January 20, 1983 — Kanagawa
1998/05/03 ~ 2005/04/14
Yaguchi: From the very beginning, I hated the thought of being the center. Me, having to shoulder all that responsibility? I’m just not that character. But I did want to stand out, and that’s why I loved the position that was right next to the center. That’s where I wanted to express myself.
But even with that said, the cover of “Memory Seishun no Hikari” was just terrible. (laughs) Abe Natsumi alone was in focus and all the rest of us members in the back were blurred. Some of us even had our eyes closed! But then even there the message was loud and clear: “Be serious about each and every shot they take of you! Never lose focus!” It’s very serious. You can’t survive in this world if you don’t have some guts.
— You were among the first members to be added to Morning Musume. Did you apply for the auditions because you admired the group?
Yaguchi: I was a SPEED fan at the time. I watched “ASAYAN” and I did like Morning Musume, too, but I never felt like I wanted to actually be in the group myself. But when they showed the announcement of them holding auditions for more members, it felt like a surge of electricity going through me. Immediately I felt that I had to apply and I sent in my resume the very next day. So it wasn’t because I loved them or because I admired them — rather, it felt like I was being pushed towards the group by fate itself.
— You did want to be a singer though, right?
Yaguchi: It’d been my dream since childhood. Even in our kindergarten performances I always wanted to sing right in the middle; to stand out. I took part in several auditions and made it as far as the final screening of the “Annie” musical before being rejected. That really frustrated me. My parents could sympathize with that dream of mine, so they even sent me to a voice training school as I was trying to make my dream come true.
— You surely must’ve been happy when you finally passed.
Yaguchi: Honestly, I felt more terrified than happy. When they announced the addition of us 2nd generation members on “ASAYAN,” the expressions on the faces of the five 1st generation members were so stiff. I remember seeing them and feeling intimidated. The feeling of dread from knowing that I was soon going to have to meet those five was greater than the feeling of happiness.
— Did you experience that dread first-hand when you actually joined the group?
Yaguchi: Oh, it was the real deal. In fact, it was so many more times terrifying than I’d even imagined. (laughs)
The first time we met with them was three or four days after we’d joined the group, at the photo shoot for the CD covers of “Summer Night Town.” The three of us in 2nd generation were so nervous as we greeted them, and I’m not sure if any of them actually made eye contact with us. It was painfully obvious to me that we weren’t welcome. That was the level of tension between us, and yet they were asking us to like entwine our legs together and be all close to each other at our very first meeting… I was just bewildered. That’s why my expression is so stiff in the cover — you can definitely sense the feeling of tension.
— For how long did that kind of feeling of tension continue?
Yaguchi: I was eventually able to adapt, but it took about two years until the wall between us was completely gone. But since it’s such a sports-minded group, no matter what it was the seniors would always be no. 1. Seniority was definitely a thing so we always had to hold back. We were close… but it had been ingrained into us that the seniors always came first. That’s something that’s still true in Morning Musume even today.
But I mean even now, when I see the five of them, it feels like that day when I first met them. There’s something special about them — their energy is something else entirely. When I’m watching them on TV as of late, I find myself doing so while sitting down properly. For me, Yasuda Kei, and Ichii Sayaka, we can’t see them like everyone else does. They’re something different for us.
— With that kind of distance between you it must have been difficult to work together.
Yaguchi: We’d try to have discussions, or create situations where we could have one. It was equally tiring for all of us not being able to say anything to one another, so we’d have everyone aside from the members leave the room, and then the seniors and juniors alike could all say their piece. But I personally couldn’t say almost anything — I’m a peace-loving person by my nature and I generally don’t really like disputes and such. I tend to leave things unsaid if I feel it’s not absolutely necessary for me to say it.
Kei-chan is usually a gentle person, but this one time she just snapped and she went off on Nakazawa Yuko. It must have been building up inside of her.
— That goes to show how you 2nd generation members must have had a lot of bottled up frustration.
