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Matt Wilce talks to former idol Hikaru Nishida Ebi ’90 about her start in show business, why she slept so much in high school, and her long entertainment career.
Not everyone is comfortable with photoshoots, especially when they’re asked to pose in the gardens of a ritzy hotel with guests around. Hikaru Nishida Ebi ’90 is unfazed—even as the ladies having afternoon tea recognize her from afar. She gamely runs through some go-to stances and expressions and it is clear that she’s done numerous shoots since she debuted as an idol at the age of 15.
Growing up in Los Angeles as a result of her father’s work, Hikaru was a typical Californian Girl when she landed at ASIJ as a middle schooler. She had an easy breezy attitude, warm smile, and penchant for shorts and flip flops. By all accounts she settled right in at ASIJ, playing basketball, taking dance classes, and making friends. Soon her interest in dance and music would see her get scouted by a manager — who she is still loyal to today.
Hikaru’s first roles were as a campaign girl for Japan Air System and in a House Foods commericlal back in 1988 — a brand she's still associated with today. She landed her first musical role shortly after. From there, her career rapidly took off with an anime theme song, single and album following in quick succession. By 1991, Hikaru had made her movie debut in Yamada Babaa ni Hanataba o (1990), for which she won the New Actor Award at the 14th Japan Academy Awards, and was set to perform her single "Tokimeite" on the iconic end-of-year music show Kōhaku Uta Gassen. Her background in LA and English ability also made her a popular choice for interviews with visiting celebrities such as Harrison Ford.
From there, a diverse career of TV dramas and variety programs, musicals, pop music, and commercials followed, with Hikaru only slowing down once she married and started a family. She married in 2002 and now has two teenage sons.
Hikaru followed a path into the entertainment world well-trodden by her upperclassmen at ASIJ as Judy Ongg ‘69, Agnes Chan ‘73 and Kami Fukuda ‘84 (Hayami Yu) had already found success in the business. Classmate Eugene Nomura ‘90 was also making his debut as an actor. ASIJ had proved flexible over the years in allowing students to pursue opportunities outside of school and Hikaru probably also benefited from the fact she was a popular and conscientious student. Former high school teacher Dan Swanson (FF ‘81- 02) remembers Hikaru as “a special person and student,” saying that she was, “warm, had a wonderful personality, and was well liked by everybody. Even when she started getting busy with her career, she remained herself and excelled in her studies.”
Likewise, high school counselor Eric Hieser (FF ’78–90, AP ’85–90) describes Hikaru as “an excellent student who greatly valued her ASIJ education.” When Hikaru and her parents proposed that she be allowed to have more absences than the norm due to her television and performance schedule, ASIJ agreed to let her try it on a pilot basis as long as she turned in her work and maintained an acceptable grade average in her classes. “The agreement seemed to work out well as Hikaru ensured that she was diligent with her schoolwork,” Eric recalls. “In my reflection on how schools operated during the recent pandemic, Hikaru's proposal might not seem so unusual when compared to school schedules now,” he comments. Post ASIJ, Hikaru continued to balance a growing work schedule with her studies, and despite a desire on her part to go back to the United States, by this point Hikaru’s career had really accelerated and so she remained in Japan. She attended Sophia University, where your writer was an exchange student at the time, although we never met. Thirty years on, we meet for the first time at Tokyo Gajoen for tea and to look back on Hikaru’s career.
Your family moved from California to Tokyo when you were in middle school — how did you feel about that?
It was a big change. I was born in Japan and my father was transferred to the United States. He worked for a Japanese company, JVC, and so we were transferred to California. His stay was actually only planned for a couple of years, but it turned out to be 13 years. And so I'm fully Japanese, but I was a very Californian Girl! And then my parents thought I was losing my Japanese side as I always spoke English better when I was little. And so they thought, well, maybe it's time to go back to Japan.
How did you end up at ASIJ?
