By Emiri Aoki
Northwest Asian Weekly
During an hour-long break, five tired-looking Japanese girls logged onto Skype because they had a press interview with Northwest Asian Weekly. Despite their fatigue, they answered many questions in Japanese, patiently and sincerely, with smiles. Their soft, kind attitudes during the interview would have made anyone wonder if they are really the members of a hard rock band — one whose members dress as maids.
A unique band of five unique girls
Lead singer Miku Kobato has liked singing since she was little and had wanted to pursue a music career. While she was working in Tokyo at a maid cafe, where waitresses wear maid outfits, she decided to start her own band.
She asked her friend Kanami Touno, who plays the guitar, to join the band. Not only did Touno say yes, but she also found drummer Akane Hirose and bassist MISA (who does not reveal her full name professionally).
The four girls formed BAND-MAID in July 2013 and another vocalist, Saiki Atsumi, joined after about a month because they thought “twin vocals (two vocalists in one band) would be cool,” said Kobato.
In August 2013, the group performed for the first time as an opening act at a concert hosted by the music company they belonged to.
“We were not nervous, but excited and full of adrenaline. It was so much fun,” Kobato said.
Each member has her own persona and role in the group. Kobato is an idol, and she uses the phrase kuruppo, a grammar particle at the end of sentences, which makes her comments sound cute. In Japanese, the particle is an onomatopoeia of the way a pigeon cries, and she uses it because her last name means pigeon. Atsumi’s persona, on the other hand, is cool and aloof.
“We thought that two vocalists who have opposite characteristics would make the group more interesting,” said Kobato.
Drummer Hirose has really energetic and cheerful characteristics. Guitarist Touno is ditzy and clumsy. MISA is a drink-lover, and her stage drink is sometimes alcohol.
“I had already decided to make a band featuring a maid before I started looking for band members,” said Kobato. The members wear pretty maid outfits, which have different designs matching each member’s characteristics. Also, they call their male fans masters, female fans princesses, and their performances as serving.
It may sound really odd, but “we found this really interesting, and this makes us unique from the other bands,” said Atsumi.
Unlike in the United States, it is natural for bands to have their own concepts in Japan. For example, one of the most popular groups, AKB48, has the concept of ‘idols fans can meet,’ and the group actively creates opportunities where they are accessible to fans, which includes autograph and handshake events.
However, even among numerous music groups in Japan, the concept of BAND-MAID is especially unique and differentiates the girls from others.
“We want a big gap between how we look and how we perform in order to be unique,” said Kobato. The band plays hard rock. Their strong vocals and powerful drumming contrast their sweet and cute appearance, which has attracted many fans.
However, this contrast was not set at the beginning.
“At first, we were more like a pop-rock music group,” said Kobato. “But when we recorded the song ‘Thrill’ from our first album, which is more like hard rock, we felt that this style would go best with us. We found a way to be unique.”
Using SNS to get fans around the world
While they are now becoming popular, BAND-MAID started with just a few fans.They were especially discouraged by their first headlining concert in 2013. Because of the heaviest snowfall in years, even the number of fans they had at the time couldn’t make it to the concert hall.
“It was kind of funny that we performed in an almost empty hall,” Kobato said, laughing.
In order to gain fans both inside and outside of Japan, they have been actively using social networking services (SNS), such as Twitter and Facebook, to reach fans around the world. “We have been trying to tweet in English,” said Kobato.
They also post their music videos on YouTube and Facebook as soon as possible, which has helped them get reactions and comments from people from many countries. Last year, after they posted the music video of “Thrill” on Facebook, the video earned more than 2 million plays in a week.
The controversial concept
Although they have enthusiastic fans, their odd concept, unsurprisingly, has been controversial. Some people think that the members are dressed too sexually, that they portray overly sexualized young women. Others think that the members’ servile behaviors, including how they address their fans, are uncomfortable or even unacceptable.
Thomas Fotheringham, an American college student, said, “It makes me think of a strange otaku (a zealous fan of anime or manga, usually male) who has a wall of manga and a wall of posters, who wants to be called a master.”
When asked for more details, Fotheringham said, “It is kind of surprising that they are accepted by people in the U.S. Since we have history of slavery, I don’t think it is appropriate to call someone a master here.”
Another American student, Taylor Allred, is also critical of the band’s concept. “BAND-MAID seems really ‘Japanese.’ I remember someone explaining maid cafes to me and [me] thinking, ‘What?’ It seems like there are a lot of people in Japan who find the whole maid thing to be really cute and attractive. I see why, but it is definitely weird and a little demeaning.”
BAND-MAID’s fans, however, seem to enjoy their monikers. “Many fans become happy when we call them masters on SNS,” said Kobato. Some of the fans have left tweets saying that they are looking forward to hearing the word directly from the BAND-MAID members at Sakura-Con, an anime convention running March 25–27.
The best place to debut?
“Last year at Sakura-Con, I ended up meeting many people from different places, including Colorado, Canada, and even Japan,” said Fotheringham.
This year is its 19th year. There are a variety of amusements, including gaming, cosplay, cultural panels, dances, concerts, industry guests, anime theaters, and more than 100,000 square feet of exhibits hall.
Sakura-Con is BAND-MAID’s very first concert outside of Japan. They are also planning to perform a headlining concert in London this May.
They are excited to perform overseas. “We found that comments and tweets from foreign fans are more enthusiastic and high-tension compared to ones from Japanese fans,” said Atsumi. Some of the members are into anime, so they are also excited about booths and panels at the convention.
“Through this concert, we want to be bigger,” said Touno. “Our goal is to conquer the world.” (end)
For more information about Sakura-Con, visit sakuracon.org/ or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org. For more information on BAND-MAID, visit bandmaid.tokyo.
Emiri Aoki can be reached at email@example.com.