This translation is from Airi Suzuki's 20th anniversary photobook "nectar", released on November 17, 2022. You can purchase it online at Amazon JP (they deliver in most overseas countries) or as a digital version on Amazon Kindle.
The Christmas set limited version, containing a 60p book made with fans, is also available here.
PART 1 - From her debut to ℃-ute's disband
Her complexes taught her what hard work is about
Her first stage ever was the club lobby at the golf course. She took out a toy microphone with limonade inside from the backpack she was carrying and said, "Hello everyone. I'm Airi-chan!". Her favorite song to perform at the time was Matsuda Seiko's "Anata ni Aitakute ~Missing You~".
"When I was little, I remember that I just genuinely loved singing because I never cared about what people thought of me. When I lived in Gifu, the top of the low wardrobe in my house was my stage, and after we moved to Chiba, I liked the way the sound echoed in the staircase of our house, so I would spend time singing there. My mother saw me in action and took me to a music and dance school to polish up my skills, but when I saw other kids of my age dancing hip-hop in front of me, even if the teacher and my mother told me that I could join in the lesson, I refused, saying, 'No, thank you, I'm fine…' and stubbornly sat in the corner of the gym (laughs). I was a child who suddenly lost confidence when there was someone better than myself to compare with, I usually entered into a negative mode, saying, 'I can't do it, I can't do it'.
Among them, the only place I told my mother that I wanted to try was the music school UP-FRONT was running at the time. The school seemed to have given a lot of thought to whether they would accept a six-year-old child, which was understandable since I was surrounded by older women students. At first, I only had dance and singing lessons on Sundays, but then I was allowed to take hip-hop and drum lessons on Saturdays as well, so it was a very exciting time for me. My grandfather would drive me to the music school in TV Tokyo on Tennozu Isle to dance, and I usually eat oden with konjac, daikon radish and egg from 7-Eleven in the car to fill my stomach before the lesson. I used to eat hayashi rice at a nearby shopping mall too! I still like it very much, but it somehow doesn't have a reassuring taste. I frequently get nervous when I eat it, perhaps because it brings back memories of those days.
The first TV appearance of my life was when I was a primary school student, and appeared as a backdancer for EE Jump's 'Ottotto Summer !' and 'Ikinarythm!', in singing shows such as 'Music Station' and 'HEY! HEY! HEY!'*. The overalls we were given were for adults, so they were very big, and I had to have my mother roll up my pants for when I danced. I still remember the songs and lyrics, and they are so ingrained in my body that I can dance to them when asked to do so (laughs)."
*EE Jump never performed with kids for these TV live performances. I believe Airi is mixing some infos and is talking about the backdancing she did for their performances of "Seishun no SUNRISE" at Music Station and CD TV Live! Live! at the beginning of 2003. See there for screencaps.
In the middle of kindergarten, she had to choose between attending a school or apply to an integrated elementary, middle, and high school with a curriculum that allowed her to study in many countries for 12 years. After checking both, she chose music without hesitation. Since her school was set up for a three-year enrollment, she decided to participate in the "Hello! Project Kids Audition" just in time for her graduation. She passed the audition in 2002 when she was 8 years old. Music became her job as well as her favorite hobby.
"Looking around at the members who had passed the same audition, I was stunned to see how cute they all were. They really looked like dolls. From the very beginning, I was confronted to the fact that I'm not pretty after all. It was obvious to me that I would've to work on something other than my visual appearance to survive, and even as a child I knew this without anyone telling me what to do. Back then, it seemed that pretty girls were assigned cute outfits, and that the older members preferred them, so I was always in a negative mindset.
At the time, I wasn't confident enough to smile well, nor could I sweet-talk well… I think that's why I was seen a bit snobbish. I'll never forget how happy I was when, after a while, our manager finally gave me a piggyback ride. I thought, 'Finally, my time has come!' (laughs). Looking back, my life was like an audition every day for a while after I was accepted at the age of 8. When I was 9 years old, I made my major debut as a member of a subunit called Aa!, but the following year, Berryz Kobo was formed from the Kids members who I've been working with for a long time, so Aa! was a one-off single release. I felt that I was the one who wasn't chosen after all, and I experienced another setback. After that, I was told to hang in there because Berryz Kobo might have a members rotation, so I was frustrated, but I thought, 'I'll get in someday !'. When I turned 11 years old, ℃-ute was formed, but we had about 2 years of indie period before our major debut.
