July 13, 1989 — Yamaguchi
2003/01/19 ~ 2014/11/26
— As the 8th leader you were a central figure in the group breaking through once more, and that has resulted in the name “Michishige Sayumi” becoming almost deified.
Michishige: I was genuinely happy to have been told things like that. It felt like my 10+ years of hard work had finally been recognized. I’m no god though — I even got a leg cramp during a very important part of my graduation concert. But I think even in that moment, the fans all knew: this is the real Michishige Sayumi. Like, “I guess Michishige Sayumi will remain Michishige Sayumi until the very end.” (laughs)
— From the very beginning, you had difficulty with singing and dancing. Rather than standing out in performances, you got your big break through variety TV. Later, your image as the group’s leader became properly established, and then that graduation concert happened…
Michishige: I consider myself a perfectionist, and yet, there is always something lacking about me. That was the case for those entire 12 years. Even with the leg thing, it wasn’t just that one instance — I’d be getting cramps all the time and thus causing trouble for others. I’m bad at singing, bad at dancing, I’m a deeply jealous person, and I do not have a good personality. (laughs) In those 12 years, not once was there a time when I was truly perfect. So I feel that, in a way, maybe that graduation was actually very fitting for me.
“Wait… I’m Not a Good Singer?!”
— You were in the first grade of junior high school when you took part in your auditions. Having been brought up like a princess in your hometown of Yamaguchi, as a young girl you were brimming with self-confidence.
Michishige: Everything was going perfect for me back then. I did have this weird sense of self-confidence, and I felt certain from the beginning that I was going to pass the audition. Up until that point, I’d never experienced any frustrating setbacks in my life. Oh, although I did fail my junior high entrance exams. (laughs) But I was the youngest child of the family and I was brought up with everyone always doting on me, so I was very good at self-denial.
I had no self-awareness at the time as far as me being a bad singer and dancer, so I applied for the auditions with no hesitation whatsoever. “I love Morning Musume. I want to be in Morning Musume.” That was the only thing on my mind when I sent in my application. Maybe that actually worked out in my favor.
— Your resolve was absolute.
Michishige: Unlike my pitch. (laughs)
— When did you realize things weren’t quite as they seemed?
Michishige: I was watching the 6th generation audition program, Morning Musume LOVE Audition 2002, and in it, Tsunku♂ pointed out the weakness of my singing. That was when I first knew. “Oh. I’m bad at singing.” But then I remembered how the members of Morning Musume would always be all smiles as they happily sung and danced on TV, so I totally thought I would soon be doing the same and it would be no problem. (laughs)
Looking back on it now, I was just so naive. That’s why in the early days I would go to our dance lessons pretty much without doing any practice at all beforehand. One time, Iida Kaori — our leader — came up to me and asked me, “Did you practice? Answer me honestly. I won’t get angry.” So then when I answered her, “No, I didn’t!, she was furious with me. It was around this time that I realized just how incapable I actually was. That’s when I started practicing properly.
— Were you initially just trying to catch up to the rest of the members?
Michishige: That’s right. When I’d watch the footage from our dance lessons, my sense of rhythm was so off and I just wasn’t moving in-sync with the others. Seeing the group from a distance, I alone would stand out in a bad way. So first, I practiced so much just to not have that happen, and finally I could at least fit in with the rest of the members. But I was still so out of my depth. It was obvious how in Morning Musume I was the one who couldn’t keep up.
— Although you could finally fit in, it was difficult for you to stand out what with it being a group with so many members.
Michishige: For better or worse, I only just did that — “fit in.” I’m not a good singer or dancer so I hardly ever got any solo parts, and position-wise I would always be in the back row or over to the side. It was frustrating, but then I could also see it was because of how lacking I was in ability. I had joined this world that was supposed to be all glitter and sparkle, but it sure didn’t feel that way.
— You then became 7th generation member Kusumi Koharu’s mentor. Was this a turning point for you?
Michishige: Teaching someone else made me more aware of things, and it made me try that much harder on many fronts. But since I was also still so preoccupied with myself, I had a hard time trying to give advice to someone else. Koharu had only just joined and she was still a child, so she had trouble understanding a lot of the things I’d try to tell her. That would in turn make me feel even more powerless. I think it became a source of stress.
— Your worries continued to accumulate…
Michishige: I had many seniors around me who had such clearly defined personalities, and when I started to seriously think about just how I could possibly stand out in an environment like that, I didn’t know what I was supposed to do. My personality became more gloomy. Looking back, I was just spinning my wheels.
— Did you think about quitting?
