Sophians Talk about Japan and the World

A Leading Musical Star Who Keeps on Chasing Her Childhood Dream

Seiko Niizuma
(Singer and actress)

The Lessons I Learned at an International School in Thailand

Seiko Niizuma Singer and actress

According to my older sister, even as young as five years old I was declaring that I would one day be a star, mimicking pop singers, and practicing signing autographs. Perhaps it's thanks to that devotion from such a young age that I got to where I am today [laughs]!

When I was in sixth grade, we moved to Thailand for my father's work. I transferred to an international school, although at the time I could barely read the alphabet. Of course, all of the classes, from mathematics and science to social studies, were taught in English. For about two and a half years I relied on my dictionary to help me struggle through the piles of homework. Just as I was starting to think that I would never be able to speak English, one day I suddenly realized—as if something had gone click in my head—that I could understand everything that my teacher was saying. This showed me that when things are so tough that you start to lose heart, it is proof of how hard you've worked, and a sign that your goal is just around the corner.

When I was seventeen I moved back to Japan and applied to Sophia University as a "returnee." I joined the Department of International Legal Studies at the Faculty of Law. In the back of my mind I was thinking about becoming an international lawyer, but my real goal was of course to become a singer. I had actually been offered the chance to release a CD in Thailand, but naturally I wanted to launch my career in Japan. As soon as I started at university, I made demo tapes and started to apply for auditions.

I was scouted for the first time in Japan by a music company president who is also a graduate of Sophia. Since then there have been plenty of occasions when being a Sophia graduate has really helped me. I think that the relatively small number of Sophians makes us that much happier when we come across a fellow graduate, and helps create strong ties between us.

However, on that occasion I did not end up releasing a CD. After that, I was given the chance to work as a TV reporter, and I decided that if I hadn't managed to find my way into the music business before graduating university, I would give up that dream outright and get a job. I was really busy in my last year and a half as a student, as I was juggling my studies and part-time work with looking for jobs. Looking back, it's really a miracle that I managed to graduate within four years!

The Chance Plunge into Musicals that Defined the Start of My Career

Seiko Niizuma Singer and actress

The real miracle actually started in the summer of my fourth year at university, as graduation was approaching. I received a call from the Theatrical Department of the production company Toho Co., Ltd. inviting me to audition for the musical Les Miserables. I had apparently been recommended by a senior student who had happened to hear me humming in a lecture room, but at the time I had never even seen a musical. In retrospect, I think it was lucky that I didn't really know anything about musicals, because it meant that I didn't lose confidence.

The first piece I was given to sing was for a slightly older role, so on the day of the audition the panel looked at me and decided that I should come back the next day to audition for a younger role. As it was such short notice, they told me that I didn't need to memorize the lyrics and that it would be fine for me to imitate the performance of another singer from a tape. But this actually got me fired up with motivation [laughs]. I declared that I would learn the lyrics overnight and would not imitate another singer. I could not possibly have said such a thing if I had known about the international popularity of the musical, the importance of Éponine—the role I had been given—or the distinguished career of Kaho Shimada, the singer on the tape.

I had always enjoyed entertaining my family with surprises since I was a child, and I was intent on giving everything I had to surprise the panel at the audition the next day. I guess I succeeded in doing so, as well as convincing them of my enthusiasm and potential, and I was given the role. It wasn't until I saw the scale of the articles in the tabloids the day after production of the musical was announced that I realized how great a task it would be.

It was that role that set me on a good course. Having said that, I had thrown myself into a world I knew nothing about, and while I was frantically giving my best, I think I was somehow off the mark at first. It was coming across the musical Miss Saigon that changed me a lot. As I read the script, and realized that the second act is set in my second home country, Thailand, I felt that it was destiny, and for the first time I was keen to play a certain role—the heroine Kim. It was then that I made the conscious decision to seriously pursue a career in musicals.

My Dream of Performing a Las Vegas Show

Seiko Niizuma Singer and actress

I have also been in plays and drama series without songs, but somehow I find that it is easier for me to get into character when there is music. Because I started out in musicals, it is as if my brain automatically connects music with the theater. Even if I am in a fit of laughter, I can turn on the tears as soon as I hear the opening bars [laughs]. When I perform as a singer, I also use the expression that I would when performing in musicals if the song has a story to it.

As musicals have formed the basis of my career, I used to be focused on the idea of making the genre more established in Japan, and creating productions that Japan can be proud to share with the world, but recently my way of thinking has changed a little.

I have come to feel that the culture of musicals in Japan may already have just the right balance—a combination of essentially importing internationally-acclaimed musicals, the occasional original productions, and also the unique world of the all-female musical theater troupe the Takarazuka Revue Company. Just as kabuki will never be a mainstream form of entertainment in New York, it would be strange if musicals—a genre that originated in Europe and America—became the center of Japanese entertainment. If there is a type of musical that Japan can share with the world, it is the "2.5-dimensional musicals" that bring anime and manga from their original two-dimensional formats into the three-dimensional world of stage performance.

By the way, this autumn I will go on my first nationwide concert tour. This is a big step for me given that I have always aimed to be a singer.

Singers like Sarah Brightman and Barbra Streisand perform songs from such a wide range of genres that they are sometimes accused of over doing it, and I also have a rather broad repertoire. I like to think that I am making my own new genre [laughs]. I want the people who come to see my tour this autumn to get the feeling that they don't need to visit concert halls around the world, because I can sing it all for them in their own town. And then one day I'll go and take on Caesar's Palace in Las Vegas—I'm determined to make the fantasies I dreamed up as a five-year old a reality.

I'm 35 now, and my friends have settled lives with managerial posts at work and teenage children at home, but I'm still shamelessly chasing my childhood dream with blind enthusiasm. I hope that I can bring a bit of encouragement to everyone as I do.

Seiko Niizuma Singer and actress
Seiko Niizuma
Singer and actress

Seiko Niizuma graduated from the Faculty of Law (Department of International Legal Studies) in 2003. She was born in 1980 in Aichi prefecture, and lived in Bangkok from the age of 11 to 17. She started working as a TV personality on the TBS show King's Brunch in 2002 while a student at Sophia University. After making her debut in 2003 as Éponine in the musical Les Miserables—having been selected for the role from among 5,000 hopefuls—she went on to play the heroine Kim in Miss Saigon, and her rich voice and expressiveness drew high praise from the foreign staff who came to Japan for the production. She has since built up a career as one of the leading female singers in musicals in Japan. She was awarded the 31st Kazuo Kikuta Drama Award, and the New Artist Award in the Drama Division of the 61st National Arts Festival sponsored by the Japanese Agency for Cultural Affairs. She also secured two successive wins in the 2015 TV Asahi show "Kanjani Eight's The Mozart King of Music Sing Offs." She performs the commercial theme song for accounting software JDL IBEX, and is also currently enjoying success with the EP "SEIKO."

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