It was never easy to feel that frustrated and have so much complexes, but I think it was an essential element to reach the Airi Suzuki I am today. This lack of self-confidence gave me the opportunity to study my complexes and constantly think about how to turn them into a strength, and it became a very natural thing for me to go through trials and tribulations in order to be satisfied with myself and be on stage, so I don't even feel like it was an effort anymore. I think this is also the reason why I aimed for an idol image with a sense of familiarity, that makes people think 'If I work hard, I can become like her, but at the same time I can't'."
When she was an idol, she struggled to get sleep
The idol group ℃-ute made their major debut in February 2007, just before she started attending junior high school. In July of the same year, she was also selected as a member of Buono!. During her school days, she slept for about 3 hours a night. She never stopped being an Idol, even if it meant to sacrifice her sleep.
"My mother was concerned that if I had to commute from Chiba to work, I would have less time to sleep and wouldn't be able to do as much work as I wanted to. During my idol days, I struggled to live a healthy life every day. Even though I had been an idol since I was a child, I didn't want to forget what it meant to be the normal 'Airi Suzuki', so I chose to attend school full time through junior high school, high school, and college. Looking back now, it was a life-shortening experience. I could only see my father and brother twice a year, I had absolutely no after-school time nor time to find any hobbies. My mother and I laugh about it now and think we'll never be able to live such a hard-paced life like this ever again.
On the other hand, my mother's support made it possible for me to keep up with the hard schedule that was sent to me from the office every day—I had to be at my job site 30 minutes after school ended. After class, I would get into my mother's car, who was waiting for me in front of the school gate. In the moving car, I ate her homemade lunch, changed into casual clothes—we had a rule not to ever appear in public with our uniform, practiced guitar until the last minute, memorized lines from dramas and lyrics for live performances, and fell asleep in between. That's how those 30 minutes went. My skill is that I can sleep anywhere, but it's more that I fell asleep wherever I was. I had to sleep every free minute I had, otherwise I'd never get some rest. Back then, I had no memory of when I fell asleep each day. I didn't go to bed with the intention of going to sleep; I just fell asleep when I came to. The time I spent on the road was also a precious sleeping time."
She almost doesn't have any record of the typical student's after-school activities. During her adolescent years, she often struggled with relationships.
"I really don't have many people I can call friends. I went to a middle and high school with a performing arts course, but all students had different type of work and activities policies. There were students who had the same profession as me, but we were rarely in the same class. Also, everyone was a part of a group, as they had time to socialize after school. They would all have lunch together during lunch break or something, or being excited about getting dinner together. I remember I felt a bit lonely. The only friend I had from school was KANATA, with whom I was in the same class for one year. She had been a dancer since then, so she would go to her lessons right after school, and I think it was significant that we were in similar circumstances. I worked with her since I became a solo artist and still have great respect for her.
I had a lot of acquaintances, but no one to talk about my problems to, and there was a time I really worried about who would give my friend's speech at my wedding. I often wondered if I'd ever be someone's closest friend. One day I asked my mother, 'How many best friends do you have in your life?'. She replied, 'only one'. I also know this person, so I relaxed a little, thinking that it might be fine whether I can meet someone like that in my life or not. I thought that if I did my best and met two or three people I can call best friends, that'd be enough. I met Sae (Sae Okazaki) and Eri (Erika Matsumoto) through Ray magazine, not to mention KANATA. So in the end, I'm a very lucky person. I always thought it'd be impossible, as an adult, to meet people who I can talk to about anything and who I want to protect as much as if they were my relatives!"
Even during her idol days, there was only one person who she could speak her mind to. Her ego was completely sealed.
"My mother was the only person I could talk to. I was under the impression that I would be seen as a selfish idol if I spoke my opinion at meetings, so I was always swallowing my true feelings, and before I knew it, it had become my routine. I didn't know how others would perceive even one remark, so I prefered to stay quiet. In ℃-ute, there were many times when I was entrusted with the position of center, so I was afraid that if I said 'I want to try this song' when we were discussing the set list, people would think, 'That's only because you have a lot of singing parts, right ?'. Even if it was an opinion based on the flow of the live setlist, I was afraid that people might think I was selfish, so basically my stance was to say 'I'm okay with anything'.
