The same day we meet Sumire Matsubara for our interview, she later shares with her 170,000+ TikTok followers a video of herself performing a choreographed dance to the Justin Timberlake song, “SexyBack,” ending on the lyrics, “You make me smile.”
Over the course of her career as an actress, recording artist and fashion model, Sumire’s trademark has been her radiant smile and sunny disposition, a byproduct of her youth and upbringing in Hawaii. When we meet her for our interview and photoshoot, she holds the elevator door for strangers. She says “Thank you, sir,” when they hold the door for her in return, all with a smile.
Sumire, 30, hosts a radio show “FIND my BEAUTY” on air every Sunday on Tokyo FM, and is recording new music she hopes to release soon. She also is set to perform in a musical coming up next year, which was supposed to be staged last year but unfortunately got put on hold due to the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic.
She also launched a podcast during the pandemic, “Smile with Sumi,” in which she addresses mental health issues in Japan, and openly discusses her own struggle with mental illness, a subject that remains taboo here. She also joined forces with friends to launch All Four One, a charity collaboration project between herself and fellow recording artists Crystal Kay, Tigarah and Ukico. The quartet produced a version of Lady Gaga and Ariana Grande’s hit song “Rain on Me” to support mental care for people feeling stress and anxiety during the Covid-19 pandemic.
“I think my message that I want to get across to people is that it’s okay to have bad days, it’s okay to have those ups and downs, and I want people to know that it might seem like on social media I have a great life but that’s not everything – everything that I put on social media is not my whole life,” says Sumire. “There are a lot of bad times and down phases that I go through and I’ve been trying to figure out a way to show more of that, but I don’t know how to do it without losing fans. I hope I can come up with something where I can be authentic and show people the ups and downs that I have, because they are essentially part of who I am.”
Both of Sumire’s parents – Junichi Ishida and Chiaki Matsubara – were well-known actors in Japan during the ‘80s and her father continues to be a household name. After her parents divorced in the late ‘90s, Sumire and her mother moved to Hawaii. Sumire dreamed of following in her family’s footsteps (her grandfather was an NHK announcer during the 1964 Olympics) and she began performing, singing, dancing and modeling from the age of 16. For two years she studied at the prestigious Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh.
“I hope I can come up with something where I can be authentic and show people the ups and downs that I have, because they are essentially part of who I am.”
The encouragement she received from teachers at school and directors she had worked with reassured her that she could make a proper career out of her own in the entertainment industry.
“I didn’t want to let them down, so I think that was when I decided to take it up as a profession,” she says.
Ten years ago at the age of 20 Sumire returned to Japan to make her debut, though she returns to Hawaii from time to time, taking roles in the popular CBS series Hawaii Five-O in 2014, as well as the role of Sarayu in The Shack, a Hollywood movie that came out in 2015.
“At first, when my Japanese wasn’t as good, [the Japanese audience] took that as comedy,” she says. “I was able to use that to my advantage and be funny with it by making mistakes – kind of like slapstick humor. Making silly grammatical errors and mistakes with words was perceived as funny. Now, whenever I say something in English everyone is like ‘wow!’ and that itself makes it entertaining as well. I do feel that I was lucky enough to be able to learn both languages.”
While being raised bilingual worked to her advantage in building a career in Japan, Sumire says that upon her return to her home country she did experience – and still experiences – reverse culture shock, and had difficulties readjusting back into the environment.
“I have times where I don’t feel like I’m of this culture and there are instances where I struggle culturally,” she says. “For example, specific mannerisms, being very polite, and keigo – the polite form of speaking – is also something that I have a hard time with.”
Still Sumire calls Japan a beautiful place rich in culture, that she respects and wants to continue to learn more about. She also wishes to expand her career outside of Japan – once the world begins to heal from the Covid-19 pandemic.
The pandemic has made it difficult for Sumire to continue performance work. The aforementioned musical was postponed, and she shared a story on her podcast about shooting a commercial with her own equipment from her own home.
“When I’m shooting at home I try to find a specific spot for it, just like many people who are working from home now from their computers,” she tells TW. “They have their little home office, so I have my little home office to shoot things and to work, while other areas I use for my private life.”
Social media has become a big part of her life, with nearly half a million followers on Instagram and a growing audience online, she surprisingly says there is no “strategy” or rules that she plays by. One thing she keeps in her mind, however, is authenticity.
“For me it’s about being myself as much as possible – showing some silliness, showing myself without makeup, showing myself not in a professional setting at times – I think that makes me relatable and closer to my fans,” she says. “I used to try to comment back to my fans but recently I’ve also been trying to stay off of it as much as I can because, you know, it can be a lot to be on it all the time.”
In her latest TikTok video, rather than lip-sync to a pop song, Sumire’s own soulful voice is heard singing to the latest “kyundesu” trend.
“When I’m on it, I try to be as authentic as I can. I’d rather be authentic and real to my fans and to the people who are following me,” continues Sumire, polite, sincere and with a smile.
Photos by Allan Abani
Photographic assistant: Aska Sumihara
Stylist: Aika Kiyohara
Hair: Takayuki Shibata
Makeup: Phoebe Lin