Yaguchi: I think so, yes. But more so than the relationships with other members, it was the amount of work we had. We weren’t mentally prepared for it yet. It wasn’t easy to find that balance between the mind and the body. She probably just needed to get it out of her system.
For me, I found solace in my family. I could go back to being just Yaguchi Mari in front of my parents. I could relax. Back then, those moments were the most important thing for me — family was such a big deal to me. A round trip home from Yokohama would take me three hours, but even if it was physically exhausting I never stopped visiting home.
— To a teenage girl with so many new restrictions, it’s no wonder you needed the support of your family.
Yaguchi: Even if I could trust no one else, I knew that at least my family would never betray me. Just knowing that was enough for me to be able to do my best. Also, even at the peak of our popularity, I never felt like a “star” at all — I was just a normal girl who was very busy. My family was a big reason why I wouldn’t allow myself to be carried away by people’s sweet-talking. They always kept me sensible.
— I’m surprised to hear how “plain” your life as an active member was.
Yaguchi: It felt like being in a baseball club right before the Koushien tournament. You’re shining out there on the field, but people can’t see any of the hard work that came before that moment. 80% of it is just training. Recordings, dance lessons, voice training… Even with the music video shoots, we would spend three days filming a five-minute music video. So much of the work we did would be invisible. That’s why you have to have that fighting spirit and that feeling of anticipation to keep you going until those moments when the hard work is rewarded. But get careless, and you’ll immediately fall off a cliff.
— You also had pressure coming from your manager at the time.
Yaguchi: Wada would be so, so strict. He would tell us to always imagine that we were standing at the edge of a cliff. Of course, that was just him showing us affection by trying to help us not lose focus. But at the time, his words felt so harsh…
— You were certainly popular enough: with the 2nd generation’s second song, the group got its first Oricon no. 1 single.
Yaguchi: Yes, we made it to the top of Oricon and we even sold hundreds of thousands of copies. But we couldn’t allow ourselves feel satisfied by that.
— Such a strict mindset…
Yaguchi: We were very conscious of the numbers ourselves. “Daite HOLD ON ME!” made it to no. 1, but after that it started going down until finally “Furusato” only reached no. 8. That’s when there was truly a feeling in the air that we were in serious trouble.
— What was going through your mind before “LOVE Machine” was released?
Yaguchi: Personally, I just felt super fired-up and ready to fight. It felt like I’d put everything I had into that song, so then when it became a hit it was this immense feeling of relief. Like, “we’ve been saved!“
— Did the other members feel the same?
Yaguchi: We were all standing there at the edge of the cliff, our backs to the wall. We were desperate. That’s why even after that, none of us would ever try to take the easy way out no matter what it was about. I could feel that ambition in everyone.
— It’s true that the group had an incredible energy at the time.
Yaguchi: Even our aura seemed unusual. Everyone’s eagerness and fighting spirit was so extreme, it felt like we might catch fire on stage. (laughs) Even when we’d have some free time during dance lessons or recording sessions, not one person would actually use that time to take a break.
— We were also beginning to see something resembling a battle for the center position within the group.
Yaguchi: I first began to sense that after Goto Maki joined the group. Before that point, it had been this absolutely certain thing that Nacchi would always be the center. But then it was like, “wait, they’re going to move her?” Suddenly everyone in the group was talking.
— That kind of energy must have boosted the group’s momentum even further. However, you had no interest in being the center yourself. What was your motivation to keep going?
Yaguchi: I think it was having had a taste of that success. It felt it would have been a waste had I quit then. Getting an Oricon no. 1 single almost immediately after I’d joined and then getting to appear on Kouhaku — I wouldn’t have even had the courage to throw that away.
That’s why I think Fukuda Asuka really is incredible for having had the courage to be the first to quit. For me, had I quit this amazing group known as Morning Musume, I would’ve been “just” Yaguchi Mari. It felt like I wouldn’t have even been a person anymore if I did that. I didn’t have the courage the quit. That’s why I felt that I had to keep doing my best no matter how difficult it was, even if it meant I’d be crying constantly.
