MJ Studies Today LXVIII

Abstract: .This month’s MJ Studies Today column looks at Michael Jackson’s relationship with Japan, where his fans have a particular understanding of his nature that is unique to that country.  Kerry Hennigan looks at the qualities exhibited by Jackson that have special significance in Japanese cultural traditions, a country where his “otherness” is revered rather than reviled.

Column by Kerry Hennigan, editor of the monthly newsletter, A Candle for Michael, administrator of the widely-subscribed Facebook group “Michael Jackson’s Short Film ‘Ghosts’” and MJ blogger. Student of Ancient History, Archaeology and Anthropology.


Hennigan, Kerry. “MJ Studies Today LXVIII: “MY-keh-rooh” – Michael Jackson’s persona as celebrated in Japan.” (14-08-2021).” The Journal of Michael Jackson Academic Studies 8, No. 1  (2021). https://michaeljacksonstudies.org/mj-studies-today-lxviii/

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“MY-keh-rooh” – Michael Jackson’s persona as celebrated in Japan.  By Kerry Hennigan

Photo montage © Kerry Hennigan

Twelve years after the death of the King of Pop, some Asian countries have witnessed not only a continuation of fan adoration of Michael Jackson, but an increase in expressions of devotion. This may seem to fly in the face of the persistent negative narrative about Jackson by the media in the West, but it is not surprising given the cultural differences at the heart of Jackson’s appeal to his Asian fans. With his music featuring in select Olympic events in Tokyo this year, it is worth looking at Michael’s enduring popularity in Japan and the way he is perceived there. [1]

In 1987, following the release of his album “Bad”, Jackson began his first solo tour in Japan. For a photoshoot with his personal photographer Sam Emerson, he donned the armour of a samurai, a medieval Japanese warrior. (Similar photoshoots took place in Hong Kong, where Jackson dressed in Imperial Chinese robes, and Australia, where he modelled fashionable outback wear and a hand knitted sweater presented to him by members of a local Aboriginal community.)

In playing “dress-up,” Jackson wasn’t just displaying an appreciation for the culture of the respective host country. He was (unconsciously) displaying “neoteny” – a term that describes the retention of juvenile characteristics in the adult animal – a quality revered in Japan. Dressed as a samurai, he becomes a warrior child – a defender of the planet and its inhabitants, especially its children, unafraid of showing his sensitivity while at the same time expressing his determination to make a difference in the world.

The concept of neoteny was applied to Jackson in an essay by Yuri Kageyama published in 2013. “’MY-keh-rooh,’ as Japanese fans adoringly call him, never had to worry about being perceived a wacko-weirdo here,” Kageyama writes. “Japanese are used to seeing in its top artists the very traits that some Westerners found so creepy and appalling in Michael Jackson.” Such traits include his child-like sense of fun, and androgenous appearance. Kageyama explains that, to his Japanese fans, Jackson was “the gloved man-child, sweet, innocent, pure – and oh, so ‘kawaii.’  Kawaii literally translates as ‘cute.’ But the Japanese has none of the connotations of sexuality associated with the word in the West.” [2]

Indicative of Japan’s devotion to Jackson was the hysteria his visits caused, not just in the heyday of his recording and touring years, but…”Japanese came out screaming and cheering even in recent years when Jackson was in Tokyo for shopping sprees at gadget stores, visits to Disneyland and Joypolis, an amusement park run by game-maker Sega, and tightly orchestrated events for fans, where he didn’t sing a single note or glide a single Moon-walk.” [3]

Jackson included Japan on his world tours subsequent to 1987’s Bad concerts. He performed in Tokyo and Fukuoka on both the Dangerous (1992-93) and HIStory (1996) tours and made occasional business trips to the country. Shortly after his death, the San Diego Union-Tribute noted that despite the controversies that plagued his life, Jackson could always count on Japan “for unquestioning fan loyalty and lucrative advertising deals.” The article quite correctly states that Jackson showed considerable affection for his fans when visiting Japan; “he often became tearful when met with emotional displays from cheering Japanese crowds.” [4]

The first public appearance Jackson made following his exoneration at the criminal trial of 2005 and subsequent self-exile from the US and the spotlight, was at MTV Japan’s Music Video Awards ceremony in May 2006. He was welcomed as though he were its own prodigal son returned home after a long absence and given MTV’s Legend award. As reported by CBS News at the time, “Jackson said he was honored to be in Japan and happy to be around Japanese people he said he loved very much. He thanked them for their loyalty.”

