December 6, 1980 — Chiba
1998/05/03 ~ 2003/05/05
Yasuda: Every year in May, I remember my graduation concert. And every year on May 5th, I watch the DVD of it and I think about just how happy I am.
— I understand that’s a custom you’ve been following for 15 years now.
Yasuda: I was a member for exactly five years. The first three years were difficult, but during the latter half I started to get more out of it. That last day especially is something I’ll never forget. It became a special day for both me and all my fans.
— You originally wanted to become an artist like Amuro Namie, didn’t you?
Yasuda: Back in those days, my clothes, my make-up, my hair — it was all Amuro. I think lots of girls who liked to sing saw Amuro as a kind of role model. Everyone wanted to be a singer like her.
— You wanted to become a solo artist, and yet you applied for the Morning Musume auditions. What was your reason for doing so?
Yasuda: I would watch every single episode of “ASAYAN.” I was watching when the original members were selling their debut single by hand, cheering them on with all my might. So when Tsunku♂ announced on the show that he was going to add more members to the group, I honestly thought he was doing something pretty awful to them.
— And yet, you ended up applying for those very same auditions yourself.
Yasuda: I really, really wanted to become a singer. The pieces in my life had all fallen in a place where I felt like I wanted to give it a shot.
— Were the auditions difficult?
Yasuda: I was just so nervous. The one good thing was how we didn’t have that training camp examination.
— The training camp has been a customary part of all auditions, both before and since that one.
Yasuda: For a slow learner like me, I’m absolutely certain I wouldn’t have made it through a training camp what with how little time we would’ve had there. Plus, everyone would’ve seen how much of a chicken I am. (laughs)
— No one could’ve predicted that personality of yours from the gyaru looks you had at the time.
Yasuda: I’m such a big crybaby, too. I’m sure the instructors would’ve been constantly angry with me. I’m seriously so glad we didn’t have a training camp.
— But the viewers really sympathize with the members when they get to watch their journey through that training camp examination. It earns them lots of supporters from the moment they begin their tenure in the group.
Yasuda: That might be true. In that sense, the 2nd generation really was a special case. The original members accomplished something so huge before they even got to debut… and three months later, us three joined the group just like that. I’m sure that must not have been a good feeling for fans of the group.
The Difficulties of Establishing a Character
— You’d made it to Morning Musume, taking your first step towards becoming a real singer. Was it difficult?
Yasuda: What was difficult was how even the fans would be so matter-of-fact. Sometimes we’d be doing a handshake event and fans would come up to us and declare, “I’m a supporter of the original members, so I don’t want to shake hands with you 2nd generation members.” They’d turn down handshakes from the three of us! (laughs) It made me think if it was really okay for us to even be there.
— I’ve heard that there was a great deal of distance between you and the original members when you first joined.
Yasuda: I can understand the reason why. Had it been the other way around, I wouldn’t have liked it either. I’d been somewhat prepared for something like that, but when we actually did our first job together — a photo shoot for a CD jacket — it was just hell.
— Were you afraid?
Yasuda: That sense of pressure emanating from Nakazawa Yuko… (laughs) But above all, it was just obvious how the aura of those five was completely different from us. The only thing I could think about was how I couldn’t possibly stand on the same stage with these five, beautiful people.
— I heard you also received a lot of harsh scolding from your manager Wada.
Yasuda: “There’s no passion in your eyes!” I was told that by him several times. I just thought, “I can’t even smile properly, so why are you talking to me about “passion” in my eyes?” I didn’t even know what he meant by that so I just tried opening my eyes really wide. I can joke about it now, but at the time it was like I was fighting for my dear life. I had no idea what people were saying to me or why they’d be getting angry with me. Every day I’d be constantly thinking to myself, “what am I going to do?“
— I’m sure you at least felt confident about your singing though, right?
Yasuda: That was the one thing I’d practiced a lot and I figured I wouldn’t have trouble with it, but ultimately even my singing wasn’t anywhere near professional level. I received so much criticism for it and so I lost even the one thing I’d felt confident about. I remember crying, not knowing what I was supposed to do.
— You must have felt confused by the gap of what you thought being an idol would be like and what it actually was.
Yasuda: I’d thought being an idol was this sparkly existence where everyone treated you like a princess. But now I fully realized what it really was. It was only thanks to Yaguchi Mari and Ichii Sayaka being there alongside me that I didn’t give up halfway.
— Generation-mates are important, aren’t they?
Yasuda: They didn’t give us time to think about even possibly quitting. (laughs) It’s not that I was even particularly determined, but seeing as the three of us had made it, I felt like I wanted us to do our best together.
