December 17, 1984 — Tokyo
1997/09/14 ~ 1999/04/18
Fukuda: To me, Morning Musume is a family. If I was to compare it to the family in “Sazae-san“… It’s like Abe Natsumi is Sazae, I’m Masuo, Nakazawa Yuko is Namihei, Ishiguro Aya is Fune, and Iida Kaori is Tama. (laughs) Nakazawa-san, the warm head of the family. Ayappe, the one who supports the family from the shadows. Nacchi, the heroine. Iida-san, the mascot character. And me, the son-in-law… The position of someone who’s not blood-related — someone who’s a bit of an outsider. (laughs)
— For the first time in 18 years, the five of you recently got the chance to meet once more.
Fukuda: There was no weirdness whatsoever when we were reunited. No one said “long time no see!” or anything — we just started talking to one another as if the last time we’d seen each other was yesterday. That lack of any distance between us felt very family-like.
— Was it a big decision for you to appear on so many stages together with everyone for the 20th anniversary?
Fukuda: If anything, I was surprised by how happy me being there seemed to make everyone. I was glad about having so many people welcoming me back, and it was fun having these conversations with my friends and family. “How did I do?” “You were great!“
When they first approached me about it, I of course immediately gave them my OK. But as it’d been such a long time since my graduation, I also felt worried if I would really be able to do it. I may have been working as an artist, yes, but it’d been ages since I had been in Morning Musume. “Can I still do this?” It’s a group after all, and in a group you have to match your choreography and your backing vocals and the rest of it with everyone else. I had a strong feeling of not wanting to drag the other members down with me.
— And how was it?
Fukuda: Once the five of us got back together, it felt like we’d slipped right back in time. It was as if nothing had changed, or like… Once again, it felt like the five of us had been destined to be there. This might sound strange, but around four years ago I started having this recurring dream that featured the four of them. At first it made me worried how it might’ve been like a sign of one of us getting into an accident or falling sick, but then I felt relieved once I instead started hearing all these news about everyone getting married or giving birth, figuring it had been a happy omen instead.
But now when I think back, maybe they were actually prophetic dreams about how we would soon be getting to stand on the same stage again. Everyone seemed to get married and give birth right around the same time — it almost felt like everyone settling down at the same time like that had been arranged beforehand. And just then, we reached our 20th anniversary. It almost felt like an invisible string of fate, pulling us together.
Finding Enjoyment in
Those Tumultuous Days
— You were only in the first grade of junior high school when you first met everyone.
Fukuda: Yes. It was a female rock vocalist audition. I’d always liked singing and I applied because I wanted to find out just how far my strength could take me. In short, it was to test my own abilities — I didn’t have a strong sense of like, “I’m going to pass the audition and become a singer for sure!” I was confident in my singing, but I wanted to know exactly how good I was compared to everyone else out there. It was this childlike curiosity.
— Were you specifically hoping to sing rock music, genre-wise?
Fukuda: I didn’t know what rock was exactly. But rather than the kinds of songs where everyone’s singing all happily, I definitely preferred the image of songs where the singer would be coldly glaring into the camera. At the time, Hatake had written this cool song called “Blue Velvet” for Kudo Shizuka that we’d also had to do at the audition. I had this vague admiration for that sort of an image… But then during the final round I wasn’t able to sing it well, and so I magnificently failed the audition. (laughs)
But then I just thought, “well, I guess that’s just what my current level is.” I was able to easily accept the result — there wasn’t like any frustration about having made it that far only to fail or anything like that.
— You were very levelheaded despite your young age.
Fukuda: No, no. One might think that way if you saw the footage now, but really it’s just that I wasn’t thinking at all. Also, that whole audition project became so popular that it got stretched out to around three months or so. In the beginning, the 10 of us went to a temple for that training camp and just the audition alone was tough. As a 12-year-old, it was difficult for me. I was just exhausted. So maybe some of it was that, too. Anyway, I now knew where I was level-wise, and my plan was to go study music and try again in the future.