Michishige: No. No matter how difficult it was, my feeling of love towards Morning Musume was always the strongest.
— Amidst all this trouble, you discovered and began to develop your “cute character.”
Michishige: That all started with me simply trying to feel more confident about myself. I would look at myself in the mirror and say, “alright, I look cute today!” — it was like a good luck spell before going up on stage. My seniors saw that and they started teasing me, going, “Michishige likes to look in the mirror and talk to herself! She calls herself cute!” It felt strange to me how something like that would be considered funny.
— Simply put, discovering one’s character isn’t easy. Sometimes in order to come to a realization like that, you need those reactions from the people around you.
Michishige: Yes. It’s not easy. I’d been desperately trying to think of something, and yet it was ultimately something that I just happened to stumble upon. Just like that. That was the case for the “I’m cute” thing, but also for my “poison tongue character.” If I just spoke whatever came to my mind on the spot, people seemed to find it funny. Initially, it wasn’t something I was aiming for… It was just, “if I say this right now, it might be funny.“
— You’d finally discovered your character. Did it make you feel like you wanted to just run with it?
Michishige: Around this time, I was still struggling to find my place within the group. I wasn’t essential to Morning Musume. But then I received this one variety TV offer, and I felt that this was my chance — if I wasn’t going to do my best here, then what was I going to do my best at? Those were my thoughts as I headed into that TV shoot.
— So now you’d also found the position you had been searching for.
Michishige: I felt like, through variety TV, I wanted everyone to get to know me. I wanted to use the opportunity to gain everyone’s attention.
— As you were doing so, your seniors one after the other went on to graduate. The group became smaller, and little by little your name started to become more recognized.
Michishige: Honestly, even then I wasn’t at all where I needed to be in terms of my performances. But getting to appear on variety shows, it gave me courage and confidence, and compared to back when I couldn’t even find my position within the group, I did have a sense of fulfillment.
— But then just as you’d managed to solve one issue that was troubling you, it led to the emergence of another…
Michishige: Getting to appear on variety shows, it also showed me our place in society. My co-stars would ask me things like, “What’s Momusu up to nowadays? How many members are there?” I was shocked to learn how little people were paying attention to us.
Back when I joined Morning Musume, everyone in my class at school could list the names of every single member of the group — if you couldn’t, you wouldn’t even be able to follow along with our conversations. That’s how much everyone was paying attention to them. For me, that sense I had about the group had never changed… but somewhere down the line, society had moved on.
— You hadn’t noticed this change in society.
Michishige: We were still performing concerts every week, so from my perspective everywhere we went, it was always filled with our fans. But in society’s eyes, the general consensus was no longer, “top idols of Japan = Morning Musume.” From that point on, my thinking towards my appearances on variety shows changed. My objective became to make the current Morning Musume known; to have people know the good things about our members. I decided I was going to be the person to make everyone know. I became much more assertive when I was appearing on variety shows.
— This was in around 2011 — a time that would later go on to be referred to as the Platinum Era.
Michishige: We all had respect for the accomplishments of our seniors, but around this time there simply weren’t many opportunities to make everyone see and hear Morning Musume. Still, as a group, we were consciously trying to improve our performances and since we had confidence in what we were doing, I was certain that if only people noticed us, then they would surely come to like us, too. That’s the only thing that was on my mind as we worked ourselves to the brink of mental exhaustion.
Even then, it was difficult to produce results. There was a sense of impending crisis. However, I’m sure I grew a lot as a person during this era, so that’s something I feel glad about. I’m thankful the group had a phase like that.
— The group then went on to evolve.
Michishige: When Kamei Eri, Junjun, and Linlin graduated and it became a 5-person lineup, I did feel worried. Suddenly there were so few of us and it was like, “what’s going to happen to Morning Musume?“
— Was it a shock to have a close ally of yours to graduate?
Michishige: It was difficult, but Eri knows me very well since we’re so close, and she told me, “you’re going to be just fine even without me.” So I took her words to heart and just tried my best to start anew.
— And then the 9th generation joined the group. There was a difference in age and between the lengths of your respective careers, and them joining the group felt like a breath of fresh air.
Michishige: It was so exciting. It definitely did feel like a breath of fresh air. For me, it was just so much fun being around all these cute, young members. Plus, my position at the time was like right in the middle, which meant I didn’t have to be the senior constantly giving them advice. I could just be irresponsible and dote on them all the time, so this whole era felt like pure happiness every day.
Leader Michishige Sayumi’s Ambition
— Then two of your dependable seniors, Takahashi Ai and Niigaki Risa, graduated from the group. Suddenly, you had become the leader.
