Interview with Tokyo-rickshaw at HYPER JAPAN, London

interview - 17.08.2017 10:01

Tokyo-rickshaw talk about bringing Japanese culture to the world, without their luggage!

The Tokyo-rickshaw performance group, based on the concept of the rickshaw drivers, or “shafu”, of Tokyo’s Asakusa district, were formed to promote tourism and the traditional Japanese values of “omotenashi”, or hospitality, in the run up to the 2020 Olympics. The group’s current line-up, Ishibashi Takuya, Takano Tsuyoshi, Tomoaki Yuuya and Watanabe Zeo took a break from their weekend appearing at the HYPER JAPAN festival to talk about their lives as singing, dancing rickshaw drivers.

Thanks for taking time out from your busy day for this interview. You’ve been around the HYPER JAPAN festival all weekend, performing, chatting with people, taking selfies and signing autographs. How have you enjoyed meeting the British public?

Yuuya: In terms of communication, unfortunately our English is not quite good enough yet so there was a bit of a struggle. Despite that, I noticed that loads of people come to this event, including people who don’t live around here that make a special trip to come to this event. We met these people and tried to communicate through broken English but then they would smile. We could see the smiles and feel the energy and enthusiasm; that was great. We do the performances and rickshaw rides to give the people a fun feeling but we were the ones who received the energy from all the smiley faces.

What inspired each of you to become a singing, dancing “shafu”?

Tsuyoshi: This group came about from auditions. Each of us has different ambitions and career paths. I’m an actor. I saw this audition come up with the concept for a rickshaw man and also through music try to introduce Japanese culture, particularly Asakusa, the traditional town in Tokyo, so that’s how I came into this group.
Takuya: I’m a singer and I also auditioned to be part of this group. I wasn’t particularly interested in the rickshaws at the start but then I thought it would be a really good opportunity to learn and spread Japanese culture and I can still continue my musical career through this activity. That’s why I became part of it.
Zeo: I'm also an actor. People might ask, if you’re an actor why would you sing as well, but then I thought as an actor being able to sing is an additional skill to further my career.
Yuuya: I'm an actor as well. Like my co-members singing, dancing and acrobatics are ways of expressing myself, so I thought it would be a good asset to have. Personally, I’m also very interested in Japanese history and culture, so I thought this would be a good opportunity to spread Japanese culture and history.

You mentioned spreading Japanese culture to an international audience. Has HYPER JAPAN been a good opportunity to do that?

Takuya: Talking about the rickshaw, it actually has a long history. It was invented about 150 or 160 years ago. We’re familiar with the rickshaw as a tourist thing but it originally started as a taxi service back then, so people may not know about the history. So, we'd like to tell them about that too.
Yuuya: We’d also have liked a longer street where we can pull the rickshaw (laughs), to show off. That would be nice.

During your stay in London, have you found any music that you’d want to bring back with you to Japan?

Yuuya: We visited Abbey Road, the famous spot for The Beatles. Just being there, standing on the spot, we felt how influential the band has been and as there happens to be four of us as well, we stood there and did the picture and everything (laughs) – that was great. It made us think The Beatles were such an influential band and it would be amazing to if we could be as big as them and leave something behind that people can relate to and come back to.

Takuya, you often post videos of you singing cover songs on the Tokyo-rickshaw YouTube channel. How do you usually chose which songs to cover?

Takuya: I want to give some sort of message every time I sing but when I pick songs I don’t have a particular genre I like or stick to. I might choose a song from an up-and-coming artist or a popular Japanese singer-songwriter’s song. Perhaps I might choose old songs, just many varieties, so I don’t have a set mind as to which song I should pick. I’m just trying things from different angles and trying to cover as many different varieties as possible.

Last month you did some street lives in Asakusa as part of the "Tokyo Olympics - Road to 2020" publicity campaign. Could you tell us a bit more about those performances?

Takuya: When we do the street live shows, it’s great because Asakusa is such a tourist spot. We get tourists from all over the world, so it’s a great opportunity and a fun experience to perform there.
Yuuya: We put our performances, acrobatics and singing on YouTube. We do all of this for people to enjoy and also to get more interest and attention from people, so we try to do that from various angles. We have a target of 2,020 subscribers this year to be able to continue this project. We have about 700 at the moment, so we’re working on it!

When tourists come to visit Asakusa and hear your music, what would you like them to take away from it?

Takuya: We have a thing called “samurai damashi” which is the spirit of samurai. It’s like something in Japanese we call “isshokenmei”. It’s basically about working really hard and not caring too much about how you look. You may look sweaty or uncool and messy but the really important part is working hard to achieve something. There’s a beauty in it as well, so hopefully people will realise the beauty in just working very hard.

You were certainly sweating during your performance today!

Tokyo-rickshaw: Thank you very much!

Have you had any interesting incidents during your time as rickshaw drivers?

Yuuya: There are four of us, and three of us lost our luggage on this journey (laughs). The funny thing is, Ishibashi is the oldest and everybody thinks he’s the most carefree person, but he’s the only one who hasn’t lost anything on this journey, so perhaps he’s the one at the end of the day who has his stuff together!

Can we expect a new song from you soon?

Tsuyoshi: Not quite yet.

Finally, do you have a message for the fans?

Zeo: We were very happy to see so many smiling and friendly people. We are very happy and grateful and that made us really want to come back here again. This experience has actually made us fond of England, so I would like to ask everyone to keep supporting us so we can work even harder and come back again.

JaME would like to thank Tokyo-rickshaw and HYPER JAPAN for this interview opportunity.

Watch Takuya's cover of Mr.Children's HANABI below, including photos from HYPER JAPAN:

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