Tsutsumi Kyohei Interview (1997)

Last year saw the passing of Tsutsumi Kyohei, a.k.a. “The Hit Maker,” widely considered to be one of the greatest Japanese songwriters of all time. As a tribute to this incredible man and his countless amazing songs, I have translated below a rare interview with him from 1997. Before that, however, I have also included a brief profile along with some bits of trivia about him.

I hope this translation can be of use for people who want to learn more about this genuinely legendary yet sometimes strangely unrecognized songwriter.

Profile

Text: Showa Pop no Sekai
English translation: Henkka

Basic Information

Born: May 28, 1940
Died: October 7, 2020 (aged 80)
Birthplace: Kagurazaka, Ushigome, Shinjuku, Tokyo
Hometown: Toranomon, Minato, Tokyo
Alma mater: Aoyama Gakuin University
Real name: Watanabe Eikichi

His younger brother is music producer Watanabe Tadataka. Having worked with artists such as C-C-B, KAN, Spitz, and Kobukuro, he is an esteemed producer.

Record & CD Sales

Single Sales Ranking — Top 10 (as of 2019)

(All compositions by Tsutsumi Kyohei.)

  Year Song
Units Sold
1 1979 “Miserarete” / Judy Ongg 1,235,000
2 1980 “Sneaker Blues” / Kondo Masahiko 1,047,000
3 1968 “Blue Light Yokohama” / Ishida Ayumi 1,003,000
4 1971 “Mata Au Hi Made” / Ozaki Kiyohiko 956,000
5 1975 “Romance” / Iwasaki Hiromi 887,000
6 1975 “Momen no Handkerchief” / Ohta Hiromi 867,000
7 1981 “Gingira Gin ni Sarigenaku” / Kondo Masahiko 816,000
8 1994 “Ningyo” / NOKKO 654,000
9 1999 “Yamenaide, PURE” / KinKi Kids 648,000
10 1981 “Blue Jeans Memory” / Kondo Masahiko 598,000

Who Was He?

● Both the pinnacle as well as the origin point of the entire Japanese music industry — a true legend. Due to his incredibly fast songwriting pace it was at one point speculated that “Tsutsumi Kyohei” was in fact a group of multiple ghostwriters. Still, he was undoubtedly but a single songwriter.
● However, aside from the rare appearance at awards shows or on TV programs, Tsutsumi almost never wished to appear on TV by his own volition. Despite being Japan’s number one hit maker, he always remained shrouded in mystery.
● Path to becoming a songwriter: in 1963, he joined Nippon Grammophon Co., Ltd. (later: Polydor Records) where he worked as a Western music director for four years. At his job interview, he apparently stated that he absolutely did not want to be in charge of Japanese music, saying he “would not join the company” were he to not be working with Western music.
● He made his debut as a songwriter in 1966 when his senior from Aoyama Gakuin University, lyricist Hashimoto Jun, suggested that they work together.

Trivia

● His very first hit was the Village Singers’ Barairo no Kumo (1967).
● His personal favorites among his own compositions were Ozaki Kiyohiko’s “Mata Au Hi Made,” Sakai Masaaki’s “Saraba Koibito,” and Ohta Hiromi’s “Momen no Handkerchief.”
● He listened to classical music in his childhood and was fond of jazz in his college days — pop music was not at all a part of his roots. In fact, he once said: “I hated anything that could be called pop. I despised the stuff. Ha ha ha.”
● At his busiest, he was writing 45 songs per month.

Eyewitness Accounts

● Lyricist Hashimoto Jun, Tsutsumi’s senior in their student days, said that his impression of him in high school was that of someone who “was dark, quiet, and disliked people.” Tsutsumi was apparently a member of the high school gardening club, always looking after the school’s flower bed.
● Legendary CBS/Sony producer Sakai Masatoshi said of Tsutsumi: “He can be pretty scary. It’s like he can see right through you.” In later years, when asked if he had ever considered putting Tsutsumi in charge of writing songs for Yamaguchi Momoe, Sakai answered: “No, never. I don’t think he’s the right fit for Yamaguchi Momoe. She had a tendency of going for songs that were dark and gloomy, so she would’ve just turned his songs down. Just as where Yamaguchi Momoe was the antithesis of Minami Saori (who Tsutsumi had written many songs for), Matsuda Seiko was the antithesis of Yamaguchi Momoe. So if anything, I think Tsutsumi Kyohei would actually be a great fit for Matsuda Seiko.”
● Funayama Motoki, the arranger who Tsutsumi Kyohei worked with the most, said: “People often ask me about Tsutsumi Kyohei. What is he like? Most music fans don’t know anything about him since he hardly ever appears in the media. Well, for Kyohei-sensei, the single most important thing to him is whether or not his songs are a hit or not. If the song’s a hit, he acknowledges it. If it isn’t, he thinks it to be completely worthless.”