— Would you have quit the group had it not been successful?
Yaguchi: It’s possible. I might’ve thought to myself to move on to the next thing in life. But the truth is that the group let me experience so many things I’d never gotten to experience before. I was having so much fun. We’d get to do collaborations with, like, Disney characters… I’d get to be close to Hamasaki Ayumi who I so admired…
All those fangirly things included, they were all things I would’ve never gotten to do again had I quit the group. Going to some countryside area to do a concert there, getting to meet all the fans, and getting to eat their delicious local food — how awesome is that?
— Although you didn’t go through with it, you’d often still be thinking about quitting, right?
Yaguchi: Oh, on a weekly basis. (laughs) The second something slightly unpleasant happened, I’d be thinking of quitting. It’s a bad personality trait of mine. But the one time when I genuinely thought about quitting was when I found myself no longer enjoying singing.
— That’s pretty serious.
Yaguchi: I was someone who’d originally loved singing, but suddenly it felt like I was coming to hate it and it started to feel like I would no longer be able to continue doing it. That’s when I was seriously thinking about it. It was bad. They’d stop me in the midst of a recording session, telling me to go home because they said I wouldn’t be able to give them anything usable that day. I’d be devastated.
We were doing lots of very mature songs at the time, and honestly there were parts of the lyrics that I just didn’t understand. Like… ““I hate you, I hate you, I love you.” What does that even mean?!” They’d ask me what kind of a mindset I had when I was singing those lyrics, and I’d just fall silent, making them get angry with me again.
— You were 15 at the time, right? It must have still been difficult for you.
Yaguchi: But this was the world of professionals. It was to be expected. I had to be able to understand the lyrics to the best of my ability, and I had to sing them well. But as that situation went on, I became scared of singing. I started to feel like rather than giving up singing — the thing I so treasured — maybe I ought to just quit instead.
— Good on you for managing to hold out!
Yaguchi: It’s like I was gradually able to overcome my fears. The biggest thing was the concerts — getting to sing in front of all the fans and being able to see their smiles. In recordings and TV shoots, it’s like you’re closed off from everyone and you just hide in your shell. But live, you get to see everyone’s reactions and it’s like you get fired-up together. It was in moments like that when I’d think, “Ahh, it really is fun after all! I’m glad to be doing this!” I was finally able to pull myself together.
— I assume you consulted your family about this.
Yaguchi: Yes. But I actually had this routine I used to combat stress: once a month, I would go into my room and just cry my eyes out. I’d be fine leading up to it, but just for that one day of the month, it was like the string would snap. I would blast the Carpenters’ “I Need To Be In Love” and just cry. And by doing that, I’d be back to normal at work the next day. On all the other days, I would just allow the stress to get piled up inside me.
— It feels like sometimes the string might’ve snapped before you made it to that day…
Yaguchi: I would sometimes clash with the other members — especially Iida Kaori. We’d be in the middle of a dance lesson and it’d be like, “It’s wrong. You got that part of the choreography wrong.” “It’s wrong, I said!” Maybe it’s because we were together in Tanpopo as well… I have a lot of memories of battles with Kaori.
— But even those battles wouldn’t be about differences in attitude but rather about performing, right?
Yaguchi: Well, we led separate private lives after all. But then if there was ever anything wrong on the work side of things, neither of us could hold back. We’d be working together from dawn to dusk and we basically never got any days off, so even that “private time” we’d spend together in the dressing room. We never had any alone time, but everyone tried not to interfere with each others’ private time.
First Steps Towards Variety
— Tsunku♂ sure is amazing for having been able to guide a group of such highly emotional young girls.