— But things didn’t end there, and the path of an idol was awaiting you.
Fukuda: In the beginning, they didn’t say anything about us being idols. Initially, they only gave us that challenge of selling 50,000 CD’s by hand in order to have our major debut. It all started with them asking us if we wanted to take on that mission. They gave us the song but since we didn’t have outfits yet, they just took took close-ups of our faces for the covers. And then it was just constant practice in order to learn the song, and everyone was in a competition to see just how many lines we could each get.
We had all been rivals during the audition so of course there was some tension in the air, and I’m sure the viewers were excited to see the resulting “chemical reactions.” That project was very popular as well and a lot of people came to buy our CD.
— What was going through your mind when you were in the midst of all that turmoil?
Fukuda: Honestly, I was tired. I have my own group now, and through doing that I now know how creating even one single song and selling it usually takes a lot of time. But back then, everything from the songwriting to the recording to the CD covers to the music video, we’d do it all in about a month. And the cameras would be on us constantly so there was no time to rest either physically or mentally. It was pretty tough.
That’s why when we finished our trip to sell the CD’s, it was such a relief. It felt like I’d used up all my energy. Even though the date for our major debut had already been set, I started eating a bunch of the sweets I had been given in celebration. I gained 5 kilos in no time, and that’s why my face around the time of our debut was so puffy. (laughs) I was still such a child in that sense so it was a very stormy, difficult time.
— You were even called a “yaki ginnan” (“fried gingko”). (laughs)
Fukuda: Objectively speaking… What a terrible thing to say to a junior high school girl! (laughs) When we made our first appearance on “HEY! HEY! HEY! MUSIC CHAMP” to promote “Morning Coffee,” Matsumoto Hitoshi saw me — with my round face and short hair and all — and said, “hey, you look like a fried gingko!” That’s how it started. But at the time, I was on cloud nine from having gotten the Downtown to give me a nickname like that. To a junior high schooler like me, the two of them were like gods. So it was an honor. It made me feel all fluffy inside. It wasn’t a shock — if anything, I wanted to be able to brag about it to all my friends as soon as possible.
— Even though you were the youngest, it always seemed like you were the “calm character” of the group. It’s a relief to hear how, despite all that, you still had that junior high student-like reaction of being star-struck.
Fukuda: My feelings weren’t sorted out yet. If anything, I was the group’s… “feigned ignorance” character. For everyone else, they had bet their whole lives on this project. They had resolve — it was real to them. But for me, I didn’t understand any of that at the time. That’s probably why I was able to do the “feigned ignorance” thing so well.
— Was the atmosphere within the group always serious?
Fukuda: It was very sports-minded and strict from the beginning. We could never let ourselves lose focus, and no matter what it was, if we did something wrong there would always be someone getting mad at us. It was this constant feeling of tension as to what we were going be scolded for next.
— I could be wrong about this but to me it seemed like out of all the members, Nakazawa was the one usually giving you very strict instructions.
Fukuda: The strictest person was our manager at the time, Wada, who was always trying to push us to the front. And out of all of us, it was Nakazawa who received the majority of his scolding. That’s why she could never let her guard down; why you could always see the nervousness on her face. When the group did something wrong, Nakazawa as our oldest member would always get the brunt of the criticism.
So that’s why I’m sure it’s her who had it the toughest. Me, I was only a child and I could just play that “feigned ignorance” character. When we were appearing on TV shows, I would usually be placed right next to the MC’s and I was told I could just keep joking around as always. That was my role.
— I’ve heard about something referred to as the “Croissant Incident” that happened between you and Nakazawa. Is it true that you got into a fight over a single croissant?
Fukuda: Me and Nacchi later made jokes about it on a radio show, so I think it’s okay to talk about it in public. I don’t remember the exact details, but the gist of it was that because Nakazawa as our leader had such a strong sense of responsibility, she felt that she wanted to try and be more friendly with me. So she got me one of my beloved croissants.