Michishige: I was very happy about having become the leader of this group I so loved. Being the leader was very difficult at first — there was a lot of trial and error. But everyone showed such wonderful growth and I had my objective as the leader, so that’s why I was able to remain strong-willed about it.
— What was the objective?
Michishige: Making the current Morning Musume known to lots of people. That’s why I decided that, as the leader, I wanted to be like a PR person for my juniors. I always tried to bring them up on TV and during concerts, talking about their good points as often as possible. The staff said it wasn’t “like” me to do so, but then again, I couldn’t have served as the leader had I been acting like myself. So no matter what anyone told me, seeing as I was the leader, I was also going to carry it out properly.
— Was it like revenge for when you’d been “just another member?”
Michishige: I didn’t think about it that deeply. I only wanted to catch up to and surpass Morning Musume as it had been when I first joined the group. The time when songs like “LOVE Machine” and “The☆Peace!” were released may have been called the Golden Era… but I always felt that our job was to make a new Golden Era.
— It was also the milestone of the group celebrating its 15th anniversary and releasing its 50th single.
Michishige: I felt like I was the one responsible for preserving those 15 years of history. It was a lot of pressure. I’d always been saying how I’d like to one day be the leader, but honestly, I’d done so without ever giving it much deeper thought — I’d just said how it was my goal to not quit before I’d experienced being at the very top. But it wasn’t something to be taken lightly. I didn’t want anyone to say the group had fallen under my leadership, and I also felt like it was my duty to personally have all the good points of all our seven past leaders.
But when I met with Nakazawa Yuko, she told me, “You just be yourself, Shige-chan. There’s no need for you to try to copy the past leaders.” When she said that, I actually cried. I usually never cry, but hearing her say those words… it was just such a relief. After that point, I would always be thinking to myself, “What would a Michishige Sayumi-like leader look like?“
— That kind of serious thinking actually bore fruit, and the group began to get noticed once more.
Michishige: I’m happy to hear you say that, but I do think the deciding factor was really the formation dancing.
— The group became much talked about everywhere because of your new, exciting formation dancing.
Michishige: I was very happy about us getting acknowledged. It’s just that the formation dancing lessons would always be so difficult… Oftentimes, there weren’t any set positions — you just had to let your body do the work and try to remember how close or how far away everyone was from you. It was just constant practice and trying to learn it by feeling. Like, “the shoulder of the member next to me is there, so that means I need to be here.” Every day was just constantly about trying to hammer all that into memory.
— Through the sophistication of your formation dancing, you were able to show a new kind of Morning Musume.
Michishige: We all did our best, sure, but I do think the biggest thing was Sayashi Riho being there in the center. Her dancing was miles ahead of the rest of us — even just at a glimpse you would fall under her charm. The biggest reason people thought our formation dancing was so amazing back in 2013 and 2014 was because of her. Sayashi had that intense appeal about her that allowed her to lead the group.
— You used to adore her, didn’t you?
Michishige: I just loved her. Everything she did was so funny and she was just so unbelievably cute, I was secretly taking pictures of her every day. (laughs) Sayashi was in the habit of always losing her belongings, so whenever I’d notice how she was looking for something, I’d go, “Oh, Sayashi’s looking for something. How cute. I have to snap a picture!” But then on the other hand, she was also very reliable in many areas — not just dancing — and she was such a hard worker. She was a very trustworthy junior to me.
— No one could’ve anticipated that Sayashi would graduate just a year after you.
Michishige: That surprised me. She suddenly called me one day, which was unusual, and it was to let me know of her graduation. It was so sudden and I never thought someone would graduate only a year after me. I was especially shocked that it was Sayashi of all people. But she explained to me how she felt, and she really did make a very commendable decision at the young age of 17. Just knowing her, I felt that her graduation was sure to lead to important things for her.
— People sometimes talk about how this young girl was “fighting all alone by herself,” trying to protect the Morning Musume name as its ace, and how that must have all been too difficult for her.
Michishige: It is true that one could sense both strength and weakness in Sayashi’s decision to graduate. But in that sense, watching her after she announced her graduation, she became so much more relaxed which was good. It must’ve taken so much courage to take that step into the unknown. That’s why I think Sayashi is amazing for having been able to make that decision at the young age of only 17.
For me, after I graduated from Morning Musume and spent two and a half years inactive, I was so afraid to make that first step towards my comeback. Now I realize that, yes, it’s difficult to keep going… but nothing is scarier and more difficult than taking the first step towards something new. I’m sure it took enormous resolve of this girl in her teens to be able to figure out what she wanted of her future and how she felt at the moment, and then to decide to take that first step.