— It must’ve felt like your life had been turned upside down.
Yasuda: Right. My life had completely changed. Even the people around me were affected. As a result of me joining the entertainment industry, my little brother — who is nine years younger than me — was teased in school because of me. That’s why I felt that I simply had to do my best.
— It must have been a difficult decision for a teenager.
Yasuda: But now I feel that I made the right decision. I’m proud of the fact that I was in Morning Musume. Everyone in my family feels the same way, too.
— However, there was still a long road ahead of you before your life in Morning Musume would become the way you envisioned it.
Yasuda: In my case, it took three years.
— Over half the time you spent in the group.
Yasuda: Those were rough times. I strongly wanted even one more person out there to know the name of “Yasuda Kei.” What troubled me was how I wasn’t succeeding in doing so.
— And you had rules as to how you were to make people do so.
Yasuda: Wada, our manager at the time, really gave us some tough love as he earnestly tried to raise us. For example, he’d tell us to always start our sentences by stating our names, and we were prohibited from changing our hairstyles or make-up until we’d found our images. In the early days, we even had to wear name tags. He was extremely serious about getting people to learn our names.
— Despite all that, the name “Yasuda Kei” wasn’t quite permeating people’s minds.
Yasuda: I’d be told every day how I needed to create a personality for myself. But I didn’t know how. I’d be constantly worrying about it, and yet Yaguchi was very capable from the get-go and she was a good talker, and Sayaka quickly found her position, too. It felt like I alone had been left behind.
— It’s true that you left a completely different impression before you found your role as the “silly character” of the group.
Yasuda: I didn’t have any confidence. I think I was lacking assertiveness.
— I will say though that you definitely received some excessive treatment considering you were only a teenage girl.
Yasuda: You mean on “Utaban,” right? (laughs) I understand how people might feel that way, but really, I just felt so grateful to them. I can’t tell you how thankful I am for everything that Ishibashi Takaaki and Nakai Takahiro did for me. They discovered my role in Morning Musume for me. That in turn gave me confidence and it gave me a chance to really put myself out there.
— So it wasn’t until that point that you actually had any confidence in yourself?
Yasuda: Back in those days, the music shows would all have a talk segment. Sometimes I’d tried to think of something funny to say and when I said it, it would just freeze up the atmosphere in the room. The fear of me doing so won, and that would make it so that I couldn’t bring myself say anything at all. Then, when the show was over, the manager would get us all together in a room and we’d usually spend about two hours in meeting, evaluating how it had went. But even in those meetings, I couldn’t understand what I had done wrong. I couldn’t tell when I had succeeded or failed, and I didn’t know what was wanted of me. Finally it reached a point where I was told that I no longer had to even participate in the talk segments. That really was frustrating. To be honest, I wasn’t even interested in talking to begin with, so I didn’t know what I was supposed to do.
— Acquiring the talking skill can be difficult.
Yasuda: That’s right. But even Fukuda Asuka was such a hard worker. She even read a book by Downtown just to learn how to talk better. Seeing Asuka — who was younger than me — working so hard, I felt like I had to do something as well. Up until that point, pretty much the only thing I’d been thinking about was, “I like singing so I want more lines!” But now I wanted to overcome my weaknesses. And I reached that realization just from watching the other members. That’s the great thing about Morning Musume.
— How did you actually go about overcoming that weakness?
Yasuda: I watched lots and lots of variety TV for research. Not just absentmindedly — I’d be watching it while running simulations in my mind. Before, I’d allowed fear to get the best of me. But little by little, I started having successes, too.
— That’s when your character on “Utaban” exploded.
Yasuda: It hadn’t been my intention, but I just discovered how that was where I was supposed to be. It was a long, difficult road for me to establish a character for myself. I just couldn’t see a way out. With my activities in Morning Musume, I was always worried about how I was supposed to express myself — and not just when it came to singing and performing either. It didn’t matter how it happened — the only thing I cared about was having even one more person recognize me. In that sense, “Utaban” really was the show that saved me.
— In the past, you’d been called the underdog of the group. But this really was your awakening.
Yasuda: It did have a negative effect later when I was marriage hunting though. (laughs) But really, had I not been able to change at that time, I wouldn’t be the person I am today. I learned about acceptance and solution-finding. Or rather, about achieving my objectives.
— And it took you three years to find that role.
