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Notes from Japan

Bridging Cultures Through Music

Suzanne Kamata brings to us people, experiences and cultures from Japan

Masaki Nakagawa. Photo provided by Suzanne Kamata

For Kobe native and YouTube sensation, Masaki Nakagawa, a university trip to Latvia turned out to be a life-changing experience.

Nakagawa was a student of international culture in the Integrated Arts and Sciences Department at Tokushima University. By his own admission, he wasn’t a great student – his TOEIC (Test of English for International Communication) score was around 200 – but he had an avid interest in other cultures. He first studied abroad in Korea, where he improved his English language skills, and later, in 2014, went with a Tokushima University professor to Riga for a summer seminar. He felt an immediate connection with the small, European country.

“I felt like this is the country I will live in in my future,” he says via webcam. From the very beginning, he loved the people, the language, the atmosphere, the many historical buildings, the food, and the drinks.

“Someone told me that maybe I was Latvian in a past life,” he jokes.

Although the university did not have an official exchange program with any Latvian university at that time, he decided that he would go there for foreign study. During his seven months abroad as a student at the University of Latvia, he discovered that while most Latvians knew quite a bit about Japan, few Japanese people had any idea about them. He made it his goal to create more links between the two countries. Kobe is already the sister city of Riga, but he created a project to promote a sister city relationship between Tokushima and Jelgava, which is ongoing.

From a young age, Nakagawa has also been a musician. His mother was a piano teacher, so naturally he began playing the piano at the age of three. However, when he was fourteen-years-old, he bought his first guitar. “I still have it,” he says. “It is my important thing.” In high school, he played guitar and sang vocals in a band.

During his visit to Latvia, he discovered the importance of music in that country. “Latvia is a musical country,” he says. “They love dancing with music, eating with nice music. The Latvian language is quite beautiful, and Latvian songs are very, very beautiful.” He also found that singing in Latvian was an effective way to study.

After graduating from university, he got a job at Mercedes, where he continues to work as a store manager, however his passion for Latvia remained. He decided to combine his loves for Latvia and music. “As a musician, I can connect countries,” he says.

In 2017, he learned “Mana dziesma” (“My song”), which was originally performed by Brainstorm, one Latvia’s most famous bands, and made a recording of himself singing it while playing the guitar. Then, he uploaded it to YouTube. The video received an astonishing 150,000 views. Nakagawa realized that he was onto something, and he continued to record and upload videos.

In some videos, he sings in Latvian against a Japanese background, such as along a river in Kyoto. In others, he sings in a combination of Latvian and Japanese in a Latvian setting. Recently, he has begun to add Japanese subtitles. While he continues to record Latvian favorites, he has also written and recorded original songs in both languages.

His popularity has continued to grow, leading to interviews in magazines, on the radio, and on Latvian television. By his estimate, he has appeared on television in that country “twenty or thirty times.”

When asked if he is perhaps the most famous Japanese person in Latvia, he laughs. “Maybe.”

When the president of Latvia visited Japan for the coronation of the new emperor, Nakagawa was invited to perform at a closed reception at the Latvian Embassy in Tokyo. He had a chance to talk to the president and the first lady, who, as it turned out, was a big fan.

His most recent TV appearance, via Zoom, marked the occasion of his one millionth view on YouTube, the 100th year of Latvian-Japanese friendship, and of his latest single, “Es Lepojos Ar Tevi,” recorded with German musician Joran Steinhauer, another lover of Latvia. A few years ago, the two friends collaborated on a YouTube series called “Masaki Learns Latvian” in which Steinhauer taught Nakagawa two or three phrases per episode. “Es lepojos ar tevi”, which means “I’m proud of you,” is the first phrase that Nakagawa learned. This song in Latvian, uniquely created by two foreigners, premiered on the TV show “900 Seconds” in April of this year.

Nakagawa has been branching out a bit in his musical career, writing songs for aspiring idol groups in Japan, and singing on Japanese anime soundtracks. His vocals can be heard in the theme song for the anime “Dark Hero Yoshitsune” which will be released nationwide in Japan in fall 2021. Fans can follow his activities via Instagram at https://www.instagram.com/masaki.lv/.

He maintains, however, that developing relations between Latvia and Japan is his main priority. “As a musician, I really would love for people to know about Latvian culture.”


Nakagawa with his girlfriend Arta Voicehovska, who works as Coordinator for International Relations Latvia-Japan at Higashikawa Town Hall in Hokkaido

Suzanne Kamata was born and raised in Grand Haven, Michigan. She now lives in Japan with her husband and two children. Her short stories, essays, articles and book reviews have appeared in over 100 publications. Her work has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize five times, and received a Special Mention in 2006. She is also a two-time winner of the All Nippon Airways/Wingspan Fiction Contest, winner of the Paris Book Festival, and winner of a SCBWI Magazine Merit Award.

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