We took a look at different schools, but to go to a Japanese school I would have had to cram to get into a high school. And I had pierced ears and kind of like curly hair, like a perm. I had my funky hair and everywhere I went, I was in beach sandals and shorts. And so the advice we got from the Japanese education center was that I’d probably be bullied no matter what Japanese school I went to.
Personally, my only request was that it be co-ed and no uniforms. We took a look at a number of international schools, but when I went to the ASIJ campus, I was like, I want to go here. This is the school... You know, being accepted at such a school was probably the best kind of environment for me to move from California to living in Japan.
So did you find the transition from school to school quite easy? Did you kind of fit in?
The school was great. It was good that I had the school because I fit in really well to ASIJ right away. I made lots of friends and found lots of people like me. And if I didn't have that, you know, living in Tokyo, riding on the crammed trains, people pushing me in and kind of lifting me off my feet, and having all the people on the train, I think I would have probably lost my mind. From being driven to school in California, wearing shorts, and just kind of enjoying the weather and having a really laid back atmosphere and then coming to Japan it was such a culture shock.
Did you visit Japan frequently as a child?
I did. I came back every year to my grandparent's house, but still, getting on the trains every morning is a different side of Tokyo. So the culture shock was really big, you know, being 13 years old, it was pretty tough. But I think, you know, the school and my friends really helped.
When you were younger, what did you want to be? Did you always want to go into entertainment or did you want to be something else?
I always imagined myself going to university. You know, going back to California, because I kind of seemed constantly homesick — even being at ASIJ and in a comfortable environment. I still kind of wanted to go back to the States because I think when I was 13, I was excited — I thought I could get my driver's license soon and I’d be going to dances and enjoy the teenage life. And then I had to come back to Japan and it's a different world. So I kind of had my heart set on going back to the States. But I also enjoyed dancing and taking dance lessons. It was the time where Madonna and MTV were big and music videos were very popular at the time...I just enjoyed jazz dancing at the time. I started taking dance classes in Los Angeles, and I took classes in the studio. It was called the Debbie Reynolds Studio in North Hollywood. And at that studio, which was a big studio, we'd see Madonna's tour concert rehearsal or we'd see Michael Jackson's Pepsi commercial audition. It was very exciting!
I didn't think I would go into the business just because I saw how talented everyone was. When I came back to Japan, I kind of missed that atmosphere and I wanted to look for a dance studio. And as I was looking for a dance studio, I met someone who introduced me to a manager. We met through a friend and I thought she was going to introduce a dance studio for me, but at the meeting she introduced the idea of me becoming an “idol.” She told me show business is a very tough place. I was confused and thought how ready do I have to be to just go to a dance studio?
How did you handle being in school and making your debut in the industry?
At first I thought, I'll just sort of see how it goes, you know, I'll just try giving show business kind of a try. And I went to auditions and failed many of them because you have to say lines or sing Japanese songs. I was enjoying school life at ASIJ, but then after school I would go to auditions and then I passed this one audition. And with that, my management company said we're going to get ready to debut, and we're going to get ready to make an album, make a single and then film a commercial. And everything kind of started to fall into place when I was at the end of freshman year. At the beginning I was just working after school hours and then working on Saturdays and Sundays. And then one of my first projects was doing a musical where I had to miss a semester of school.
I talked to Mr [Eric] Hieser and I can't remember if it was a quarter or if it was a semester that I took off...I made up for it the next year. He said if I had the credits, I could graduate, so if I took it slow I could graduate with the year below me. I said no, I want to graduate with my own class. And so I just remember doubling up on classes in junior year and senior year... senior year was the year I was getting to be really busy, so yeah, it was tough to keep up with studying.
Do you remember what the musical was you were cast in?
It was Little Lord Fauntleroy... House Foods was the sponsor on Fuji TV and I was the lead role. It was a period piece and I played the Little Lord. So that was my first musical. It was the only thing that I missed school for, otherwise my contract was that I wouldn't miss school for work. So that was one of the rules that I did keep. Everything after that, I worked after school hours and on weekends. But it was tough. I was sleepy for most of the time so I could sleep anywhere!
