Japanese pianist HARAMI chan spoke with Billboard Japan for its Women in Music interview series featuring female players in the country’s entertainment industry. The WIM initiative in Japan launched last year to celebrate artists, producers and executives who have made significant contributions to the music industry and empowered women through their work.
HARAMI chan has more than 2.18 million subscribers to her YouTube channel and over 600 million total views. Last year, she became the first female pianist to headline the historic Nippon Budokan in 15 years. Before she settled into her current career aiming to make piano music more familiar to a wider audience, her life took a series of twists and turns as she was forced to give up her childhood dream of becoming a classical pianist at one point to work as a company employee.
HARAMI chan looked back at her beginnings and shared her experiences with the rigid rules and sometimes baffling traditions in Japanese classical piano competitions and more in this new interview.
Did you look up to any particular woman growing up?
HARAMI chan: Michiko Shimizu (impersonator/radio personality/actress). I’m not sure why, but I went through a phase when I was a kid where I’d do a kind of gag before practicing the piano. My parents still have videos of me doing this. I wanted to entertain them, and I think I was taking advantage of the fact that they weren’t getting mad at me and having some fun. Michiko Shimizu makes people smile by using the piano as entertainment.
Is there a difference between how you play now to entertain people and how you played for classical piano competitions growing up?
Competitions are a very unique, craftsman-like environment where you practice the same piece hundreds of times every day for about six months before the big day and then put all your energy into that single performance. On the other hand, something like “the melancholy ‘Anpanman March’” that made my friends laugh in school is like a gag I improvised on the spot. So I regarded the two as completely different things.
When I play the piano, I enjoy it so much that my face moves, but when I used to practice for competitions, my teacher would scold me and say, “Don’t play with your face.” But during breaks (at school), I’d play and my face would do whatever it wanted. They’re completely different genres.
How did you first get into playing the piano?
Piano was one of the things I took lessons in when I was little and I liked it. What’s more, my parents handed me a textbook to prepare for music college entrance exams when I was only in first grade and I thought, “Hey, my future is set, lucky me.” [Laughs] My thinking at the time was, it made things easier because I wouldn’t have to worry about my my career path and all I have to do is keep playing the piano.
I participated in piano competitions since then, but when I changed teachers in high school to prepare for music college entrance exams, that teacher flat out told me, “You can’t be a pianist.” Playing the piano had been my identity since I was in the first grade and it felt like all the building blocks I’d piled up were knocked over in one blow. It came as a shock, but I think I also sort of already knew. When you take part in competitions, you have many opportunities to become acutely aware of your own level. So I was shocked, but also began thinking I needed to find another strength.
You experienced a number of setbacks since and took a break from playing the piano to make a living as an office worker. Then a former coworker, now your current manager, uploaded a video of you playing the piano at the Tokyo Metropolitan City Hall on YouTube, which kicked off your career as Haramichan. Did you ever consider piano as a career before that?
I never considered it. I thought it was a world where you could only make a living after winning competitions. I’m actually the type who carefully thinks things through. I want to leave as many options open as possible in life, so I got a teaching license when I went to music college. I even obtained a color coordinator certification after graduating.
When my former coworker asked to upload that first video, I just thought, “Nobody is gonna see it anyway, so why not?” I was more terrified than happy at first because I hadn’t expected so many people to see it. Besides, that performance is terrible in my opinion, so I couldn’t think about betting my life on that one video that happened to go viral.
If you didn’t immediately decide to play the piano as a career then, what encouraged you to do so?
The comments from people who watched my videos. People left notes like, “It’s nice how you look like you enjoy playing,” and “Watching your videos puts a smile on my face.” I do look really happy when I’m playing the piano the way I want, and finding out that there were people out there who accepted the way I play was a revelation. It felt like a new world had opened up to me. And that coworker who uploaded the first video said to me, “Life is a win the more you laugh,” and those words gave me courage as well.
But I set a deadline for HARAMI chan’s performances back then, that I’d do it only until I ran out of savings. If I couldn’t kick off a career in music by then, I’d go back to being an office worker.
That viral video ended up being the first of your many accomplishments since then, and you now have a solid fanbase collectively called Okome-san. You say your goal is to make piano music more familiar. When did this thought begin to materialize?
There was a time, especially around junior high school, when I really disliked wearing dresses when I played in classical music competitions. I was at that rebellious age when I wanted to be defiant and performed wearing a jacket ensemble. I wouldn’t say I was dressed like a man but I got points deducted for my outfit. I understand the importance of traditional classical manners and don’t necessarily object to the point deduction. But I also felt that there are other ways to enjoy the piano besides observing tradition and competing in technical skill, so why shouldn’t I bring those things into the competition? I’ve always felt this way, so when the public accepted HARAMI chan, I started feeling that I wanted to spread this joy even more.
We’ve been focusing on women in this interview series. Does being a woman affect your activities in any way?
Fortunately, I’ve made it this far without having to think too much about it. Like, I’ve always split the bill with the guys around me and have never felt that I’m being treated any differently because I’m a woman. The male-to-female ratio at my music college was 90 percent women. Many continued to play the piano since taking lessons at a young age, so I guess it’s true a majority of our parents’ generation thought that “boys should learn sports and girls should learn the piano.” I mentioned my outfit earlier, but when I was little, I was happy to wear dresses, too.
The majority of acts and artists on Billboard Japan’s charts have been male for many years. Could you share your thoughts on this phenomenon?
I heard about this when I was asked to do this interview, but I don’t think it’s necessarily a negative thing. It doesn’t mean female artists are inferior, but that maybe it’s the result of fandom culture where a lot of women supported their favorite artists of the opposite sex. It might be that some women are more dedicated than others and they feel the urge to recommend their favorite artist, which leads to more streams and so on. So I don’t think female artists should feel inferior in any way.
You’re right, that could be one reason. I get the impression from speaking to you that you have the ability to see things in a multifaceted way. If you were to give advice to yourself when you were first starting out, what would you say?
I’m a cautious person, but that isn’t always a bad thing. Someone once said to me that being a worrier is also a strength, because negative thinkers can endure the negative things they imagine. If you have the flexibility to rotate the opposing sides of your thoughts, it’s harder for your mind to snap. Ever since I realized that, I’ve been practicing to think things from both sides. And I also try to be aware of proportions. If someone says something negative to me, I think about what percentage of the total that opinion might be. If 95 percent of the people say, “You shouldn’t do this,” I might want to listen to them, but what if it were only 5 percent and the rest agree with me? If I were to listen to that 5 percent, I’d be ignoring the expectations of the remaining 95 percent. If we make an effort to look at the whole picture and calmly think about proportions like that, it might make things easier.
—This interview by Rio Hirai (SOW SWEET PUBLISHING) first appeared on Billboard Japan