Bentenya near the Yagura in Little Tokyo.

Since their U.S. debut on Oct. 2, Bentenya, a professional chindonya group from Japan, has been playing at more than 20 venues in seven states and will close out their first cross-country American tour this weekend.

They will perform at a San Diego-Tijuana Japanese Association gala on Oct. 24 and the Las Vegas Aki Matsuri on Oct. 26.

The Rafu Shimpo interviewed two of the members, Suzy and Suzuko, who stopped by Little Tokyo before an appearance at the Terasaki Nibei Foundation in Los Angeles.

Formed in Nagoya, Bentenya consists of ten young female musicians, five of whom joined the U.S. tour. Dressed up with colorful wigs and flashy kimono costumes, and performing with drums, clarinet and other instruments, they stood out. Their big smiles immediately lightened the mood.

Bentenya plays at all different kinds of places, including universities, public schools, retirement homes, and clubs, entertaining different types of audiences.

“Audiences were so varied at each location. It was quite fun to see the different kinds of reactions from different kinds of audiences,” said Suzy, who is the founder and the leader of Bentenya.

She customizes their set list according to the audience, from traditional chindonya tunes — an old form of advertisement in which performers promote businesses while strolling down streets — to anime songs, children’s songs, old Japanese songs and American pop music.

During the tour, the mix of tunes was widely accepted by everyone from small children to retired seniors, making them feel at home — the same way performances are done back home.

Suzy (left) and Suzuko with one-man band Arthur Nakane in Japanese Village Plaza. Together they performed “Ue o Muite Arukou,” also known as “Sukiyaki.”

In addition to the music, they speak about the history and culture of chindonya in university lectures. It started in the Edo era with traditional Japanese instruments. After Edo (now known as Tokyo) opened up to the world, the performers gradually adopted Western instruments. This traditional advertising method has evolved over many centuries.

Chindonya is not only a simple stage performance. We form lines because we function as a billboard,” said Suzy, adding, “I’m proud of myself if people understand that there is such a culture in Japan through our performance.”

At the university lectures, all those who study the Japanese language and have interest in Japanese culture are especially attentive, participating by strolling together with the performers, playing chin-don drums and learning some traditional chindonya phrases, like “Tozai toooo zaaaiiii” (similar to “Ladies and gentlemen”).

“I am happy because they told us that they enjoyed it and they had a wonderful experience,” said Suzy.

Suzuko, who plays clarinet, enjoyed the tour very much:“I met many people through the tour. Everybody was so friendly and hugged me. It made me feel like, ‘Ah, I am in America.’”

Looking back on their successful tour, Suzy said,“ We spent every day with precious experiences and excitement. Every single place was a special one.”

She believes that music has power to connect people.“I want to advance my work step by step, to the goal of a peaceful world. I believe this tour helped some American audiences get more interested in Japan.”

The American tour will end in Las Vegas, the entertainment capital of the world. “One day, I wish to bring all ten or more members to put on a show there. That is my dream,”said Suzy.

Photos by JUN NAGATA/Rafu Shimpo

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