I had thoughts and opinions, but I kept swallowing them down and after 15 years of activity, I realized that I had become a person who couldn't express her own opinions at all. My vision of what I wanted to do also became very narrow. I'm good at doing what I'm told, and I'm good at sticking to a controled environment. However, whenever I felt like stepping out of the box even for a little time, my temperament of not wanting to stand out would come out."
The center position she never wished for
She always liked being number 2 better than number 1. She was the type of person who would get more excited about being behind the scenes building the sets for the props for the school events than being on stage. She was always on the side for group pictures. Although she was not good at standing out, she was given the role of center in ℃-ute, which was also the face of the group.
"When I was in the second year of junior high school, my manager once told me, 'Once you become the center, you have no choice but to stay at the center. Once you fall, you can't go back to the same place.' It was already very, very scary. It's nice to be noticed in the center. I've always had a hard time putting myself in that position, but more than that, I was terribly afraid that I would be forced to step down from my current position because I couldn't fulfill my role. I always tended to blame myself for anything, so my head became a mess because of pressure. Being entrusted as the center member itself made me very happy, and while it stimulated me to work hard, when I received heartless words I thought 'I didn't decide to be in this position, so why are they blaming me?' and it was painful.
Then came the SHOCK incident. ℃-ute became a five-member group just as all the members were going through puberty. I had all the main singing parts in the first song which released after that. During its first live performance, it was announced that the members' colors would be changed at the same time, and I still remember that the atmosphere was very tense. It became awkward between the members, and I received harsh words from fans, and there was a time when I felt like I had no one by my side. It was also during this period that I was so stressed out that I couldn't sing during recordings because I couldn't stop coughing, and I developed urticaria. I clearly remember telling my manager, for the first time 'I don't want to do this anymore. If this system that no one is happy with continues, I'll quit'.
On the other hand, as I wasn't in the center position in Buono!, placed in a new environment with band members, I was able to enjoy music in a simple way. I was the youngest in age, which was quite an unusual situation in my life. The members of Buono! and the band Dolce loved me like a younger sister (laughs). Since I was in both groups at the same time, I was often asked by fans, 'Don't you like Buono! better ?'. This was actually the toughest question to answer. 'Which do you like better?'. I didn't want anyone to ask me that question, even as a joke. There were many things I learned from being in two groups at the same time, and both groups were indispensable for me. I feel that they're different and they're both good. Being in both was interesting. It's strange, but I don't have much personal interaction with the Buono! members, so the term 'strongest business partner' fits us best. On the other hand, I have spent more time with the members of ℃-ute than with my own family, and we have shared many feelings, such as conflict, hurt, joy, and frustration. That is why we are irreplaceable friends."
"Perhaps people meant it as a compliment, but since I've always struggled with complexes and kept working hard to be able to stand in front of people, that irritated me. At that time, I happened to yell 'that's not true !' when somebody told me this. I know best that I'm not a genius, because to me you're not born a genius, so maybe I couldn't help but feel affected by it."
Her idol life started with complexes, and she has always wondered how she could establish her own idol image. However, by the time she was in high school, it had been almost 10 years since she joined Hello! Project. She was allowed to do whatever she wanted to do, including her own makeup, and from that time on, she immersed herself in makeup research.
"One of the things I'm particular about is my bangs which never move no matter how hard I dance. I've been told by many staff members that it looks unnatural and that I should change it, but it's a kind of obsession of mine. The parting of my hair is the same every day, and the lenght must be so it shows about 2 mm of my eyebrow. I didn't want to curl it because I thought this is what the image of Airi Suzuki should be. Then, bangs that didn't move had become a standard in the idol industry, and my fans would say to me, 'I want to have the same bangs as you!', which made me very happy. I noticed that the number of pink penlights at live shows gradually increased, and the number of people shaking hands with me at photobook events also increased. Of course there were male fans, but from then on, the number of female fans became bigger.