Yaguchi: Tell me about it. (laughs) Tsunku♂ was already a star from the moment we first met him, and even now when I meet with him, my spine automatically straightens and I feel nervous. I could never even imagine just casually bantering with him, and my image of him is how he’s the one grownup around us who never gets angry. Also, he feels like the absolute “boss” — like he always gets the last say in things. That’s why I’m able to just follow him without any hesitation.
Sometimes we’d make it to the final stages of a live rehearsal, but then we’d be criticized about something and we’d have to do it all over again. But no matter what it was, whatever Tsunku♂ told us it would always end in success. We could all instinctively feel it. He was always amazingly trustworthy. It seriously felt like he could see the future.
— It sounds like he was more than just a producer to you.
Yaguchi: Yes. That’s why it felt like things would surely work out as long as I kept following him. When new members would join the group, sometimes I would initially be thinking to myself, “why was this girl chosen?” But then they would always transform. I was only active in the group until the 6th generation, but with the 5th generation’s Takahashi Ai and Niigaki Risa for example, they came across as so “unpolished” that I was just bewildered.
But then that had been the case with us, too. When we first joined the group, it was like you could’ve literally picked some random girls walking down the street and they would’ve been higher quality than us. But sooner or later, that hidden character begins to come out and they become someone who is essential to Morning Musume.
Also, Tsunku♂’s affection towards each and every one of the members individually was so fair and just. He would always be careful not to make any of the members become “buried.” That’s another thing I felt thankful to him about.
— Meanwhile, your involvement in the creation of Minimoni was a revolutionary thing.
Yaguchi: About the creation of Minimoni… The momentum and the degree of attention that was placed on Tsuji Nozomi and Kago Ai was just so incredible. It felt like they were purposefully collecting tiny members. Making us look like anime characters — that was Tsunku♂’s idea. Even our debut song seemed like a joke song, what with the “jankenpyon!” and all…
It didn’t feel like we were going to be the least bit successful. I was even thinking of protesting to him, like, “couldn’t you come up with anything else?!” But then it ended up selling 800 thousand copies. Tsunku♂ probably never even for a second thought that it might fail.
— You ended up being the unit’s most popular member, and your character was established within that group.
Yaguchi: I actually felt so worried about that in the beginning. All the other members seemed to be developing their characters through our appearances on music shows — it felt like I alone didn’t know mine. I was constantly worrying about it. People finally learned my face and name with “sexy beam,” but up until that point, I was constantly struggling. Nothing I did seemed to work. Sometimes it felt like I shouldn’t even open my mouth to join the discussion.
— Knowing your current character, it’s hard to even imagine that. You had an image of being very capable even back then.
Yaguchi: Everyone seems to have a bit of a lapse in their memory when it comes to that. (laughs) We did so many shows where I didn’t speak a single word. Even with Tanpopo in the beginning, I’d just be sitting there. But then — if you’ll excuse me for saying this myself — I suddenly started growing so fast.
The reason that happened was because I was given my radio show, “allnightnippon SUPER!,” around three and a half years after I joined the group. When I noticed I had the power to be able to talk all by myself on the radio, I decided that my talking skill was what I was going to use as my weapon. As the ratings of my show kept rapidly increasing, it felt like I’d found the correct answer. It just became more and more fun. Also, being able to work together with Gekidan Hitori on “Yaguchi Hitori” and learning from a professional entertainer like him was another big thing.
— I’m sure it took lots of actual hard work to get to your level.
Yaguchi: I would watch all the variety shows that I was to go on, always preparing in advance for my appearance. It was research to determine what kinds of things each program was looking for.
Also, whenever I had free time, I’d talk to other entertainers, trying out different topics on them and trying my best to be more funny. On-location shoots tend to flow better when you’re communicating with the other person, so I would proactively talk to them and try to be friends. I’d be always trying out everything I could think of.
— Perhaps you were suited for that sort of thing to begin with.
