How a Swedish teenager brought Japan to its knees
YOHIO debuted "Reach the Sky" last month.
May 29th, 2012
11:27 AM ET

How a Swedish teenager brought Japan to its knees

A few weeks ago, a memorable video made the rounds of the usual Internet hangouts. It featured a pale, beautiful, blond-haired singer named YOHIO with huge dark eyes, wearing pigtails and a Lolita-style ensemble and playing a white guitar.

The song, called "Sky*Limit," is a full-on Japanese rock ballad, evocative of a musical subgenre called visual kei that celebrates dramatic fashion and a androgynous look not unlike that of David Bowie's Ziggy Stardust.

However, YOHIO is not Japanese. In fact, he's not even female.

Raised in a musical family, the Swedish teenager was already in a visual kei band called Seremedy at the age of 14. After making the rounds at several conventions, the band signed with Nintone Records/Universal Music Japan in 2011. And this year, YOHIO released his solo debut album, "Reach the Sky."

To promote the album, YOHIO appeared at Shinjuku Station Square in Tokyo and drew a crowd of 6,000 [Japanese website]. He's also appeared on several Japanese television shows.

YOHIO proudly describes himself as a "bishouen" – a Japanese word that literally translates to "beautiful youth." The trend of men toeing the line between masculine and feminine looks has long existed in the culture, as evidenced by the popularity of male idols with distinctly feminine stylings.

A Swedish native suddenly becoming a Japanese superstar is apparently not an impossibility, but it certainly does turn heads. According to his blog on the Japanese social networking site AMEBA, YOHIO's interest in Japan was stirred up by seeing anime when he was a 10-year-old. His interest pushed him to learn the language, follow Japanese blogs and keep up with Japanese celebrities on Twitter. And now, only six years later, he's performing in front of Japanese audiences on stage.

YOHIO is not the first foreigner to take a love of the culture to such heights. British teenager Beckii Cruel made a name for herself with a Japanese audience in a more unusual way: by posting videos of herself dancing to well-known songs from anime on her YouTube channel. Cruel often cosplayed as her favorite characters in these videos as well. She attracted the attention of Japanese fans, who loved her performances so much that she ranked as the 17th most subscribed YouTube channel in Japan.

Japanese performers have attempted the same breakthroughs in America, but not always to the tone of success. Bestselling Japanese pop artist Utada Hikaru has broken record after record in her home country, including three albums in Japan's top ten bestsellers of all time, but both of her English-language releases have been flops in comparison. Pop idol Jin Akanishi also attempted a similar debut by teaming up with hip-hop artist Jason Derulo, releasing an English language single called "Test Drive." In a rarer display of success, this effort was decently well-received, topping the US iTunes dance charts the week of its release.

It's clear that if foreigners strike just the right nerve, the Japanese will accept them with open arms. But what is that special formula?

Zac Bentz, Japanese music expert and the owner of ZB's A-Z of J-Music, says that Japan's curiosity about what's going on in the rest of the world lends to their open-mindedness towards stars like YOHIO.

"YOHIO’s style and presentation is rather commonplace in Japan, but if he tried to make the same moves in America, he would be laughed straight out of the country, " Bentz explained.

"Japan is not only used to this sort of thing, but they’re also curious about what’s going on in the rest of the world in a way that not many other countries are. So when they see someone doing something “their” way, it’s a sort of reverse culture shock, like, 'Why do you like what we’re doing so much? How did you find out about this in the first place?'"

Go, the man behind the J Rock NYC website, says that Japan's acceptance of YOHIO is rooted in issues of self-esteem.

"YOHIO is a unique novelty, of course, but more essentially, I think the younger Japanese like seeing THEIR stuff being copied, instead of Japanese bands copying American and British punk, rock, and metal acts and always being five years behind the curve. I think YOHIO's Japanese fans just like having their scene being reflected back at them, that the globalness of it all reinforces its importance, and helps justify and enhance their own fandom. Also, he's ridiculously fun to look at (and listen to)!"

