Rasing Star Returns to Her Japanese Roots
Simply known by her first name, Sumire Matsubara is a Japanese actress, singer, dancer and model. The daughter of entertainers Junichi Ishida and Chiaki Matsubara, Sumire moved to Honolulu, Hawaii at the age of seven after her parents’ divorce, as her mother wanted to shield Sumire from the press and start a new life. After her second year in the Bachelor of Fine Arts (BFA) Musical Theatre and Acting program at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, Sumire returned to Tokyo to begin her career in the Japanese entertainment industry. Sumire has appeared in stage productions and on television throughout Japan, as well as in commercials, magazines and corporate events/parties. She also has begun appearing in U.S. television and film, including a guest role on the CBS drama Hawaii Five-0 as well as her upcoming Hollywood lm debut in The Shack, in which she will play the “Holy Spirit” alongside Sam Worthington and Oscar-winning actress Octavia Spencer. In 2015, she was the recipient of the Rising Star Award at the Asian World Film Festival. Tokyo Journal Executive Editor Anthony Al-Jamie met with Sumire to talk about her experiences with culture shock and her hopes to break stereotypes.
TJ: When did you return to Japan and how do you like it?
SUMIRE: I moved back to Tokyo in 2011. I loved it. Well, not at first. I was a little afraid of it when I first went back. I would go back a lot when I was in elementary school, middle school, high school and college, but living there is very different from visiting. I love it now, and the more I’m there, the more I love it — the people, the culture, the food ... I’ve always loved the food [laughs].
TJ: Why did you move back to Tokyo?
SUMIRE: I was studying acting at Carnegie Mellon in Pittsburgh when the 2011 earthquake happened. It really shook me because of the fact that I was so far away from my country and had almost no knowledge of it other than what I knew from when I was younger and when I went to school and visited. It was almost like a vacation spot for me. But then I saw this devastating thing happen to my people and my country, and it just felt like, “Oh my gosh. What am I doing in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania?” I decided to go back home to Hawaii to be with my mother at first. Then a few months later, in September, I decided to go back to Japan and regain my language, culture and knowledge of the country.
TJ: What was the hardest thing about transitioning back?
SUMIRE: I didn’t know about Japanese social mannerisms and etiquette very well, so I would try so hard to please everyone around me so as not to offend anybody, because I looked Japanese but wasn’t Japanese inside. People expected me to do all the same things they were doing and understand all the culture that they had been immersed in. My Japanese at first... I had a slight accent. Then I lost the accent completely, but I still didn’t know enough of the language even though I look completely Japanese. Ironically, not looking half Japanese or Japanese-American was a disadvantage for me. This was the most stressful aspect of transitioning back to Japan.
TJ: What do you think are the advantages of speaking both English and Japanese as an actress in Japan?
SUMIRE: Well, what worked for me at first was the fact that I couldn’t speak Japanese well. It became part of my comedic character — similar to So a Vergara in Modern Family when she can’t say some words or mistakes some words. Obviously, as I learned to speak the language, I didn’t need to play that character, but I just kept with it as I became known for that. People were like, “You have been here for four years. Why can’t you speak Japanese yet?” Actually, the big comedians in Japan told me, “Don’t learn Japanese and you will be fine.” Whenever there is some event where something comes from the States or someone comes from outside of Japan, they invite me and I can be there as a spokesperson.
TJ: What was it like hosting Saturday Night Chubo?
SUMIRE: Saturday Night Chubo was interesting. It was a cooking show/talk show. It was like if David Letterman had a younger actress with him and they were cooking while doing the talk show, so it was fun. It was a good experience to learn about being a host in Japan, and for learning more about comedy without trying to act like I didn’t understand Japanese anymore, because I had to be a host. The cooking part was difficult because they’re very strict and very precise and particular about that in Japan.
TJ: What’s your favorite thing about being in Tokyo?
SUMIRE: Well, I love the city. Every day I feel like I’m doing or seeing something new. Also, you don’t need a car at all. I have never had a problem with the transportation; it’s always on time. There are a million different ways to get somewhere. It’s efficient.
TJ: Are you close to your father?
SUMIRE: Now I would like to think I am. It’s an interesting relationship though, because I didn’t know my real father for most of my life. He and I had a rough start, but I think it’s understandable that I was upset with him for the amount of time that I was upset with him. We reconciled recently. When I was about 17 I reached out to him because I wanted to go to college. Even though I had a good scholarship, I still had tuition that I had to pay. So I sent my father a letter saying, “You’ve been out of my life for most of my life. You weren’t here to help out but I need your help now.” He replied and said, “I’m going to Hawaii soon and I would like to meet you. Let’s have lunch.” Since then I would see him maybe once a year. Recently, ever since I moved to Japan, I see him once every few months.
TJ: Did you learn anything from him about acting?
SUMIRE: Well, I have only seen him in Japanese television dramas and, no offense, but I didn’t think he was very good in them [laughs]. He was in a 10-hour Australian mini-series that Christopher Nolan was directing, and he was the main character. The president of our agency in Japan said that he was really good in that, so I want to see that. Then maybe I would have something to ask him about acting [laughs].
TJ: What about your mother? She must have had a huge influence on you.
SUMIRE: Yeah, she did. She has literally done everything for me. She gave up her career, basically for me, and came with me to Hawaii. They kind of exiled her — the Japanese entertainment industry, so she had to get out.
TJ: Why did they do that?
SUMIRE: Because [my parents] divorced and because it was this big scandal where he was having an a air, and for some reason in Japan it’s the woman’s fault — always. At least, at that time, it was like that. So she was the one who was ashamed and had to get out. She took me with her. Apparently the paparazzi were following us around, knocking on our door and ringing our doorbell in the middle of the night, and I would be crying.
TJ: What kind of roles would you like to do in the future?
SUMIRE: I’m hoping that I can get out there more and be able to play non-stereo-typical Asian roles and not have to be going in just for roles that say, “We’re looking for an Asian female,” but for just “female,” or even just a character that could be a male or female.
TJ: What advice would you give to an aspiring entertainer?
SUMIRE: I always say that there are no boundaries. Even if you only wanted to be an actress, singer, dancer or model, you can do all of them. I think that you really have to work super hard, and you’ve got to do your homework. You’ve got to respect the people around you and really appreciate everybody working with you because no matter what you’re doing, no matter how big you are, if you’re the lead of a huge blockbuster film it’s still an ensemble — a collaborative piece, so you never can do it alone. I really always try to appreciate and tell people I appreciate their work, and thank them. Never give up. The biggest producer can tell you that you suck or you’re ugly or you can’t act, but I think that you can always change their minds, and I think I’ve changed some people’s minds that didn’t believe in me at first. I hope that I continue to do that. tj
The complete article can be found in Issue #278 of the Tokyo Journal. Click here to order from Amazon.