That’s why I think she’s so cool for having been able to choose that new path for herself and proceed towards it. No matter where she goes, I’m going to love this person called Sayashi Riho, and I’m wishing her the best of luck from the bottom of my heart.
The Graduation That Convinced Her…
— The courageous decision to graduate — how did you reach that decision yourself?
Michishige: When I became the leader, I wanted to give something back to this group that I had been indebted to for over a decade. I felt that making lots and lots of people aware of the Morning Musume of now was the best way of doing that, and I decided how that was my mission as the leader. We then had several of our songs become no. 1 on the Oricon charts and we got to appear in commercials and the like. Of course that wasn’t only because of me, but I still felt like I had in my own way been able to repay the favor to the group; that I had done all I could; that it was now time for me to graduate. Moreover, around this time I felt that my juniors were becoming more and more reliable. I felt that they’d be okay by themselves, and that I had to graduate for there to truly be an all-new Morning Musume.
Also, I felt that I wanted to graduate while I still looked cute, and I felt that the peak of that would be at the age of 25. My thinking is that idols must be cute, so I decided that I would graduate at 25.
— The group under your leadership had already begun to be deified. Did you not feel at all unwilling or hesitant to graduate?
Michishige: It did feel strange how something that I had been doing for 12 years straight was about to end for me. I did feel lonely thinking about it, so there was also the feeling of not wanting to be separated midway from the members and the fans. But it was my own decision, and I swore that until my graduation concert I would do what needed to be done and I would make lots of fun memories with my fans.
— And then it was time for your graduation concert where an unexpected happening took place…
Michishige: I’m sure I must’ve worried everyone. It was so frustrating for me, too. That might’ve been the day I cried the most in my entire life. Even backstage, I was sobbing.
But when I saw all my fans in the audience, I realized that my supporters were going to support me no matter what — leg cramp or no leg cramp — and so that meant they must’ve loved me! And because of that, I was able to switch gears and give the best possible performance I could’ve given on that day, as Michishige Sayumi.
— It became a very Michishige Sayumi-like graduation ceremony.
Michishige: I’m not an extraordinarily lucky person, nor am I someone who shows any kind of a flash of genius. I’m the type of person who has to think a lot and prepare in advance in order to do anything right. I’m always worried whether or not I’ll be able to do my work properly, or whether I’ll be able to speak well, so I always simulate everything in my mind before leaving for work. The previous night I’ll do image training, making sure to run through a couple of different patterns, and then I go to sleep only after deciding that it’s OK.
But even then, I did not expect the happening on that day. I was really saved by my juniors’ quick wittedness there. In my time as the leader I’d often relied on my juniors when it came to the singing and the dancing, and with that happening I was even more convinced of my juniors’ reliability. And so I was able to graduate with a peace of mind.
— After your graduation, you paused your activities for two years. How did you view Morning Musume during this time?
Michishige: Even after my graduation, I’d see them on TV or in concerts and I could see how hard they were working and how cute they were. It was cool how it seemed like they’d grown every time I saw them, and I kept cheering them on, excited by how they were constantly evolving, thinking to myself, “as expected of Morning Musume!“
— Didn’t you ever feel like you’d like to return to that place?
Michishige: I didn’t. I was only thinking about what I was going to do in the future. But listening to Morning Musume’s songs would always cheer me up. I came to realize once more how I love Tsunku♂’s songs.
— What do you think makes them so good?
Michishige: The songs themselves are just so sparkly! And the rhythms are so pleasant to listen to. I don’t really know anything about the technical stuff, but it’s so pleasant how when you listen to the rhythms, they just make you want to dance to them. Back in the day, Tsunku♂ would give me intensive rhythm training and he’d say, “whenever you’re walking around town or when you’re at a shop or whatever, always listen to the rhythm!” After doing so for several years, it just got ingrained in me. Now, I always find myself responding to rhythms.
— Your involvement with Tsunku♂ became greater after you became the leader, right?
Michishige: He would always worry about me. He’d often send me emails like, “how are you doing as of late, Michishige?” I trusted Tsunku♂, so whenever there was something on my mind he was always the first person I would ask for advice. His advice would always surprise me, but more than that, it would give me confidence.
— Even your “cute character” was something you could only do to because you had the necessary confidence.
Michishige: In my case, I gain confidence by studying people’s facial expressions. Also, just never forgetting that there are people watching. Because there’s always someone.
— Are you saying that from personal experience?