Interview

This interview came out back in the January 1998 issue of Record Collectors, later re-published in the December 2020 issue of MUSIC MAGAZINE. Tsutsumi Kyohei did not make many public appearances, so this interview offers some very valuable insight into his thoughts about music.

(Note: The songs attached throughout this post aren’t necessarily relevant to what is being discussed in the text. They’re simply some of my personal favorites of the countless hits composed by this master songwriter.)

Interview & text: Hagiwara Kenta
English translation: Henkka

Composer, Tsutsumi Kyohei.

There’s beauty in how that really is the only fitting description for him. It sounds so gallant. “Composer.” At least since the 70’s up until the present moment, he is one of the few professionals in the Japanese pop world who has been able to carry that title with honor. Having always worked behind-the-scenes, constantly writing one song after the other, this great man has taught us all a lot about the aesthetics of pop music.

The compilation HITSTORY, two sets of four CD’s each, is the culmination of Tsutsumi Kyohei’s past 30 years of professional songwriting.

— Did you get to listen to your new CD box set yet?

Tsutsumi Kyohei: Yes. I got the chance to do that when mastering it.

— Do you not normally listen to the songs you’ve written?

Tsutsumi: I don’t, no. Not at all.

— Is it that you don’t really collect music or records in general even apart from your own works?

Tsutsumi: No no, I’m still always buying music that I like at any given time. But I listen to stuff that is popular — I don’t really go “digging” for new music. I’m always just listening to stuff that is current. I do enjoy that kind of music, and also I feel that it’s almost kind of like my duty to listen to it.

— Is there overlap between the music you like to listen to versus the music you make yourself?

Tsutsumi: That’s something that’s always been a bit unclear for me. Earnestly making the music you want to make — that’s how musicians and those sorts of people are, right? But for people like me, we want to write hit songs. I write songs that are hits not for me personally, but for society as a whole. I’m much more interested in doing that.

— There are all kinds of urban legends out there about you as a songwriter. I’ve heard that apparently you always buy all the current Top 40 hits, and that you throw them away once you’ve listened to them. Also, I’ve heard that you’ll write down on sheet music all the musical phrases about them that grab your interest.

Tsutsumi: In the analog record days, it’s true that I would always listen to all the Billboard top-whatever number of hits. I’d have a record store prepare them all for me. And yeah, looking at my sheet music from those days they’re full of notes like that. “I could use the intro in one of my songs…(laughs)

— Outside of work, are there any artists you’ve continued to like and listen to throughout all these years?

Tsutsumi: Even today? Mmm… There aren’t many artists out there that can continue putting out stimulating material after 30 years of going at it. I do listen to records from singer-songwriters of course, but people like me, we tend to listen to the “singer” types more. Barry Manilow, Diana Ross, Dionne Warwick… But singers like that are only getting fewer and fewer as of late. And they don’t come out with new records very often. I don’t listen to a lot of old stuff.

— Of all the music that is “in” right now, is there anything you’ve been hearing which, going forward, you feel you might be associated with for some time to come?

Tsutsumi: That sense of complete shock from hearing something that’s totally new — I do feel like there aren’t a lot of records coming out lately that give me that feeling. It’s mostly just a feeling of… “Ah, okay. I see what they’re doing.

— It all sounds like something you’ve already heard before?

Tsutsumi: Hmm… Yeah, I guess so. But it could be that my way of listening to music is all wrong. Young people these days are always talking about the 70’s, right? It sounds fresh to them. But for us, we’ve been listening to each new generation of music chronologically as it’s been coming out. That’s the difference between us.

If the 70’s sound becomes popular again and everyone starts writing songs that sound like the 70’s, I bet that even then the songs written by young people will sound more fresh. If I was to write a “70’s-sounding song” today, I’d have all these preconceived notions of what the 70’s is “supposed” to sound like; what the basis of the song ought to be; what the song supposedly needs to sound like.

— You wouldn’t be able to think about it freely.

Tsutsumi: Right. For the young people of today the 90’s is their foundation. But for me, that’s just not where I’m at.

— So even when you’re writing a song for the current day, your basis is first in the 60’s, the 70’s… And the 90’s only on top of that foundation?