However, on that particular day, I had made a mistake as to the location of where we were supposed to meet. I came in running, all flustered, genuinely apologizing to everyone. “I’m so sorry I’m late!” Nakazawa walked up to me, all smiling, and said, “Asuka, I brought you a croissant.” (laughs) In my state of mind, that was just so scary to me! So I went, “thank you, but I don’t need it!” Nakazawa went completely silent. (laughs) It really was nothing but an issue of bad timing, but to her, she totally misunderstood me and took it as, “this girl must completely hate me.” We didn’t speak to each other for quite a while after that.
— So you never reconciled in regards to that incident? Even though it was just bad timing?
Fukuda: No. But just the other day I went up to her and joked, “hey Yuu-chan, no croissant for me today?” She laughed and said, “Hate me all you want. Just shut up and come sit down!” It might be rude of me to say this, being younger than her, but she’s really such an awkward person that it’s almost cute. (laughs) If anything, she’s the type of person who’s easy to misunderstand. But as the leader, she really pulled us members forward and protected us from the adults. Even after I’d quit, Yuu-chan was the one who kept in contact with me the most.
— It was these five strangers who had been hastily put together, but through a natural progression you became able to take into consideration each others’ feelings.
Fukuda: We just didn’t want the manager getting angry with us. So rather than us being on good or bad terms with each other or whatever, it was just about working together so we didn’t make any mistakes. Once we were able to overcome that, we became more like-minded. Manners, courtesy, etiquette, greetings — we’d been thoroughly instructed as to those kinds of things. And then on the music side of things, we always had the instructions of Tsunku♂. We really never let our focus slip. We were always extremely serious.
Self-Doubt and Conflict:
The Group’s First Graduation
— Was Tsunku♂ similarly strict with his instructions?
Fukuda: He struck me as being someone very stoic and proud of his work. Apparently there were some members who could speak with him quite freely, but in my case it felt like Tsunku♂ was mindful of the fact that I was still only a child, so I didn’t get to open up to him very much. I could only really speak to him at recordings or when he was giving us advice for our concerts. And even in recording, it felt like small-talk about insignificant topics was not allowed. Tsunku♂ kept himself so busy those days, too, that he probably didn’t even have the time to be talking to us all that much anyhow.
— Did you not get to have conversations with him that would’ve gotten you to know his personality?
Fukuda: Just this one time, actually. I struck up a conversation with him. It was my birthday, so I told him. “It’s my birthday today!” He replied, “Oh, I see. That means you’re one year closer to being an old auntie!” (laughs) I thought him saying that meant he disliked me — I mean, if it was someone’s birthday, you’d usually just tell them “congratulations,” right? I wanted to open myself up to him more, but I wasn’t in the position to do that, and I guess I just figured that’s what the producer/artist relationship was supposed to look like.
But I really trusted him as our producer. That much is true. There was this absolute certainty in knowing that, “if only I stick with this person, I’m going to be okay.“
— While it may not have been your favorite genre, you were now doing the very thing you so loved: singing. You’d found comrades; appeared on all kinds of TV shows. You were kept busy and you’d made your dream come true. So what made you start to think about quitting?
Fukuda: At some point, I just lost my ability to concentrate. Clearing one assignment after the other, I simply became tired. I was also a junior high schooler, and I wanted to spend more time with my friends and maybe see what it was like to do club activities. That’s the kind of thing I was thinking about. I don’t remember when it was exactly, but I actually conveyed to the office my feelings of wanting to quit rather early on. It was probably before we’d even first appeared on NHK’s “Kouhaku Uta Gassen” or the Japan Record Awards that I’d already told them. “I want to quit as soon as you tell me it’s okay.“
— Could a large part of it also have been how it hadn’t quite matched your ideal path in life?
Fukuda: Yes. I had, after all, taken part in a rock vocalist audition, and the group wasn’t quite that. There are some groups even in the idol world who do more rock-oriented music, and I bet those kinds of people don’t do handshake events all-smiles. For me, it just started to feel more and more like I wouldn’t be able to keep doing it.