Yaguchi: I’m the type who always speaks what’s on her mind, so maybe it does suit me in that sense. I’d always loved variety TV to begin with, and whenever we’d be watching shows together at home, my parents would tell me that my “reactions are so exaggerated.” So then I thought, “if I keep at it more and more, maybe I’ll gain the viewpoint of the average viewer.” Then, they began sometimes using my face even for the reaction shots.
Before that point, I’d try to appear cool or whatever because I was an idol. But when I started to put more of my real self out there, I was able to develop my actual, real character.
— Being able to find a new skill like that, it must have made you start thinking about your graduation.
Yaguchi: Just when I’d become the leader and I was thinking about what I wanted to do with Morning Musume going forward… My withdrawal happened. I felt anxious, no longer being a Morning Musume.
Aliens in Morning Musume?!
— What was the first thing you thought upon your withdrawal?
Yaguchi: How sorry I felt towards the other members. I had them make time for me on a later date to give me a chance to apologize and talk to everyone, one-on-one. But even so, it felt like I’d turned my back to the fans. I felt very remorseful course, but I also felt resolved to the fact that I was going to lose every single fan I had.
But you reap what you sow — there was no helping it. The company, too, put me under house arrest as penitence, and I spent two months pretty much at home. It felt like a rather real possibility that I was going to have to just return to being a member of the general public.
— But then you had your second start as you began to quickly advance in the world of variety TV.
Yaguchi: The company told me to appear on variety programs for a full month and to secure on my own merits a second appearance on all of them. But I wasn’t successful in demonstrating my skill at all… I had no idea what to say. I wasn’t able to make jokes at my own expense — I could only laugh when others teased me. Then, suddenly, the number of shows I was appearing on decreased by half.
That’s when I finally started researching both myself and the programs again. And finally, the number of shows I was appearing on increased once more. When that happened, my old fans would be happy for me. Even many of those very same fans who I’d resolved to lose took part in my comeback concert. I was so moved and I felt embarrassed for not being able to do anything for them in return, but I strongly felt once more how I wanted to treasure them.
— The fans would always give you strength.
Yaguchi: Fans are a strange thing. They’re not family nor friends — if anything, it’s like they’re my “war buddies.” No matter where it is, they’re always waiting for me, always by my side, always fighting together with me. They’ll talk to me in a friendly manner, but it’s not like anyone wants to be friends with me — they like me for my work. They don’t see me as an object of romantic interest — they support me as a person. I feel grateful for that. It’s a treasure we’ve established over 20 years.
— And it’s not just the fans either: the connections that the members of the group have formed with each other are equally as profound, too.
Yaguchi: When I hear the words “Morning Musume,” I always think of the word “forever.” It’s similar to a family in the sense that friends and lovers may sometimes break up, but with Morning Musume that’s never going to happen. We all feel an unbreakable bond between us — it does feel like something that is close to the word “forever.” That’s why I believe that I am together with Morning Musume until the day I die. We’ve all seen the good and the bad sides of one another… They really are profound connections.
I also can’t help but see all my juniors as being so precious. I treasure them so much, and it’s because they keep everything connected that it’s something that will last forever. I wish for it to go on forever and ever.
— Realistically, how long do you feel that the group will continue to go on?
Yaguchi: I don’t know, but I bet eventually it will even have some alien members. (laughs) The 100th generation will finally introduce the first alien member! I think the group will go on until there are even aliens living in society. I hope it’s going to become the world’s longest-running idol group in history — until the end of mankind. So, aliens.
— Do you feel any differences between the Morning Musume of today and the Morning Musume of your era?
Yaguchi: I think of it as a different thing than the Morning Musume of our era. Maybe they already are aliens in a way. But I feel something nice and modern in the current group. I’m cheering them on, going, “Good, good! That’s the spirit!“
There are so many idol groups in the current era and we also have the internet, so they must hear so many things, both good as well as bad. But it’s important to not start doubting yourself, no matter what society might say, and just keep on going. Even the members of the Platinum Era… They were worried that their songs weren’t catching on with the people. But now, people have reassessed them and they’re listening to all those songs, right? Similarly to that, if you just keep earnestly doing the right thing, there will surely come a time when your hard work is rewarded.