Tsutsumi: Right. In my case as I don’t do the arrangements myself, I’ll discuss them with the artist and the arranger. But their interpretation of what I say to them can be wildly different from what I was going for. Even if I tell them to make it sound “more 60’s” or “more 70’s,” they’ll throw in so many elements that are all wrong. But then there’s no point in listening to music with a mindset like that. I’ll remind myself that that’s just what “new” sounds like, and I try to listen to it again with a fresh set of ears.

But even so, I will say that the music made by young people today who are conscious of that whole 70’s sound is much more interesting than that of the young people who aren’t. It’s so much fun. The stuff they call “Shibuya-kei,” for instance. Something about it sounds similar to the music I was doing back in the day. I like it.

— You agreed to do this interview since you are now releasing this new box set. Usually, however, you always tend to stay behind the scenes, don’t you?

Tsutsumi: The singer-songwriter types need to sing so they’re always going to have a place in the spotlight. But for people like me — that is to say, pop songwriters — I suppose there’s never been much of an opening for us to begin with. We can be judges on TV audition shows I guess, but then that sort of thing’s just kind of uncool. (laughs) It’s like you’re only there as an assistant for people who are looking to buy fresh talent. I don’t feel like that’s the kind of thing I ought to be doing.

— So you’re staying true to the position you’ve taken so far.

Tsutsumi: That’s how I feel about it, yes.

— Is it just that you would feel embarrassed being in the spotlight?

Tsutsumi: Well, that’s a part of it, too. (laughs)

— But then songwriters like Burt Bacharach have released records under their own name, taking the front stage. You, too, have put out some records like that. What was your stance when making those records? Was it a musician’s mindset?

Tsutsumi: No no, pretty much the only album I’ve done only for the fun of it was the King Records Burt Bacharach Meet The Beatles album. Everything else, I’ve just treated it as a kind of side job. For example, I did a series of these kind of instrumental kayou kyoku songs where I got to play around with arranging on some of the albums. That sort of thing was popular back then — instrumental kayou kyoku. I just made those albums because I was asked to. It was like the Japanese version of Easy Listening music.

— So it’s not that you particularly wanted to come into the limelight in making those releases.

Tsutsumi: Part of it was due to there just being no opening there for someone like me. Although with that said, Hattori Katsuhisa did just fine when he did it. But to properly do something like that, I’d have to write the orchestration and conduct it myself. And Hattori is like a Juilliard graduate, right? Suzuki Kunihisa was pretty serious about jazz, too. Same thing with Ono Yuji. I was always a complete amateur compared to people like that.

— So it might be fair to say that you’ve always simply wanted to write songs.

Tsutsumi: Well, more than wanting to write songs, I’ve wanted to write hit songs. I feel like those are two different sings — making music and making hits. Rather than making music and my songs just happening to become hits by chance, I have enjoyed striving specifically to write hits; like I’m always trying to pick the cream of the crop. What sounds the most “modern” is what’s most likely to become a hit.

A sense of gratification is a part of it for sure. There was this certain music director from Sony who would often say, “Once you’ve released one hit song it becomes like a drug — you’re always just craving for another fix.”

— And you got a taste for that drug.

Tsutsumi: Yeah, I’d say that’s the case. Back then it was especially a singles-dominated society. When a song sold a million units, pretty much everyone in Japan would know that song. I think that’s what did it for me. This one time I was talking to Nakanishi Rei… I forget now when this happened, but in any case, he stopped writing lyrics quite early on in his career, right? Meanwhile, I’m still going at it. So he said to me, “While I really enjoy producing musicals and stuff, it can never compare to the excitement and the sheer thrill of producing hit after hit for the general public.” He added, “So you just keep doing what you do.” (laughs)

Especially back in those days, it’s like society as a whole was moving to the tune of hit songs. As you might know, I wrote this song called “Blue Light Yokohama.” It became a hit, and so then even in Sazae-san there was a scene where she says, “One ticket to Blue Light Yokohama, please.” I still have a copy of that comic saved up somewhere. But that’s just how influential songs could be to society as a whole. That aspect of it was so fun to me.

— However, as was the case with Nakanishi Rei, many professional composers and lyricists have cast away that sort of fun in exchange for a more “artistic” approach. Did you never consider taking that path yourself?

Tsutsumi: Mmm. Well, at some point down the line it’s like my role became fixed in a way. I always had people to work with. If I ever did talk about doing that sort of thing, those people would always tell me, “Oh, don’t be like that. Give us more hit songs!” It’s definitely a crossroads moment when people are saying that to you. I believe Tokura Shunichi hated being told that, which is what led him to going down the musical route.