But when I told my family that I wanted to quit, they were strongly opposed to the idea. “It’s crazy for you to stick to some ideal of what you thought it would be like. Turning down this blessed opportunity because of something like that is a mistake.” And thinking about it rationally, they were right of course. Had I been 17 or 18 years old at the time, I might’ve been able to understand their viewpoint and I wouldn’t have quit. But I was 13 years old, and I became afraid that my life had already been set in stone — that there was no room for me to find my own way; no grace period.
— What did Tsunku♂ say to you when you told him you wanted to quit?
Fukuda: As it was so sudden, he was opposed to it. I remember how he sat me down for an hour just to tell me all these very hard-to-understand allegories. Looking back on it now, I think what he was telling me was that me quitting would cause his whole blueprint for the group to change. Since “Daite HOLD ON ME!,” his vision in his songwriting had all featured me and Abe Natsumi as the top two main vocalists, but if the main vocalists were to change then his whole approach to writing the songs was also going to change.
In short, I believe what Tsunku♂ was saying was that me quitting would deeply trouble him as a creator. I don’t know that to be true for certain, but I think that’s what he was saying. I knew that me quitting would inconvenience a lot of people, so I let him know that I wanted at least to quit in a way that would cause the least amount of it.
— It’s only human that you might start to hesitate, what with everyone trying to stop you from leaving…
Fukuda: I did of course have a lot of conflicting feelings. Everyone in my family was vehemently opposed to the idea, and even Tsunku♂ who I so trusted was trying to stop me. Moreover, I had feelings of guilt towards the rest of the members for wanting to quit midway. Honestly, I was starting to feel like it might be too difficult for me to try to overcome everyone’s opposition.
But then, the president of the office gave his OK. But he said, “don’t quit — instead, let’s give you a magnificent graduation!” That was an idea that no one else had thought of. If even his answer at the time had been “no,” it’s possible that I would’ve just stayed in the group. It feels strange to think how both fate and my own feelings were all at play like that.
Life After Graduation
— Following your graduation, “LOVE Machine” was a big hit and Morning Musume became a national idol group. Did you have any feelings of regret along the lines of, “if only I could’ve stuck it out for just a little while longer…“?
Fukuda: No regrets. If anything, I was genuinely happy to see how active they were. I still had feelings of guilt for having quit so suddenly, but I was also glad to see Morning Musume become such a big hit after they went into that “LOVE Machine” direction. I feel like, had I stayed as a member, we would’ve been forced to remain merely a “vocal group.” Looking back on the history of Morning Musume, I think it was for the best for me to leave the group at that time.
— “LOVE Machine” could only have been born because the envisioned top two combination of Abe & Fukuda ceased to be. The color of the group changed quit a bit.
Fukuda: Up until then, much of the music had been sad songs about meetings and separations, but that whole theme really changed with “LOVE Machine.” Tsunku♂ said somewhere how he thought there was a certain “sadness” about Morning Musume as a group. And no wonder — we started as group of people who had failed an audition.
But then with new members joining the group, it would’ve felt too sad for us to continue having an air like that forever. So when we became an 8-member group, that’s when Tsunku♂ apparently thought, “I need to shake this off and go for something completely different.” While I wasn’t a part of it myself, I feel that it’s better that they went in the direction that they did.
— It’s strange to hear you say how you didn’t feel like you wanted to become successful along with everyone else.
Fukuda: Even during the time I was a member, I already got to have a lot of brilliant, valuable experiences. And although I was able to enjoy it for a time, I just don’t have the kind of personality that could’ve allowed me to keep doing it forever. We started to gain more traction with “Summer Night Town” and it was like this feeling of, “we’re going to keep going higher and higher!“
Then, with our third single “Daite HOLD ON ME!,” Nacchi and me were obviously the two most heavily-featured members, and the pressure of that just crushed me. I could try to downplay it and be all cool about it… but that’s what really happened.