Bentz also believes that foreigners strike a chord with native Japanese by showing that they have mastered the language.

"The language barrier is a huge thing, so I’m sure it’s even more amusing to have this dude come seemingly from out of nowhere with all the requisite trappings to fit into the visual kei scene right out of the gate. "

"It’s probably a fantasy come true for a lot of fans. Something new from outside, but that they can understand perfectly at the same time."

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Filed under: Otaku
soundoff (29 Responses)
  1. Mia

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    March 8, 2013 at 7:15 pm |
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    June 30, 2012 at 4:55 am |
  4. Slag™

    He's hot!

    June 22, 2012 at 8:42 am |
  5. Maty

    Fun!

    June 21, 2012 at 10:02 pm |
  6. Hugh Jass

    Pro Tip: Do NOT Google "bishouen"

    June 19, 2012 at 12:22 pm |
  7. Kei Visual

    In visual kei, if you're NOT crossdressing You're Doing It Wrong(tm).

    I say, good on you, YOHIO. Good luck.

    June 15, 2012 at 8:56 am |
    • Back Door Man

      Doing It Wrong™ alt+0153 makes the ™ sign – use keypad

      June 19, 2012 at 12:59 pm |
  8. Reve

    I don't really care if Yohio's a guy in drag. But what I'm wondering is how the hell does he look Asian if he's from Sweden? Does he have an Asian parent or something..?

    June 8, 2012 at 9:41 pm |
    • Hugh Jass

      A lot of people from that part of the world have slanted eyes. Heck, John Wayne once played Genghis Khan in a movie.

      June 19, 2012 at 12:25 pm |
  9. MoeMoeDarling

    それわかわいいですね〜!♥ O(≧∇≦)O

    June 6, 2012 at 6:41 pm |
    • docmac

      Wrong kana for "wa" in "sore wa...."

      June 15, 2012 at 4:11 pm |
  10. MoonBee828

    He's beautiful! And very talented!

    June 6, 2012 at 12:59 pm |
  11. Cynthia

    huh? is he a transgender? That's awfully messed up

    June 4, 2012 at 3:31 pm |
  12. Mr Chihuahua

    Would hit, lol!

    June 2, 2012 at 8:00 pm |
  13. pdxmum

    Wonder how long he'll be able to keep it up, with that whole puberty thing and all.

    June 1, 2012 at 4:45 pm |
    • like it love it but dont believe it

      Maybe he'll be the first Castrato since Michael Jackson.

      June 3, 2012 at 2:53 pm |
  14. t-bird

    It's called "drag queen" in my country. I wonder what his parents think.

    May 31, 2012 at 7:27 pm |
    • A

      His parents are fine with it. His father works with him.

      May 31, 2012 at 9:37 pm |
    • like it love it but dont believe it

      If they were American, his parents would be thinking "CA-CHING!!!"
      C.R.E.A.M. get the money, dolla dolla bill y'all.

      June 3, 2012 at 2:54 pm |
  15. Jeb

    she looks like one of their anime characters, duh. Of course they were thrilled with her.

    May 31, 2012 at 9:13 am |
    • Brian

      *him

      May 31, 2012 at 12:02 pm |
  16. Susan

    Dakota Rose must be throwing a hissy fit over this...she's being beaten at her own game, in the only country that is silly enough to think that her creepy "living doll" look is beautiful...and by a boy, no less.

    May 30, 2012 at 7:49 pm |
  17. Oil it up

    I like Swedish fish... same thing?

    May 30, 2012 at 7:29 pm |
    • New Gawker

      smells like fish tastes like chicken

      May 31, 2012 at 11:52 am |
      • Hugh Jass

        Chicken drumstick? Ugh. This conversation is making me uncomfortable.

        June 19, 2012 at 12:26 pm |
  18. DL

    Looks a bit like that Sailor Moon character.

    May 30, 2012 at 4:08 pm |
  19. Breed11

    This is just weird.

    May 30, 2012 at 2:19 pm |
  20. KajinPL

    Not even female? That's just downright scary.

    May 30, 2012 at 1:42 pm |