As had been his habit when on tour, Jackson included a visit to a children’s home. “After weaving through dozens of screaming adult fans outside the downtown orphanage, Jackson was ushered into a gymnasium where more than 160 children between the ages of 3 and 18 and nuns in gray uniforms waited,” CBS reported. “’I love you,’ Jackson told the cheering crowd. Then he whispered to his translator, apparently asking how to say the phrase in Japanese. Then he said: ‘Aishiteru!’” [5]

He returned to Japan the following year for more personal appearances. ABC News in Australia reported “Jackson arrived in Japan last Sunday (local time) and dispensed hugs and handshakes to more than 300 well-heeled Japanese fans who spent 400,000 yen ($4,331) a ticket for an exclusive dinner and a snapshot with the music legend on Thursday (local time). On Friday (local time), he also appeared at a less expensive party with more than 1,000 fans at a night club.” [6]  Reuters reported 7-year-old fan Jun Sahs saying, “I love his eyes, his nose and his dance,” while Yoko Gomi, a 57-year-old housewife said, “I am simply happy that he’s come to see us half-way around the globe, and I will be able to breathe the same air as he is.” [7]

In Japan, Jackson’s desire to be childlike (but not childish), his softspoken manner, his gentle nature, his professions of love for children, animals, and the planet, caused him to be revered by a culture that appreciated such traits. The quality of “kawaii” that the Japanese detected in Jackson, “is about the emotion evoked by a child from its parent, and so is linked in the Japanese mind with the most basic and honorable instinct for the preservation of the species,” Kageyama explains. “It is about love. And it is virtuous.” [8]


[1]  MJVibe. July 26 and Aug 7, 2021. https://www.mjvibe.com/michael-jacksons-music-played-at-the-olympics/ and https://www.mjvibe.com/olympians-competing-on-michael-jacksons-music/

[2]  Kageyama, Yuri. “Why the Japanese Love Michael Jackson.”  September 2013. http://yurikageyama.com/2013/09/why-the-japanese-love-michael-jackson-an-essay-by-yuri-kageyama/

[3]  Ibid.

[4]  San Diego Union-Tribune. “Michael Jackson had loyal, generous fans in Japan.”  June 26, 2009. https://www.sandiegouniontribune.com/sdut-japan-michael-jackson-062609-2009jun26-story.html

[5]  CBS News. “Michael Jackson visits orphanage.”  May 26, 2006. https://www.cbsnews.com/news/michael-jackson-visits-orphanage/

[6] ABC News “Michael Jackson wows US troops during lavish Japan stint.”  March 11, 2007. https://www.abc.net.au/news/2007-03-11/michael-jackson-wows-us-troops-during-lavish-japan/2213766

[7]  Reuters. “Michael Jackson makes “san kyu” visit to Japan.” March 9, 2007. https://www.reuters.com/article/people-michaeljackson-japan-dc-idUST36925220070309

[8]  Kageyama, 2013

Illustration: “With love, Japan” montage compiled by Kerry Hennigan. The Koinobori, carp windsocks, are used as decorations from April through early May in Japan, in honor of the Children’s Day, May 5. In Japanese culture, the carp symbolizes courage and strength because of its ability to swim up a waterfall. Source: https://koinobori-japan.jp/koinobori.html. No infringement of photographic copyright is intended in this not-for-profit, educational exercise.