First of all, how did you find out about the gospel?
I met two missionaries on the street when I was eighteen, a senior in high school. I grew up in a Buddhist family, so it wasn’t easy to attend church, and it was probably the hardest thing I’ve ever done in my life. My parents almost disowned me. But the interesting thing was, my family took me to a Buddhist temple to have me speak with the priest there, hoping he would persuade me not to join this church, and I ended up almost testifying to the priest, “I read the Book of Mormon, I felt strong, I need to get baptized now.” He became silent for a few minutes, then turned to my family and said, “Don’t worry about Nobuaki. He has strong faith in God and Jesus Christ. When he dies, the Buddha will save him, so let him join the Mormon church.” So that’s how I joined the Church.
How did you get a start in music?
When I was twelve, I think, my cousin gave me a record—a single record of The Carpenters—for my birthday. That was the first English song I had ever heard. I loved the song so much that I wanted to learn English. My dream was to go to America someday and go to the concerts of some of my favorite artists and singers. I really liked dance music as a teenager, especially two groups: one was called Three Degrees, composed of three black women, and the other was a group called Tavares, composed of five black brothers. In fact, when I was seventeen I became the president of the Tavares fan club in Japan. It was crazy! I was going to radio stations, asking them to play their songs. It was really fun.
Then, when I met the two missionaries, I had no interest in religion, but I had won an English speech contest, and I had a free ticket to go to California the following summer. I was really, really excited about going to America and speaking English. That was the only reason that I stopped and listened to the missionaries: because I wanted to speak English to those Americans. If I hadn’t been interested in English I don’t think I would be here today.
Interestingly, after the missionaries told me about Joseph Smith, I said, “Well, I’m Buddhist, so I’m not interested, sorry. But I want to be your friend. Do you like music?” We started to talk about music, and one of the elders—he was from Hawaii—also liked Tavares. I said, “You know Tavares! You like Tavares! Why don’t you come to my house, and we can listen to some records together.”
Of course missionaries aren’t supposed to listen to that kind of music, but I didn’t know. I remember those two elders talking to each other, “What should we do? What should we do?” They said to me, “Okay, we have thirty minutes. We can come to your home and listen to records together.”
I’m so grateful to those elders who were in tune with the Spirit. If they had said, “Sorry, we can’t do that,” I don’t think I would be here today.
A few years ago, I got to see Tavares for the first time, and I gave them my CD. I’ve also been writing to one of the former members of Three Degrees—we keep in touch. And it’s like, “Whoa, I can’t believe I’m contacting my dream stars.” I’ve been able to give my gospel CDs to them.
Music helped my dreams come true. And English helped my dreams come true—those together brought the gospel to my life. And now I am singing gospel music.
The Lord works in mysterious ways. I never thought I would be a Christian. I never thought I would be singing gospel music. But I am really grateful. I feel like the Lord prepared me to accept this gospel so that I could be one of his missionaries to bring the gospel to other people.
How did you first get involved with performing music?
I always loved music, but mainly just listening to it—I never loved to sing or play any instruments. Then on my mission, the mission president gathered five elders who were musically talented and they did a mission tour. They did a musical fireside in every branch and ward in our mission. Basically, they told about the plan of salvation through songs and testimony. I’ll never forget how strongly I felt the Spirit through their songs. And those were the songs I’d never heard—I only knew hymns until then.
That’s how I learned about LDS artists, and I said to myself, “When I finish my mission, this is something I’d like to do: translate Church songs into Japanese and do firesides and share my testimony of the gospel.” So after my mission I started to do small firesides with some of my good friends in the Church, and I went back to BYU. There I was introduced to Janice Kapp Perry. I asked her if she would be willing to do a Japanese album of her songs. She said, “Sounds like a good idea, but I don’t know any Japanese singers,” and I said, “Well, I’m here.” She asked, “Can you sing?” I said, “I love to sing. I’m not professional, but I’d love to try.”
