Blue Suede Kimono

Back to Contents of Issue: June 2002


J'Elvis preaches gospel of the king in cyberspace.

by Tim Hornyak

"Don't be cruel," croons the man in the white jumpsuit, swiveling his hips and flashing the sequins, "to a heart that's true." The crowd of boozy salarymen and young women roars because Elvis isn't dead. He's on stage in the back streets of Roppongi and coming at them through i-mode on their cellphones.

Yasumasa Mori works full-time as Elvis. The impersonator calls himself 'J'Elvis,' short for 'Japanese Elvis,' and is likely the country's best-known Presley wannabe. He's been at it for over 20 years, playing throughout Japan and in the US, and has been interviewed on major TV networks in both nations.

In 1992, Mori won the International Elvis Impersonator Contest in Memphis, Tennessee, becoming the first non-American to do so and beating out 200 contenders who would be King. While he has the hair, the suits, the glasses and even the karate moves, Mori regards them merely as necessary trappings for Japanese audiences and prefers to call himself an Elvis 'interpreter,' rather than a mimic.

"If I sing Elvis without the costume, without the sound, they don't feel the atmosphere of the South -- I mean America -- and his life," says the 40-year-old Tokyo native. "So I just want to give Japanese people the costume, the sound -- that's the most integral part, the action, everything."

His idol has a massive following in Japan that includes the country's leader. The release last August of a disc entitled Junichiro Koizumi Presents My Favorite Elvis Songs was a big event among older Japanese. Gushing liner notes for the 25 tracks were written by the then-popular prime minister, and about 120,000 copies had sold as of January.

Yet Mori believes Elvis is underappreciated here compared to artists such as the Beatles. "Most Japanese don't really know who Presley was," he says, "or they think he must have been a comedian in those high-collared, bell-bottomed getups." Mori was under that impression himself until he had a serious case of the blues not long after Elvis died in 1977. He had dropped out of high school to pursue his dream of being a singer, but the move prompted his girlfriend's parents to force her to dump him. A friend recommended an Elvis album and Mori was hooked.

"I listened to Elvis day in, day out to heal my broken heart," he recalls. "I felt comforted by him and the very strong power of his voice. So I started to sing for him, not for me."

Back then, Japanese saw Elvis as a passing fad, he says, and he wanted to get them all shook up over the rocker from Tupelo, Mississippi. He was determined enough to spend all his money on a Gibson guitar, a vintage microphone and a JPY250,000 jumpsuit. Twenty-odd years later, Mori has 20 Elvis costumes, 10 guitars, a six-piece backing band, a production company and his own fan club of about 200 people. He also set up Web and i-mode sites (http://jelvis.hoops.ne.jp and http://jelvis.hoops.ne.jp/i) to spread the word about the King's music.

His site includes J'Elvis wallpaper, a biography, concert schedules and a photo gallery including shots of Mori with Elvis sidemen James Burton, the legendary country and rock guitarist and Charlie Hodge, whom Presley would introduce to audiences as "the man who brings me my scarves and water." It also has a bulletin board for Mori's fans where they can exchange messages with and about him. "Even though I don't drink, I want to get drunk on Mori-san's music," writes a male devotee called Matsuzaki. "The other day when I heard 'My Boy,' I almost cried. Please sing more sentimental songs. Please put on different costumes for us." Kao-chan, a housewife, bemoans, "I just can't clean up without 'Hound Dog.' Even though I have to stay home and take care of my child, I thought: Is Mori-san playing tonight? Is the show getting lively?"

The imitator says the site has helped him get more TV appearances and publicity. A British author writing a book on Elvis impersonators even found him through the Web. He says he needs the attention. "Nowadays, the Japanese economy is getting worse, and I don't have a lot of places to work," says Mori, who performs monthly at the Lollipop Club in Roppongi and other venues in the Kanto region. "But singing Elvis Presley is my lifetime job."

He plans to play Memphis and Las Vegas again this summer, and usually gets a laugh from Americans when he sings "Blue Suede Shoes" and other Elvis standards with Japanese lyrics. Above all, playing in Elvis' homeland is always special for Mori. "Elvis represents America," he says. "He's the sound of America. The sound of the whole Earth." @

Tim Hornyak is a Tokyo-based freelance writer and a frequent contributor to J@pan Inc. His most recent piece was The Chindogu Champion, a profile of the gadget guru Kenji Kawakami in April 2002.

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