Michishige: There was a period of time when I didn’t stand out and it felt like no one was noticing me. We didn’t get to do this a lot back then, but there was an opportunity for us to do free choreography and I’d do the “usa-chan peace” pose. So then the fans started telling me, “please do usa-chan peace!,” and I was just shocked. “Wait, you know about that?!” But I was so happy to get that reaction, and it really led to me feeling more confident.
So if any of the other members are worrying about similar things, I just want them to know that someone is always watching. So be confident. You’re there because you were chosen. Remember that you’re a Morning Musume and always keep your head high when you’re on stage.
What She Left for Morning Musume
— I know you’re someone who is very thoughtful of her juniors, but what is something you believe that you yourself have left behind for the group?
Michishige: Maybe my teaching of, “always do image training.” That’s something I told them many times. There’s no point making the same comments as another member. You won’t leave an impression. No one will remember you. If you don’t prepare several different answers to give, your chance to make it to the front will simply disappear.
Also, always having that feeling of expectation! Like, something good will come if you just keep at it. I’m not good at singing or dancing and there was a period of years when I didn’t stand out, but it’s because I was a member for such a long time that so many good things happened to me. I became the leader just like I’d wished, I was able to have such a fun time with so many cute juniors of mine, and I was able to find my place. So just having the right attitude and a little bit of patience will lead to big things. Having that feeling of expectation is something I tried to leave behind, too.
— You started off as the underachiever, yet you spent over half of the group’s 20-year history as its member while also eventually becoming its leader. There’s definitely hope in that story.
Michishige: Morning Musume really is a place that allowed me to grow so much. There were of course a lot of things I had to inherit and I tried my best not to forget any of those things, but in 20 years, the color and the air of the group is going to change, so in that sense I also felt that we had to create something new. The current members are from another generation entirely, so if they didn’t create something new, it’d just be pointless. Sure, it’s amazing when something never changes… but I also think there’s nothing we can’t change.
— The image of the group has changed considerably in the past 20 years.
Michishige: I think it’s fine if the “Morning Musume-ness” of the group changes with each respective era — or rather, it’s only obvious that it would. That’s why Morning Musume should do things the way that suits them the best. Change is good, but as to how they change, that should be up to those girls. They should change the group however they feel is best. There are traditions, yes, but the group should always continue to evolve and not be afraid of doing new things.
— A bold suggestion, but perhaps one that is fitting for the current era.
Michishige: I want the future members to do things that we couldn’t. It’s certainly great that the group still continues to go on after all these years, but it shouldn’t be about just preserving it — it’s important for the group to seriously step up, too.
— What do you think is the main reason for Morning Musume having gone on for 20 years?
Michishige: The active members. It would be pointless if the current, active members weren’t always shining. It’s because Morning Musume is always shining, regardless of the era, that new members feel like they want to join the group, and thus the group has existed for decades now. That’s why I think the reason is definitely always the active members.
— Perhaps that’s the belief that allowed the group — when you were its leader — to create the path to this new era.
Michishige: I just always had this feeling of wanting to enliven Morning Musume. I never wanted to become an entertainer — I entered the world of entertainment because I loved Morning Musume, and throughout my 12 years as a member I always thought only about Morning Musume. If I was able to contribute something to Morning Musume, then nothing would make me happier than that.
— What is Morning Musume to you?
Michishige: When I was a member, it was my whole life. Now, it’s changed to being the thing about my life that I’m the most proud of. There were so many good things, bad things, happy things, sad things… It’s the combination of all those things that I’m proud of. I’m so glad I was able to become an idol in Morning Musume.
— What do you think makes people support certain idols and not others?
Michishige: Ultimately, I think the biggest thing is whether she actually likes it or not. If she shows it through her attitude and her passion towards being an idol, that is something that will definitely be conveyed to the people watching. When an idol actually likes her job, those idols will absolutely be more fun to watch.
— Did you feel that way when you were a member yourself?
Michishige: Of course. Standing on stage and performing in front of the fans was what I liked doing the best. I loved doing it then just as I love doing it now, and the reason I came back was because I wanted to sing and dance again in a shared space with all my fans.
My fans are all open-minded people who can love someone even if they’re not perfect. That’s why it gives me peace of mind when I meet them. Those peculiar people who say they love someone like me — I love them just the same. It really is mutual love between me and those “weird people.“
Michishige: I was 17 when I sang this song, and the lyric, “hitori ja nai kara / minna ga iru kara” (“you’re not alone / everyone is here“), matched perfectly with what I was feeling at the time. This was a time when I felt quite worried about how I wasn’t able to stand out, and I can’t even tell you how much this song helped me in dealing with those feelings. It’s the theme song of my life.