still a lot more positive things. I mean, I could stand there on stage at an outdoor concert in front of countless of fans, singing all the songs I love. I could sing with all my heart while imagining just how far my voice would reach. I wouldn’t trade that feeling for anything. Remembering those experiences… it really does remind me of youth.
Nacchi’s Idol Theory
— It’s been 20 years. That alone must be quite moving for you.
Abe: I feel grateful how us members meeting each other and the time we got to spend together is something that is still preserved even now as the history of the group.
— You were someone whose name people considered to be synonymous with idols. What do you yourself think idols are?
Abe: They’re people of dreams. They’re cute, they’re admirable, but not anyone can stand where idols stand. Their job is to sell people dreams, and idols should never ruin those dreams. Sure, a lot of difficult things happened to us behind the scenes, but we also knew that we were professionals whose job it was to sell dreams. That’s why we would never show any of those difficulties to the outside. It was my happiness to be able to be everyone’s Nacchi.
— Nacchi’s smile would always heal us all. (laughs)
Abe: You know, Nacchi has actually seen a revival as of late. (laughs) Appearing at the FNS Music Festival and at Hina Fes… Both those times, it felt like I was Nacchi that day. Even now, 20 years later, when I hear fans doing the “Nacchi” call it feels like I’m able to switch right back into that mode. It makes me glad how I’m able to think to myself, “Nacchi really is the best!“
— Could you have ever imagined that 20 years later the five of you would once again be singing together?
Abe: To me, it felt like it was the gods of music moving us onto the stage, like pawns on a board game, going, “why don’t you go at it for a bit more?” It really does somehow feel like it was some unseen force who moved us and pulled us back in. Maybe some years from now, it will feel like even that had a more proper meaning of some sort.
— It does feel strange. You really are, as you put it, a “person of dreams.” Abe Natsumi is truly the dictionary definition of an idol.
Abe: No no no, not at all! It’s only because I had everyone’s support. It’s all the fans and the staff who raised me as Abe Natsumi of Morning Musume. I simply got swept up in it all like the airhead that I am. (laughs)
“Koko ni Iruzee!”
Abe: I like the whole, “let’s gooo!,” feel of the song. The love and the message embedded in it is something that can reach not only Japan but much further than that, and that’s such a perfect description of Morning Musume as a whole. I can’t get enough of that energy especially because it’s a group song.