— Was the pressure that bad?
Fukuda: I hadn’t realized it until then, but when you’re the center or when you’re in the front row, the pressure is just incredible. It’s on a whole other level. That’s why Abe Natsumi really is amazing. Ultimately, I just couldn’t handle it. It was a big reason for me wanting to graduate. Maybe I wanted to escape.
— It can’t be helped how a junior high schooler wouldn’t be able to stand that kind of pressure.
Fukuda: There was that, but the biggest reason really was because I was afraid of the thought of living the rest of my life in the world of entertainment. I felt like there was no stopping this ship. But we were still in shallow water — there was still time for me to get out and make it back to shore safely. I could just feel it: this group was only going to get bigger and bigger; the ship was going to sail further and further out into the sea.
— Yaguchi Mari was saying how she couldn’t believe that a person who was as popular as you would leave; that she thinks you really made an incredible decision.
Fukuda: Yagucchan took part in a Morning Musume audition, knowing at least to some extent where the ship was headed when she got on-board. For us original members, we were put on it without knowing our destination. It was like we were going, “where are we headed?,” as the seas were getting stormier and stormier and the shore was becoming increasingly more distant. Even with the 50,000 CD’s thing, a part of me was only responding to what was going on around me. I was a junior high schooler who was just caught up in the middle of it. Me doing things with such a half-hearted attitude wasn’t fair to the others, and it couldn’t have lasted long. That’s why I just couldn’t handle the pressure.
Personality-wise, I was quite low-key and modest. There would be battles where we really had to put everything on the line… But when those times came, I’d just be thinking to myself, “uhh, no thanks.” And I know I should’ve just done away with feelings like that. But because of my half-hearted modesty, I was constantly doubting myself, thinking, “what is someone like me even doing wearing cute clothes and singing songs?” Thinking back on it now, that modesty was completely unnecessary. In essence, I just didn’t have enough resolve for so many things. I hadn’t accepted my fate.
— What was life like after your graduation?
Fukuda: I became just an ordinary person. But everyone in society knew who I was, so it was a very impractical sort of situation. For the first couple of years, I kind of just gave up and lived my life as an “ex-Morning Musume.” But after about three years, I could get on the train and no one would recognize me anymore. One’s looks are prone to big changes when they’re in their mid-teens, and so people stopped noticing me around that time.
I became an ordinary high school student. I’d go to karaoke with my friends and we’d sing “Renai Revolution 21” or “The☆Peace!” together. I really just became a normal fan of Morning Musume.
— Were you not thinking about returning to the music world?
Fukuda: It’s in the lyrics of “Never Forget” as well, but yes, I did intend to eventually come back. It’s just that, at the time, I wanted to dedicate myself to my studies and so I graduated from the group. Except the thing is, I didn’t just graduate — I retired completely. I didn’t have any relationships or connections to anyone, so I found myself in a situation where it was actually difficult for me to come back.
My memories of why I specifically chose to retire and not just graduate are hazy. In any case, I’d become so much like an ordinary person that it didn’t feel like it was even possible for me to come back to the world of entertainment. It was to the point where I had a hard time believing I’d ever actually stood on stage.
— Then, in 2011, you finally resumed your activities in music.
Fukuda: Even then, I was still constantly benefiting from everyone referring to me as an “ex-Morning Musume.” That was pretty amazing, considering it had been over 10 years since my graduation. That in itself was something I felt grateful for. But I myself didn’t particularly feel like I was that, so it was like this uncertainness of… “is it really okay for me to play this card?“
I’d been able to enjoy my student life just like I’d wanted, I’d been receiving voice training, and it felt like I was able to take music on in a very relaxed manner, so I felt satisfied. Even I personally feel like I’m always living my life in a very self-centered way… but nevertheless I’ve been able to continue my music activities at my own pace. I felt unsure if it was okay for someone like me to once again call myself a “Morning Musume.”
