Singing in the service of Japan: Classically trained ‘MSDF diva’ Yukari Miyake sails to the pop side of nation’s musical history

By Takeshi Shimizu / Sports Hochi

Yukari Miyake poses for a photo.

By Atsushi Kokubun / Sports Hochi Staff WriterYukari Miyake has two different duties in the Maritime Self-Defense Force: This petty officer 3rd class in charge of maintaining the appropriate discipline of personnel is also a performer in the MSDF’s Tokyo Band. She is the first singer to be employed by the Self-Defense Forces and appears in about 120 concerts a year.

Known as the “diva of the MSDF,” the 30-year-old officer released her fifth album late last month, titled “Sing Japan: Kokoro no Uta” (Songs of the heart), which features 14 well-known songs representing various generations.

Miyake, who usually performs as a soprano, said she had a hard time singing these pieces because of her classical music background.

“I also found it challenging to sing such popular songs in my own style, without just copying a way many people are familiar with.”

The officer particularly challenged herself when it came to performing “Kawa no Nagare no Yoni” (Like the flowing of a river), a masterpiece of Japan’s musical history originally written for iconic singer Hibari Misora (1937-89).

“I tried to put all I have as a 30-year-old into it,” she said.

For the recording, Miyake changed her usual style because she knew listeners would find it strange to hear popular songs performed in an authentic classical style.

“I had to use my throat and body in a different way, which I wasn’t used to doing,” she said. “However, I’ve sung anime songs in the past, and that experience helped me this time. I believe I’m taking on more and more genres.”

It was a twist of fate that saw Miyake join the MSDF in 2009: She initially aimed to build a career as an actress in musicals.

A native of Okayama Prefecture, Miyake enjoyed singing with her grandmother every day when she was very young. During her junior high school days, she saw a musical by the Takarazuka Revue all-female troupe, which sparked her interest in theater.

“As I couldn’t go to the theater very often, I borrowed videos from my piano teacher to watch every night,” Miyake recalled. Later, she was also attracted to musicals by the Shiki Theatre Company and Toho Co.

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  • The Yomiuri Shimbun

    Miyake sings at a concert.

  • By Takeshi Shimizu / Sports Hochi

    Miyake poses for a photo.

  • Universal Music

    The cover of Miyake’s latest album

She hoped to become a musical actress when she enrolled at Nihon University’s College of Art to study singing.

Miyake wanted to continue singing after graduation, but started looking for a job instead.

“It’s risky to become a freelance singer,” she said. “I thought, first of all, I would support myself because I wanted to please my parents.”

Miyake eventually received an effective job offer from a major department store, but a little while later, her vocal teacher told her that the MSDF was looking for a singer. She reluctantly attended a briefing session “to save face for my strict teacher.”

At the event, however, Miyake learned that the MSDF’s music band travels around the world to perform.

“I was also told that the MSDF had yet to have its own singer,” she said. “To me, the job seemed to have great potential and appeal.

“If I hadn’t attended the briefing session, I would still be aiming to become a musical actress,” she added. “At any rate, I think I was reckless at that time to embark on a challenge like this.”

Miyake successfully passed a recruitment test and had to undergo strict training as a new officer, before finally being assigned to the MSDF’s Tokyo Band. The band dates back to 1952 and is tasked with boosting the morale of the force’s personnel, performing at ceremonies and promoting the MSDF through music.

Miyake, however, soon faced a great challenge.

“I realized I couldn’t become the singer the band wanted me to be as long as I held onto my pride of having learned classical music at university,” she said. “I was told by band members not to sing Japanese pop songs in the classical style. I practiced by myself at first, but when performing with the band, I found I wasn’t doing well.

“I was so frustrated for the first three years,” she added.

In 2013, Miyake released her first CD, which meant a sudden increase in media exposure. At that time, the singer said she became a bit lost about who she was.

As the main track on her debut CD was themed on the 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake, Miyake was filled with all kinds of feelings about the song and her role. “I was even at a loss for words during an interview once,” she recalled. “I wasn’t certain whether I was truly helping anyone.”

However, those she helped began to help her: She received letters of appreciation from people who had listened to the CD, such as people fighting illnesses and SDF officers who had become mentally ill.

“These letters helped me realize that there are people out there who find our music encouraging,” she said. “At last, I was convinced it’s OK for me to be who I am.”

Miyake wrote the lyrics for one of the songs included on her second album. As she develops her career as a singer, the officer is now aware of the importance of conveying the essence of lyrics.

“When listening to the same song, I may understand its lyrics one way, but someone else may grasp them in a completely different way,” she said. “In this respect, it’s hard to choose words. But I do want to write lyrics once again.”Speech

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