Eventually everyone reaches a point where they have to make that decision. Because the thing about writing hit songs is that you’re going to experience both ups and downs. When the going is good, it’s great. But it’s not always like that. When you’re going through a downturn, everyone starts to consider if they ought to just switch to doing what they love instead, or if they should persevere and keep going.

— And you have always continued to choose the “drug” of writing hit songs.

Tsutsumi: It could be that I’ve just been overly stubborn. Also, I felt like I understood the hardship of what it was, going deep into making music. You’re always in the same place, always pursuing the same thing — that, too, is demanding. And when that’s what you’re doing, it’s like your goal is always pretty much the same, right? But the problem is that the times around you keep changing.

— Do you have a strong desire for constant change?

Tsutsumi: Yes. I get bored. (laughs) I’m very quick to get bored of things.

— So what you’re saying is that even though your interest lies in writing songs that are sure to be hits, it’s not interesting for you if you’re always using the same methods to achieve those results.

Tsutsumi: Right. I’m sure I’d be so bummed out if I ever thought, “I did the same thing again…(laughs) Like, “Ah man… I just circled back to this thing.”

— People often talk about your wonderful craftsmanship, but you’re not necessarily very “traditional” when it comes to crafting songs, are you? Rather, it’s like you have always continued to be indulgent and fun-seeking in your songwriting.

Tsutsumi: Sure, I’d say that’s how I always feel like when I’m writing. I’m always thinking to myself, “Ah, this thing might have something new about it.” Although, looking back, it hasn’t all been as fresh as it has maybe felt at the time.

— With certain singers you will sometimes write all the songs on their albums as well. Is it different in some ways, writing the album songs?

Tsutsumi: Well, you can get away with a bit more there. With singles, they’ll ask me for songs that are 100% sure to sell a lot of copies. It’s not necessary for me to even like the song — it just needs to do well. When it comes to album songs, I’m a bit more free to just do as I please. But to be honest, I tend to forget about the album songs. (laughs) I do remember the ones that become hits though.

— How about the B-sides on singles? There have been many instances of one singer’s B-side being reworked for another singer and then becoming a hit as the A-side on their single.

Tsutsumi: There, too, I’m allowed some flexibility, and most of the time I just do whatever I like. That has on many occasions led to something more, but often it really hasn’t been intentional at all. It’s sort of like with computers — one day there’s just suddenly this new version available. That’s what it feels like.

— Oh. So it’s like… Out of the blue you’ll notice how there’s this newly opened window right in front of you? (laughs)

Tsutsumi: Right. I’d think that’s how it is for pretty much everyone. When I initially find a pattern I like, I’m stuck there for a while before I can detach and try something else.

— And since you don’t often go back and listen to your past works, that might lead you to reusing the same pattern over and over again. (laughs)

Tsutsumi: For the past 30 years I’ve always just kept telling myself I need to keep pushing forward. Once a song is mixed, I don’t really like to listen to it at all. It’s… Not necessarily “scary,” but it’s a strange kind of feeling. Like I somehow shouldn’t listen to it. And besides, it’s going to receive its judgement soon enough anyways…

— “Judgement,” as in how well the song does on the charts?

Tsutsumi: Yes. I might be able to listen to them if I just knew in advance they were going to get on the charts, but I’m always terrified that they might not.

— If only the actual quality of the music was always reflected in the charts…

Tsutsumi: Yeah, but it’s not. Not in the least. Every time it’s like rolling the dice. It’s just dreadful. I always want to go higher — even if my song hits no. 1, I still feel like I need to go higher.

— The song’s chart ranking matters to you more than its musical quality?

Tsutsumi: Yep. I guess I was just trained to think that way. When the people from my generation first started writing songs, it felt like we all shared that sentiment.

— That is of course also a part of the “aesthetic” of pop music, and one might say that you are in fact the person who taught it to Japanese listeners.

Tsutsumi: Ultimately, when I look back on my songs, with so many of them I was simply following up on my previous works. Although you might be releasing hits, you can’t keep releasing smash hits one after the other forever. The talents themselves go through ups and downs. And in those difficult times, a part of me is just following up on previous songs. I feel like I’ve been very honest in doing that. Just trying to maintain, or show even a tiny bit of transformation. It’s actually in those kinds of works where one can really sense my disposition, I would think.

— And you have of course worked for prolonged periods of time with many of those singers.

Tsutsumi: Nothing is easier than just reusing the same pattern over and over again until you get bored of it. But I don’t do that, and that’s the bit that gets to be the most challenging after you’ve been writing songs for the same artist for three years, or five years. You feel responsible. Still, it is fun. And it’s not like the artists I’ve worked with have all been great singers either — not all of them have had much in the way of expressing themselves through their singing. Still, just trying to show them in a different light and such… I put in a lot of effort in order to do that. I’m sure it’s equally as difficult for the lyricist, but yeah. I just try to keep it interesting.