This last March, I did a tour with her in Japan, and I asked her, “Sister Perry, why did you use me back then? You didn’t know me. I wasn’t a professional singer or anything.” and she said, “When you shared your conversion story with me, I felt the Spirit and I knew I could trust you.” I was really surprised to hear that. So that’s how I started doing her Japanese albums.
You’ve worked with a lot of LDS artists. Who else have you collaborated with?
I did the first tour with a group called Afterglow, and then I worked with Michael McLean on his Japanese album. Then I worked with Kenneth Cope on his hymn project. I’ve also worked with Jericho Road. I translated a song for Jenny Phillips, and I recorded a song with Hilary Weeks. There’s a pop group here in Japan called bless4. They’re getting popular—they now sing the theme song for Disney’s Stitch cartoon show in Japan. I did a couple of concerts with them.
What is it like living as a Latter-day Saint in Japan?
Very busy! There aren’t many members yet. They say the membership is about a hundred and fifty thousand, but activity is probably thirty or forty percent, so maybe forty or fifty thousand active members. We are constantly visiting inactive members and teaching. Sunday’s our busiest day. The missionaries need members to teach lessons with, so this week I have a couple lessons. I used to think it would be difficult to be a member in Japan, especially concerning the Word of Wisdom—men, especially, always like to go drinking with coworkers or friends—but now I find it is a chance to tell them I’m LDS. It’s very unique to be a Mormon in Japan.
In a country where the Church is still so obscure, how has your music been received?
For my first album with Janice Kapp Perry, I came out with a CD. I believe that was the very first professional recording in Japanese, so I remember everyone wanted the first album. I think it was a pretty good success. It’s been almost nineteen years since I recorded my first album. I also started out with mission tours. Mission presidents invited me and I did firesides and concerts in their missions for all the members and missionaries. Last year I did a concert in Kōchi Prefecture. With that concert, I figure I’ve done a concert in every prefecture in Japan—forty-seven of them. I’ve been everywhere.
Have those tours and firesides led to missionary opportunities?
Oh, yes. That’s the reason I do them. You know, it’s exciting when I go and sing—sometimes missionaries come to me and say, “Brother Irie, we brought our investigators today and they really felt the Spirit and they want to get baptized,” and those things make me happy. I think doing concerts and firesides is an opportunity to help people feel the Spirit. Gospel music helps people feel God’s love and Spirit, so it’s definitely a missionary opportunity.
What are your goals?
Right now I’m working on my ninth album. Next year will make my twentieth year, so I’m bringing some of the old songs back with new arrangements, and I’ll also add some new songs. Up until my last album, all I did was just translate English songs into Japanese and then sing. With my last album, I tried to write my own songs—I wrote two songs and their lyrics. So I guess that’s my goal: to keep writing my own songs. With the new album, I’d like to do a twentieth-anniversary tour in Japan, and maybe in America and some other places, too. That’s my goal.
What are your dreams for the future of the Church in Japan?
I hope the missionary work goes faster. It’s a little slow here. But I’m excited about our third temple, which is going to be built in Sapporo. I want to see more temples in Japan. I miss going to the temple—when I was at the Y, I could go there every week. I believe that temples will help raise the spirituality of the members and help strengthen them. I guess we have to do more missionary work.
If you could communicate any important ideas to the youth of the Church, what would those be?
These young people in the Church now are very special. All the Church leaders say that, right? It’s the last days. And I know everyone has talents, given of God. I didn’t really know I had talent to sing, and I had to develop it over the last eighteen years. In fact, it makes me really embarrassed to listen to my first album—I sound awful! But, you know, as I kept doing it, as I searched, I think the Lord helped me get better. So I have a message to the young people: I want you to develop your talents. I know that if you want to use your talents for the Lord’s work, He will help you. He will give you more talents that will help many other people and bring you yourself a lot of joy. Music is one strong gift from God. And music can be good or bad—if you choose good music, it uplifts your soul and can help you. It can heal you and comfort you. ❧