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When Beatlemania Came to Japan

Hoshika Rumiko [Profile]


I met the Beatles in June 1965. I boarded a plane for the first time in my life and flew to London for an exclusive interview with John, Paul, George, and Ringo at EMI’s legendary Abbey Road studios. A year later, the Beatles came to perform in Japan, at the Nippon Budōkan. Following that original interview in 1965, I was able to meet and interview the Beatles every year until the band split in 1970. This wonderful opportunity gave me a precious glimpse of the personalities beyond these icons of my generation. (I was born the same year as John Lennon.) As 2016 marks 50 years since Beatlemania hit Japan, in this article, I look back on my meetings with the four men at the heart of a musical revolution and their impact on mid-1960s Japan.

The cover of Music Life’s August 1965 issue, which contained the author’s interview with the Beatles at Abbey Road studios.

Meet the Beatles

I started hearing about the Beatles some years after I began my career as an editor at Music Life, which I had joined straight out of college. It was my love of American rock ‘n’ roll, R&B, and Elvis Presley that had led me to join a music magazine. In the beginning, I wasn’t particularly interested in a British pop group like the Beatles.

In 1963, the band’s name began to appear regularly in the American music magazines I was reading. When they toured the United States in 1964, tens of thousands of screaming fans filled the streets wherever they went. News of their sensational reception soon reached Japan. From the second half of 1964, we noticed a growing interest in the band among our readership, with girls stopping by our offices on their way home from school to ask if we had any fresh news on the Beatles or to beg us for photos of the band. Apparently they’d heard Beatles records on the American Forces Far East Network (FEN) and other late-night radio stations.

The first Beatles single to be released in Japan was “I Want to Hold Your Hand.” It was as successful in Japan as it had been everywhere else. But for me, used to American rock ’n’ roll of the 1950s, there was something strange about the Beatles sound, and at first I assumed that their music would be just a passing fad.

Despite my reservations, the band’s popularity among young people meant that we definitely wanted to cover this new phenomenon. Music Life’s first editor-in-chief, Kusano Shōichi, told me to go to London and interview the group. As if it were the easiest thing in the world! I used all my connections in Japan and other countries and tried to come up with a way to meet the Beatles. Of course I wrote to the band’s manager, Brian Epstein, begging an interview, but the reply was not encouraging: “Absolutely not.” His desk was already buried under a mountain of similar requests from journalists around the world.

In the end, I flew to England in June 1965, on the advice of a contact who worked for EMI in London. My contact told me that the Beatles were in London till the end of June recording what became the Help! album, and that this represented my best chance to meet them. And then, just one week before I was due to depart, Mr. Kusano stepped down and I took over as editor-in-chief.

I had an appointment with Brian Epstein, but of course no promise of a meeting with the Beatles themselves. It would be unthinkable today, but I took with me a Japanese samurai sword as a present. Thinking that one sword on its own might draw unwanted attention, I bought four fake swords to go along with the genuine one and wrapped them in paper as part of my carry-on baggage. I visited Hamburg and Paris for interviews before proceeding to London, and not once as I passed through customs did anyone give my collection of swords a second look.

Three Hours in Abbey Road

Even if he didn’t know much about Japan, Epstein would have been well aware that the Japanese music market was booming dramatically at the time. Probably, though, his policy was that he didn’t want to give special treatment to any one journalist when he was swamped by requests from the world’s media. Eventually, perhaps impressed by the determination that had brought me all the way from the Far East, or perhaps pleased by the samurai sword I had brought with me as a gift (he told me he knew Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai), he eventually agreed to let me meet the band.

With John Lennon and Paul McCartney during my interview with the Beatles at Abbey Road on June 15, 1965.

The Beatles and their producer George Martin (wearing a necktie, at back ) look through copies of Music Life.

It was just after five in the afternoon of June 15 that I set out for the EMI studios in Abbey Road, where the Beatles were recording. Producer George Martin welcomed me to the mixing room of Studio 2. The Beatles were downstairs in the studio. Curious about this new arrival, dressed in a kimono, they stopped their conversation and looked up toward me in the mixing room. Paul McCartney pointed to the staircase and gestured at me to come down into the studio.

They’d been told that a journalist was coming to interview them, but probably hadn’t expected someone like me: a small (150-centimeter) woman dressed in a kimono. George Harrison rushed over and started asking me questions. Why was I wearing such a huge belt? And why were my sleeves so long? My decision to wear a kimono turned out to have been an inspired decision, proving an ideal icebreaker and talking point.

I think the sight of me—around the same age as they were, speaking hesitant English, small, and obviously harmless—put them at ease. They opened up right away. I’d been told I had only thirty minutes for my interview, but in the end I was with them for three hours. We’d solicited questions for the four Beatles from Music Life readers. When I handed a piece of paper with around ten questions to Paul, he took one look at it and said, “With your English, this’ll take all night,” and hurriedly passed question sheets to his bandmates. They all started dutifully writing their answers to our readers’ questions.

The most talkative of the four was John. At first he’d struck me as a bit reserved, but he soon relaxed and started cracking jokes. He seemed to know a fair bit about Japan, and told me he wanted to meet a sumō wrestler if he visited the country. He said a friend at art college had shown him a collection of old photos of Japan, including some “beautiful” photos of sumō wrestlers. “I can speak Japanese, you know,” he told me, before launching into a demonstration of pseudo-Japanese babble.

From London I flew to the United States for a month of interviews and other work. When I got back to Japan the issue with my Beatles interview was already in the shops. We normally sold around 50,000 to 70,000 copies per issue, but for this issue we printed 250,000 copies, almost all of which were snapped up.

  • [2016.07.28]

Born in Hokkaido in 1940. After studying English at Tōyō Women’s College, in 1961 joined the editorial staff of the magazine Music Life. She became editor-in-chief in 1964 and the following year became the first Japanese journalist to carry out an exclusive interview with the Beatles in London. She interviewed the band again during their visit to Japan in 1966 and met the group several times during their remaining years together, becoming famous in Japan as the journalist closest to the group. She is working on a book on her life as a music journalist to be released in autumn 2016.

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