Yasuda: For close to three years, I struggled with bridging the gap between my ideals and reality. But once I accepted this character, I could stop worrying about not being in the center or not always acting like the sparkly, idol type. It allowed me to take it easy. When girls like Tsuji Nozomi and Kago Ai would call me an “auntie” in front of the cameras, I’d just think to myself, “say it some more!” (laughs) Finding my role in the group made me feel more comfortable.
How to Be in an Everchanging Group
— On the other hand, I felt like you were always very serious when it came to performing.
Yasuda: I really did love singing. I think that’s what Tsunku♂ saw in me, too. I was happy when I received Asuka’s lines upon her graduation.
— Her lines were the focal point.
Yasuda: However, I made a mistake this one time when we were performing at an overseas music festival. I personally didn’t think it’d even been so bad, but Wada angrily told me how I’d completely messed it up. That caused this period of time for me when I was even a little bit afraid of singing. The only way I could overcome that fear was through more practice. So I practiced and practiced, and then when we appeared on NHK’s “POP JAM,” Wada told me I had done good. I cried my eyes out. That again boosted my confidence and helped me let go of my anxiety.
— What about the dancing side of things?
Yasuda: I was so bad at dancing. Moreover, it took me twice as much time to learn a choreography compared to the others. With my first song, “Summer Night Town,” I couldn’t even learn the part of the choreography where the only thing I had to do was to look over my shoulder. I feel so grateful to our instructor, Natsu Mayumi, for having the patience to teach me just that one move over the course of three or four hours.
— Now your dancing has an image of being very powerful.
Yasuda: It’s just because I’m so desperate. Your dancing stands out when you dance in a very big way with intensity, right? I have a constant need to express myself, so I’m just eagerly always doing so. I always need to do voluntary practice at home and review what I’ve learned. But even despite all that, my problem is that I’m still a very slow learner. Even the Dream Morning Musume days were tough for me.
— You started putting yourself out there more and gradually you began to change. What was the turning point for you?
Yasuda: Thinking back on my Morning Musume years, there were several turning points for me. The first one might’ve been when we released “Furusato.”
— Morning Musume had become well-known in society and you’d already had your first Oricon no. 1 single. It felt like Morning Musume was on its way up.
Yasuda: We released that song as part of a competition with Suzuki Ami on “ASAYAN.” The show was stirring things up and Abe Natsumi was the main singer while the rest of us were all backing singers, which was something new for us. The mood within the group changed somewhat.
— Was it nervousness?
Yasuda: There was that, but really what it was was a sense of danger. “What if our song doesn’t sell well? We might have to break up!” We were very serious about the numbers. In that moment, I felt that it was no time to be worrying about senior-junior relations, or to hold anything back.
— And the “ASAYAN” cameras were always on you.
Yasuda: Around the clock. We had zero time to focus on ourselves. When it came to Nacchi, we wanted her to carry all of our feelings with her too, and we had a big meeting where we all said what was on our minds. I think I was able to tell her exactly how I felt.
— Ultimately, however, you ended up losing in that competition.
Yasuda: It was like, “what do we do now?” But then the feeling of shock when we’d made “LOVE Machine“… That’s a feeling I still can’t forget.
— You felt that you had a chance.
Yasuda: The members all felt that way. When it was first completed, it was this cool dance number. But then all of a sudden, Tsunku♂ changed it into this “Aho no Sakata” kind of dance. Even Natsu was in a panic. But when it all came together, I was sure that this was a song that was going to be heard by a lots and lots of people.
— You also saw Goto Maki joining the group.
Yasuda: She got such a warm reception compared to the 2nd generation. (laughs) You hardly even saw us in our debut song, and yet she was suddenly being made the center. I felt so dispirited. Like, “can they do this?” But it’s true that she had impact, and it had taken us 2th generation members a long time to close the distance between us and the 1st generation so I didn’t want Gocchin — who’d joined all by herself — to experience the same.
— And then, just as you’d thought, the song was a huge hit.
Yasuda: This was a turning point for Morning Musume. To this day, there’s no doubt that song has continued to be a pillar of support for Morning Musume. I’m happy how it’s become a song that is loved by so many people.
— The next one, “Koi no Dance Site,” was also an instant million-seller.
Yasuda: The response from society was so huge it didn’t feel real. We’d be so happy to see ourselves in big newspaper articles and such. I couldn’t grasp what was happening, but it did feel like it was something amazing.
— With the 4th generation joining, the popularity of the group was only accelerating.