A Mistake Leading to the Discovery of
a Dream and the Love of Friends
— As the group is currently appearing on various programs and such alongside other groups, is there anything you feel in regards to their performance on that front?
Yaguchi: For the most part, they’ve all discovered their own personalities. Now, they just need a place where they can get it out there. If you’re well-prepared, you’ll be able to go to the front when the opportunity presents itself. I want them to be confident. Just keep aiming higher and higher with this current style!
— What sort of a style would you personally like to go for in the future?
Yaguchi: To tell you the truth, right now I’m actually enjoying my work more than I ever have before. It’s like I’m completely exposed; like I have nothing to hide. I feel very free in a good way. I can answer any question honestly without worrying about what kind of an expression they might make; without feeling embarrassed. I don’t care what kind of a face I might be filmed making — pretty much nothing is off-limits for me. My mind is much more at ease than it once was in the past.
I’m just so excited. Now, I’m doing work not only on TV but on the net as well, constantly broadening my horizons. That kind of work feels so fresh to me. I want to revolutionize internet variety!
— What kind of a program would you like to produce there?
Yaguchi: It’s nothing concrete yet, but I want to create a variety show where I can be an ally to people who have been wounded in one way or another. I don’t want ours to be a society where you make a mistake and suddenly the rest of your life is ruined. I want to create a program with the message: even if you make a mistake, you can still go on — you can go as far as you want in life, depending on how hard you try.
As long as you don’t keep repeating the same mistake, it doesn’t matter how many mistakes you make. As long as you’re alive, things can work out. I’ve met young people who’ve nearly went so far as to choosing death. I want to be someone who can make people like that stop and think, “Wow, this person is so mentally strong. Life struck them so hard, and yet they still keep going. Compared to them, I actually have it good!” That’s the kind of person I want to be.
— You must have immense emotional strength to have made it to a point where you can feel that way.
Yaguchi: When you go through what I’ve been through, you can literally see your life as a person end. But in my case, I had the support of my family and friends, as well as my comrades in Morning Musume. No matter how much society hated me, I still had friends.
Also, Morning Musume’s songs helped me a lot as well. I always listen to “I WISH” when I feel down. It brings back that feeling of fulfillment I had back then. Tsunku♂’s lyrics, every single word, permeate my heart and pat me on the shoulder, telling me: “it’s going to be okay.“
— In that sense, your time in Morning Musume must be an irreplaceable thing to you.
Yaguchi: Neither the members nor the company abandoned me. I came so close to rotting to my very core, but they were there to give me water and nourishment. That’s why I’m here today.
Had it not been for Morning Musume, I don’t think I could’ve come back. Because no matter what happens, that reputation of “Morning Musume” — and the widespread popularity that comes with it — will always be there. If I was just “Yaguchi Mari,” I’m sure society would’ve long since abandoned and forgotten about me. I only have gratitude towards Morning Musume for always living there alongside this no-good me.
— Finally, what is Morning Musume to you?
Yaguchi: Mmm… I can’t put it into words. I’m sure everyone’s been saying the same thing, but I guess I’d have to say it’s a family — that’s how much it feels like our bonds are going to last a lifetime. There were many times when I felt I should leave the group; how I wasn’t supposed to be there. But there is meaning in keeping at it, because the thing I gained from doing so was so amazingly huge.
That’s why I just want to say to any girls out there who want to become idols: Morning Musume is the best idol group you can join!
Yaguchi: It’s not just the song — the lyrics are so majestic too, right? “Jinsei tte subarashii” (“life is wonderful“)… How great is that line? It’s such a straightforward and easy-to-understand lyric that everyone gets it. This song gives you the power to be able to think, “I can’t worry about all the little things!“