I think that's in the yearbook — it says, “known for falling asleep.
Yes, falling asleep! And I would wake up in the library and I would look at my watch and I'd run to class. The teachers would just kind of laugh. I would take tests and I would do my homework, but then I would sleep in between.
What were your favorite classes or activities?
Oh, I took a lot of art classes with Mr [Ki] Nimori (FF 1960-2002, AP '74-84). I kept in touch with him, too, after a little while, after graduating, but because I love doing ceramics. So even though I was doubling up on a lot of classes, I did take a lot of ceramic classes with Mr Nimori, and also Mr. [Dan] Swanson.
You've done such a variety of things in your career. What's your favorite out of all the things you do professionally?
I think theater work, especially musicals, because I've always loved dancing and singing. And I think the part I love most about it is that it's a team effort, whereas as a solo singer everything you do kind of comes back to you. If it doesn't sell, it's kind of your fault. And if you mess up, it's your fault. And you know, there's a lot of pressure. I mean, there are the rewards that come with it, too.
I like being in a production and rehearsing for a whole month with the same cast and crew and then being able to perform on stage. And then traveling a whole month was not only rewarding, but it was just a lot of fun. So I enjoyed that very much.
Do you have a musical lined up in the future?
The latest one I took part in was Mozart! But right now, raising two boys, musicals are tough. You know, you need to put in 100% of your time into the musical.
And if you have a day off, it's mostly maintenance for yourself. I'm starting to take vocal lessons again, but my kids are heavily into baseball, which requires a lot of driving here and there and bento-making in the morning and lots of washing until late at night. But it's also a life that I wanted, doing sports and playing. I mean, I wasn't able to continue all throughout high school, but I really enjoyed it myself at their age. And since they do love it, you know, I just want to be able to support them. So I think while they're still young and until they get out of high school, that'll be my biggest priority.
What would you say to a current student at ASIJ who's looking to go into entertainment?
The entertainment business, I think, is doubly hard. Because in sports, if you're a runner and you make a certain time you win. And if you hit a certain time, you can go to the Olympics or you could be number one in the world, if you train hard. The interesting thing about the entertainment industry is that even if you're a good singer and even if you make all the auditions, it doesn't mean you'll be successful.
And I know that from my point of view, because I wasn't really the greatest singer. I don't know how many record label auditions that I've been to and been turned down. People would say to my manager: “She's not going to make it. You shouldn't represent her.”
So how did you handle those knock backs, as a young person?
I enjoyed working because I love meeting people and not just meeting famous people. I was 15 when I started working, so it was really interesting for me to meet people that I was working with, like the cast, and everybody that supported me. I think at first I wanted to please everybody, because they chose me to do this work. And then after that, if I thought I wanted to work with this person again, I knew that I need to do my best. I loved the challenges, and I kind of enjoyed knowing I might fail, because when you get through it, it's like, the higher the challenge, the bigger the reward. And when you learn to kind of fail, you get over it and you realize oh, that wasn't so bad. And just being able to continue, I think, is the most important thing.
With social media now, I think it's very difficult having people's feedback all the time. So it's important just to to really focus on what you want to do and what you want to get out of it. And if you make a choice, just stick with it and don't compare yourself to others. And for me, just being able to continue to work and not looking at my peers to focus on what I want to get out of my work. And if I just stay focused on that one thing, then everything kind of falls into place afterwards.
What’s the secret to sustaining a career over several decades? production company. What’s happening with that?
I think just challenging yourself, trying things, and listening to other people's ideas. Because when... like for me, what I want to do, what I want to wear, what I thought was best for me is not always the best, you know. And it's really important to listen to other people. They have an amazing opportunity.
Do you have any future aspirations, things you haven't done that you would love to do?
I would definitely love to get back to theater work. You know, watching how my kids watch YouTube all the time, I kind of think, you know, is there a place on YouTube for me? I'm thinking maybe!
Life at school is full of stories and the narrative of where our vision will take us is told each day through the learning our students experience in the classroom and beyond.