Yasuda: When I first saw Ishikawa Rika and Yoshizawa Hitomi, I just remember thinking how beautiful they were. And then you had Tsuji and Kago who were only just children. They’d be constantly running around and suddenly doing things like telling Iida Kaori, “hey, do the “nee waratte” thing!” I couldn’t help but feel a generation gap. It was like, “what are these two?” It felt like something amazing had managed to get into the group. (laughs)
— Did they get a warm reception from their seniors?
Yasuda: Yuu-chan doted on them as if they were her pets. But strangely enough, thanks to the power of the staff and all the fans, those same Tsuji and Kago soon became something that Morning Musume needed. Morning Musume really is an amazing thing for it being this place that makes the members develop.
— The group kept releasing one hit song after the other. It must have felt like you were finally approaching that idol life that you had envisioned for yourselves.
Yasuda: But then it was time for Yuu-chan’s graduation. This was the next turning point.
— Idol graduations and new members joining are a commonplace thing today, but back then the graduation of a group’s initial leader was a big deal.
Yasuda: Yes. It felt like the color and the whole atmosphere of Morning Musume was going to change. I couldn’t help but feel worried. I’d think about what I was going to do.
— Did you find an answer?
Yasuda: When Yuu-chan graduated, Kaorin became the next leader and I was made a sub-leader. I’m sure Kaorin must have felt a lot of pressure, inheriting the leadership status from Yuu-chan. She was always a very levelheaded person and now she had to be even more conscious of everything, so I just left the job of getting angry to her and I considered it my role to support her and bridge the gap between us and the other members.
So I stopped getting angry with my juniors. Up until that point, I’d often get angry with them about things related to the job. I think I was especially tough on Gocchin and Yossie, who were with me in Pucchimoni. But the nickname that Kaorin gave me, “Kemeko,” was also a good communication tool to help me get closer to the members.
— You were looking at the group as a whole.
Yasuda: I’d try to. I’d found my role in Morning Musume and I’d become confident. When I thought about what I could do as a member of Morning Musume after Yuu-chan’s graduation, I wanted to become someone who could support the group as it underwent changes like that.
Feeling the Love of the Fans
— You were then blessed with even more hit songs.
Yasuda: I was never blessed with getting to be the center though. (laughs)
— Were you beginning to think about your own graduation?
Yasuda: Once it’d been nearly five years since I’d joined Morning Musume, I’d managed to create so many bonds with the members and I’d done everything I could with the group. My juniors had grown, and I felt that soon it was my time to go. There was some fear, but I’d begun to think about challenging things on my own.
— So you had a vague idea that you might want to graduate. You spoke to the staff about it and decided on it that way.
Yasuda: It just felt like good timing in many ways. Still, I never expected to receive such a lovely graduation. That really made it feel like all my hard work was being rewarded. It made me think once again about how I was glad I’d made it into Morning Musume.
— The whole venue being filled with red glow sticks like that was such a legendary sight that it has been talked about to this day.
Yasuda: Prior to that, Tanpopo’s final concert had been filled with yellow glow sticks, too. I felt envious of them — it was just so pretty. And then I was given the same thing, all for me alone. Even fans of the other members all participated and became one in celebrating for me. It made me so happy. It allowed me to feel in a very real way how many supporters I had and it made me confident about my future. This is something I’ve always said about the fans, but they really are the people who give me that push when I’m doubting myself.
— You really are thankful for your fans.
Yasuda: I’m such a fortunate person. That’s why May is the most important month of the year for me. I don’t know what form it will take, but I’m always looking to return that love that I received from my fans.
— It’s obvious that you’ve never stopped feeling that way.
Yasuda: I just really don’t want to make my fans sad or regretful. Due to circumstances, I don’t get to see the fans as much these days so it does feel like there’s some distance between us now, but I see them as like my relatives. They’re very important people to me.
— It sounds like you made the right decision by becoming a Morning Musume.
Yasuda: Yes. Life is all about decisions, and I still believe that my decision as to whether or not to become a member of Morning Musume was the biggest crossroads moment of my entire life. If I was asked whether or not I’d do it all over again, I’d say yes, but… I’d ask if it was possible to do so without any knowledge of the hardship that was awaiting me. (laughs)
— And now it’s finally the 20th anniversary. You’ve come so far.
Yasuda: We were told we’d be lucky if we could last three years. It really is unbelievable.
— It’s all thanks to the 41 of you continuing to sing the songs, from generation to generation.
Yasuda: There’s that, but it’s also thanks to Tsunku♂ who has always been watching over us and our feelings towards music. He always thinks about each and every one of the members individually like that.
— Were there other times when you could feel his affection?