— Beginning in the 70’s, there have been more and more artists in Japan who both write and perform their own songs. Because of this, one might think that at some point you might’ve started to feel uncomfortable being in that scene.

Tsutsumi: Sure, yeah. That’s true. With the singer-songwriter types, even if their songs can be primitive in some ways, their method of expression can make the songs sound novel regardless. That’s their strong point.

Say you had one complicated song and one simple song and you wanted to make them both into hits. Well, the fact of the matter is that the simple song is just going to end up being the bigger hit. But then it’s not like the people in my camp can always keep doing just those primitive songs, and so we end up mixing in something a bit more tricky. But the trickier the song gets, the harder it is to understand. That’s where we lose to the singer-songwriters. You can’t win against the simple song.

Take someone like Yoshida Takuro for instance — it’s all like three-chord stuff, right? But just his way of expression, or the way he arranges the words so neatly, it still sounds so new. It’s a different kind of thing altogether.

— With that said, you too have incorporated in your songs elements that have been in vogue at the time.

Tsutsumi: Yeah, elements of people like Inoue Yosui. Or a feel of Ogura Kei. With that sort of thing it’s… The melodies have been there forever, so they’re easy to mimic. (laughs) Something like Noguchi Goro’s “Yuudachi no Ato de” is one example of that.

— There are times when the singer-songwriter types dominate the charts. Other times, however, it’s the composers who take over.

Tsutsumi: True, I do think there have been eras where it was us who were controlling the direction music was going. The early 70’s for instance. The stuff we were doing was so new, it was influencing everything else. But then it’s a question of how that influence is used…

See, the “employers” for people like me — that is to say, the source of most our work — are the major production companies. Talent from Watanabe Productions, Geiei, Horipro… That’s who we work with. But this being the case, everything’s kind of really up to the talent — it all depends on how fired-up the production company is as to whether our work is a success or not. Without them, I wouldn’t know what to write and who to write for.

When they thrive, so do we. With idols for example, it’s something totally different when they come out with a big idol. The opposite of that situation is when there’s only lots of smaller idols on the scene. For some strange reason it’s just no good when it’s like that. But then again, the kind of talent who truly represents the whole era only appears once every few years.

— So is it that the people on your side of the production are always kind of standing by, waiting for the next big idol to emerge?

Tsutsumi: I personally don’t feel like I’m deliberately doing that… But I suppose ultimately that’s what ends up happening. I will say that the whole “songwriting industry” doesn’t have much of a presence nowadays. Sorry to say this to all the up-and-comers, but only doing composing or writing lyrics in this day and age, it’s not a very fun spot to be in. I feel like it’s seen as a rather lowly position, more so than when we were coming up.

— And now most everyone both writes and performs their own material, and many of those same people are actually the ones writing songs for others, too.

Tsutsumi: In the past when you were watching music shows like The Best Ten, they’d feature several songs from us every week. We all got to give our input and experience the joy of pushing the artists forward. Each one of us would throw in our own interesting ideas, making contrasting waves every time, and every song would sound different.

It’s not at all like that nowadays. Today, composers have become “handymen.” The young people working in the field aren’t trying anything new. It’s to the point where it makes one wonder how it’s even possible for these young people to be so predictable in their songwriting. Even though they’re so very capable — they’re probably more “committed to the task” than we are.

And it’s not just the people in the songwriting business, but even the singer-songwriters… Well, the visual-kei people. They’re just like that as well. As soon as it gets to the chorus, it immediately starts sounding like something that’s just meant to sell. That’s what all their songs are like. It’s pretty amazing.

— In the past, songwriters in the rock music field saw the “predictable mainstream pop song” as their mortal enemy of sorts, swearing to themselves, “I’m never going to write crap like that!” But now it’s like no such perceived enemy exists for them anymore. Maybe as a result, it feels like the songs they’re writing these days are all so uninteresting.

Tsutsumi: It could be that that’s how this entire generation thinks. Maybe it’s not just the songwriters — maybe it’s everyone.

— If that is the case, then perhaps it’s actually your generation who is going to be writing the more radical songs in the future…

Tsutsumi: Oh, yeah. (laughs) I’m going to get all stubborn in response, right? No, but I actually do hope to be able to do so. I really do.

(Interview conducted at Hotel Okura, Toranomon on 19 November 1997.)

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