I have plenty to say here, but let's let her speak for herself first, in this video from a performance last night at a small club called Bed in Ikebukuro (Western Tokyo):
So, now you'll have at least some small sense of where I'm coming from. This is a woman with gifts in the realm of an Amy Winehouse or Adele (admittedly, this video doesn't quite do those justice), but with a fierce and unique, subtle strangeness that she seems barely aware or in control of (a fact this particular song does highlight). The question is, why is she playing a tiny club like Bed, after putting out a full-length album on a relatively high-profile indie, and putting in years worth of work building a series of events and nights (including this monthly event, Zettai-Mu, itself)? As she said herself when I walked in last night, Bed is "a pretty ghetto club," though in Tokyo that means more 'marginal and cheap' than 'sketchy and dangerous' (You can read her blog here (Japanese), and hear a few more polished recordings here).
In fact, I had a far better time there last night than I did on Friday at Air, which had a vastly superior soundsystem, some great DJs, and all the personality and atmosphere of a Soviet pharmacy. Air is one of what I would call Tokyo's "listening clubs," places including Daikanyama Unit, WWW in Shibuya, and Liquidroom. They have the most mind-bogglingly incredible sound systems (I'm willing to bet) of any club their size on the planet. And they're all beautiful. But they cater to an aggressively upscale trendy market (editors note: decidedly not a 'hipster' market, but young professionals). They most often feel like a collection of strangers, though there are exceptions (for instance, when Liquidroom hosts smaller events in its upstairs lounge).
On the other hand, there are smaller places, quite literally on the outskirts, like Heavy Sick Zero in Nakano, Bed in Ikebukuro, or Family, which is able to exist in Shibuya only because it's literally the size of my apartment. These clubs host smaller, sometimes stranger, always more amateurish shows, for crowds that tend to be more intimate. They're also usually cheaper (entrance to Bed on Saturday was 1/2 to 1/3 the charge for Air on Friday, even though Air was basically just a DJ night and Bed had three bands).
And that's where Chiyori has focused her energy for years - not on the large clubs that could put her in front of rich cool kids, but on the margins, where posters are peeling off the black-painted walls and anti-Japanese kung fu movies from the 1970s play on monitors over the bar and someone will sell you jerk chicken off a hot plate for 500 yen (and the chicks will actually smile at you). Her immense raw talent and creativity hasn't in and of itself propelled her out of these locales over the past three years. There's no telling what will happen from here, but I hope I'm not alone in finding it confounding that she's not made it further already. When I interviewed her late last year, her tone was of cheerful bittersweetness - she at first said that she'd given up the dream, which she's had since she was a child, of becoming a conventional Japanese 'idol.' Then she smiled shyly and admitted she hadn't actually - not quite.
There are many reasons why I fear her hopes, however shy, will not be fulfilled. Though she's far from unattractive, she's not one of the conventionally tiny and pixie-cute girls who gets transformed into autotune queens of garbage pop. And she's so far been committed to an aesthetic that's not hugely marketable - a blend of roots reggae and balladry that doesn't even fit into Japan's hyperactive dancehall/beach reggae market, much less its piston-through-the-temple pop charts. Despite having none of the trappings of a b-girl, she also has a deep commitment to hardcore hip hop, dating back to her early work with DJ Muta of MSC (Japan's answer to the Wu-Tang Clan, and that's not a comparison made lightly).
So, she has put some barriers up for herself - or, more to the point, she knows who she is (poison for a great many music careers). But there's also the Japanese music industry itself. 20 years after "Nevermind," it may be hard for most in the U.S. to understand, but there simply isn't a path for the transition from 'indie to major' such as that now so well-worn by U.S. bands like, most recently, the Arcade Fire. Even the rare truly creative artist to make it onto a Japanese major label (for instance, the reminiscent-of-Bjork, friend-of-the-Boredoms singer UA) have made it through the almost superhuman process of sublimating themselves to the structure of the majors for the duration of their careers, and then eventually gaining the power to pursue their own desires, as opposed to enjoying the freedom of exploration until they were mature and polished enough to warrant signing to a major.
Chiyori, by choosing to work outside what basically amount to musical zaibatsu, has placed herself under a glass ceiling (which doesn't have much particularly to do with gender). There are a growing number of "major indies," including Pop Group and W+K Tokyo (which is actually an EMI subsidiary, but still does some interesting things). These offer at least a small number of creative musicians the opportunity to actually live off their music, which after years of investigation I've concluded is a grim near-impossibility in Japan. Almost every musician I truly respect here works a day job, and these are people in their late 20s and early 30s. Chiyori, the tremendously gifted singer you just listened to, works in a photo printing shop. Partly this is a matter of scale - in the U.S., there is simply a bigger audience to share, and more artists able to really make a go of it. But it is also true that, as hard as this may be to believe, Japan's charts are even more full of manufactured garbage than those in the U.S., the product of management companies with intimate ties to TV producers and no particular motivation to foster artists capable of writing and producing their own songs, since most of these so-called jimushou profit hugely from their control of publishing.
And this is what you end up with - profoundly gifted people playing for appreciative but tiny audiences, unable to fully devote themselves to what they love, and leaving a whole nation poorer for it.