— It must be complicated — especially as someone who got out of the ship midway.
Fukuda: Now, with this 20th anniversary and me being accepted into Morning Musume once more, it really does feel like a dream. I feel so grateful.
Arriving at Morning Musume
— Now with the 20th anniversary, you’ve gotten to work with the current members of the group as well. What has been your impression of them?
Fukuda: I’ve actually seen them in concert many times. They work so hard and their level is constantly getting higher and higher. I believe they all take on reality very stoically and head-on. I like how it feels like they all have their own worlds. I can’t call myself their “senior,” but I just feel so proud when I see these current members. There’s just something about kids who are so obsessed about something. That’s their appeal — it just draws you in.
Perhaps that’s what’s at the core of Morning Musume. It’s not easy, but they work their hardest to develop their charms that no one else out there possesses. Maybe the current members were chosen for their ability to be able to do just that.
— How do you see Morning Musume developing in the future?
Fukuda: Nowadays, you’ll even notice parents with their children — two generations of fans — coming to see the group. There’s something lovely and unique about an idol group that can have fans supporting them over such a long period of time. And that’s because Morning Musume has always continued to be pure, honest, and beautiful. Idols like that make even the fans feel safe, and supporting them feels like something worth doing. So I want them to continue to be stoic and to keep showing us that dignity. It gives me a peace of mind seeing just how reliable the current members seem to be.
— There’s even been an example of one of the members’ parents having been there to buy one of those 50,000 CD’s from you.
Fukuda: I know. If it’s Morning Musume, parents should feel safe in handing their daughters to them. (laughs) It’s a place where one learns about courtesy, and you really grow as a person. Maybe I’ll put my daughter in there, too… Just kidding! (laughs) But really, when she’s a bit bigger, if my daughter was to say she wanted to be an idol, I’d tell her she could — just as long as it was in Morning Musume. Though I’d also give her some additional advice. “The path of the entertainment industry is a tough one. You’d better be prepared for lots of adults making you cry.” (laughs)
— What is Morning Musume to you?
Fukuda: Like I said in the beginning: it’s a family. That’s all.
However, if I was to be reborn… I’m not sure I could do it all over again. I’m a rather nostalgic person, so I’d like to recreate the worldview of artists like Nakamori Akina or Matsuda Seiko. But then again, I’m sure I couldn’t have done that in my teens. Besides, I was incredibly embarrassed about having to do anything “idol-like.” The reason I don’t have any regrets about quitting is because I now know full well that I’m simply not suited to be an idol.
— However, you’ve recently covered one of Morning Musume’s songs more in your own taste, right?
Fukuda: I got permission from Tsunku♂ to record a self-cover of “Never Forget.” I re-recorded it with my current voice and I even did all the chorus parts by myself — it’s like I was doing a one-person Morning Musume. I’m a bit scared to find out whether people approve of it or not. (laughs)
— You found the kind of music that you wanted to do, and ultimately it ended up leading you back to Morning Musume. That is very much ideal.
Fukuda: I’m proud to have been in Morning Musume. That’s why I was able to treasure my path in life and find my own way.
Oh, wait. I just realized… There’s even that line in “Never Forget” that’s like it was saying it was okay for me to come back. “Kondo deau toki wa hitsuzen” (“us meeting again is inevitable.“) It’s exactly like the lyric says: it was almost inevitable that we’d meet again like this on the 20th anniversary. Huh. I guess it really is all connected!
Fukuda: I lost contact with the members after my graduation, but there’s this lyric in the song that goes, “Tokyo de miru hoshi mo, furusato de no hoshi mo onaji da to oshiete kureta” (“you taught me that the stars in Tokyo and the stars back home are the same“). I often felt so encouraged by that lyric. Just knowing that no matter where I was, we were all looking at the same sky… That thought made me feel so warm inside. I feel grateful to Tsunku♂ for him having written such a lyric specifically for my departure.