Yasuda: I’m one of those members who doesn’t talk with him much so I don’t have a lot of memories of actually exchanging words with him. But there was this one time when there was something on my mind, and he actually called me on the phone.
It was the first time that he’d directly called me like that. He knew exactly what was up: I felt troubled about my singing. Without even thinking, he just told me: “The reason I used your singing so much on “Omoide” was because I think your singing is good.” It’s not that we even talked for very long, but just hearing him say that was enough to make me feel so relieved.
— Tsunku♂’s words came at the perfect moment for them to give you courage.
Yasuda: Even at the auditions when he saw me come in with blonde highlights, colored contacts, and in full, aggressive gyaru fashion, he told me: “oh, you’re the type that people like to use as their stepping stone.” I still don’t know what he meant by that, but he’s someone who excels in seeing through people. I’m sure he saw something deep inside of me.
— It sounds like he’d never get angry with you.
Yasuda: Oh, he would! One time, after we’d filmed an appearance for a music show, I went into recording and Tsunku♂ asked me, “how did it go today?” So I in turn asked, “the singing or the talking?“
— That’s how traumatized you’d become in regards to the talk segments.
Yasuda: Yes. So he angrily replied, “the singing of course!” Obviously, right? We’re singers — of course singing is our no. 1 priority. I was really taken aback by that. It was from that point on that I started thinking even more strongly that I needed to refine my singing and my performances.
— You’d nearly forgotten something important, but his words made you remember.
Yasuda: It was all thanks to Tsunku♂ being there that we could all work towards a common goal. In a way, we could do our best to strive towards something we couldn’t even see yet.
What Is It to Be a Morning Musume?
— Recently, Morning Musume has been appearing on all kinds of TV shows alongside other idols. Objectively speaking, what do you think of the group now?
Yasuda: Back in our time, there were less idols in general. The circumstances now are completely different, so I’m sure it’s a different kind of difficulty for them. However, the current members all seem very comfortable in doing what they do, so that’s great. I hope they can keep the group “Morning Musume-like” in that manner.
— How do you define that word — “Morning Musume-like“?
Yasuda: I see it as giving it your all. Even if someone was to say it’s no longer “that kind of an era,” I still wish they keep going as if it was. When you’re young, it can be considered “uncool” when you’re giving something your all. But really, there is nothing embarrassing about giving something your all, and what Morning Musume does is to make it seem like it’s a good thing instead.
It’s more amazing than they even realize for them to be where they are now. There are so many people out there who wish they could be singing on stage but who will never get to. So they need to be grateful for that, and they need convey that gratitude through their singing. Of course, as an OG, I’m going to do whatever I can for them. I know it can be nerve-wracking to appear alongside other idols — after all, they’re carrying the reputation of Morning Musume on their shoulders. You can’t do anything that might spoil that reputation.
— The fact that the OG’s are so friendly with each other, the fact that the group became so big, and the fact that you all managed to be in the group at the same time — in a way, it really does feel like a miracle of sorts.
Yasuda: Oh, absolutely. It is a miracle. (laughs) There are certain feelings that no one else besides us 41 can ever feel. Even us keeping in contact with each other now is like to make sure of that bond that we have, and we all feel that it’s this strange thing that makes it so that we’ll always be close. Also, there were so many things I didn’t realize when I was an active member. I’d only realize those things after my departure.
In any case, so many people have come to love Morning Musume. I only have gratitude towards them for having supported the group for such a long time. There was Tsunku♂, us early members, the staff… and all the rest of the members. We’ve managed to come this far because of all the love that supported us. There have been fans who’ve been there for all this time, as well as fans who came back to us — even though there are so many alternatives nowadays. (laughs) I’m so grateful for all the fans’ feelings towards us. I know it sounds trite, but these words of gratitude really are the only thing that pop to my mind.
— Finally, what is Morning Musume to you?
Yasuda: It’s my pride, as well as my starting point. It’s this great reputation that has continued to exist for all this time — heavy as it may be. (laughs)
— The active members have a tough job ahead of them as they try to improve on that reputation even further.
Yasuda: It makes me happy. I can’t even imagine it ever ending. However, I hope they don’t just “keep steady,” but that they keep constantly evolving in a good way. After all, one good thing about Morning Musume is how it betrays one’s expectations. So I’m very much looking forward to seeing what the future holds for the group.
“Summer Night Town”
Yasuda: This was the first song of my life that was my own. The song itself is lovely, and when I listen to it I’m overcome with feelings of nostalgia, happiness, frustration… It makes me tear up. Even the fact that I hardly appear in the music video is now a good memory.