When the staff saw that, they asked me if I'd like to produce a style book for women, which was pretty rare at that time - an "idol" style book. This gave me confidence, thinking that my dedication to these details would be properly conveyed to fans. From that time on, every decision I made was directed toward my work : dyeing my hair makes you less popular? Then keep it black. You want to get your ears pierced? Yeah, but what if there's a possibility it prevents you from being cast for a drama? If there's one thing limiting my possibilities, I don't want it to be myself. That's something I'm still cautious about."
For better or worse, she didn't know what to do in the future
Since then, she's been called "the idol that other idols admire". With their visuals and performance skills, which they trained very hard for, ℃-ute attracted attention as the best performance group in the history of idols. At the peak of their career, they announced their disband.
"In my mind, I thought °C-ute would last for a little longer. I hadn't planned on giving up Buono! at the age of 23 as well. 2017 was only supposed to be the year of my college graduation, but it unexpectedly turned out to be the year I gave up everything I had spent my entire life up to that point. For better or worse, I had no idea what I would do after that. I never thought for a millimeter that I wanted to do music as a solo artist. To be honest, I would rather not have done it. After 15 years as a group member, I had mastered the art of singing in a group setting, but I didn't have the confidence to sing a song longer than three minutes as a solo artist.
Around the time I turned 19 years old, the Hello! Project members started holding birthday events where they performed as solo artists. At my first solo live performance, I sang for an hour and a half by myself, and I started to lose my low notes. When I was in a group, the members who were good at high notes sang the high notes, and the members who were good at low notes sang the low notes. The songs were composed in such a way that each member's weak points were not revealed. However, when I became a soloist, I had to sing low notes even though I knew I wasn't good at them, and my weakness was exposed. On top of that, my birthday is in April, the season of pollen, my worst enemy, which gave me a very bad nasal voice. I was always so anxious whenever I had a birthday event planned, thinking that it'd be that bad every single time."
After the disband, she imagined herself singing alone. The more she did it, the stronger her "I have no personality" complex became.
"To begin with, I had always been told that ℃-ute was a group that lacked individuality compared to its peer group Berryz Kobo. Furthermore, I kept thinking that my singing voice didn't have anything special compared to other ℃-ute members. I was always envious of members like Nakky (Saki Nakajima) and Okai-chan (Chisato Okai) who had particular voices, or were born with vocal cords that could be used as a weapon. I had noticed that even thought people became fan of ℃-ute after seeing me, it was quite common for them to become fans of other members who had better individual personalities, telling me 'but it's boring, you're always stable and never goes out of tune'. I was in a position that balances and stabilizes the axis of the group.
However, as this was something appreciated in Buono!, with Miya (Miyabi Natsuyaki) and Momo (Momoko Tsugunaga), who had strong individual voices, I became to think this was all right, that this is what I'm important in the group for. I always believed that I was best suited to be in a group, and I've always worked in groups, so I was afraid that if I went solo, I might disillusion those who had supported me up to that point and that they'd think 'Wait, did she always sing like this ?'."
Her severe opinion of herself clearly reveals her weakness and fragility. However, one thing is clear : no matter how difficult her situation was, she didn't want to sing. It's not that she wanted to give up singing, but that she was afraid of this unknown situation. If she'd go solo, then she really wanted to escape from that pressure. Before and after ℃-ute's disband, she was able to discuss her future activities with the office.
"I was prepared to tell them 'I don't want to sing !', but every single staff member told me 'Suzuki, you must put on a costume and sing songs on stage !'. It felt like a big thunderbolt struck me. I cried because they didn't listen to my opinion, but their scolding and encouragement made me think, 'What if there's a future for me to continue singing?'. If I'm going to do it as a solo artist, then I'd like to do something that comes from my heart. If I can't achieve that, then I won't do it. I suddenly started to feel a proper desire to sing, or rather, a fever about it. Before that passion cooled, I put together my ideas into a document and went to present it to the staff. I asked for my solo project to start after ℃-ute's disband, because I wanted to devote all my time to the group until the end. After the disband, I started everything over again."
She was about to start a brand new life without any schedules. It was her first time to experience this in 15 years.
(To be continued, check out the fansite's Twitter to know when the next part is coming.)