The original version of this article, in portuguese, was published by Balaclava. All images are courtesy of Akira Ishida.
In the big picture of current pop music, there are conceptual works… and then there is 3776, at an upper echelon. The japanese idol group from the city of Fujinomiya has been releasing an intricate amount of work since its beginning in 2013, drawing attention in lands very far from the giant Mount Fuji — whose height in meters the project borrows its name from. Their latest album, Saijiki (2019), obtained just over 2500 ratings from users all over the world in the RateYourMusic database, ranking among the top 50 albums of that year there.
The phenomena is even more curious considering some of the main characteristics of the album itself. In it, each one of the 12 tracks represents a month of the year, containing several songs within. With each change, the time signature increases by one beat, and there is a half step upward on the chromatic scale. The length of the tracks is related to the duration of the month, with twelve seconds for each day, considering a leap year (as 3776 will be). The lyrics, among traditional nursery rhymes, quotations of classical music and original compositions, are directly related to the time of the year portrayed. Everything is sung in Japanese and resembles a real Saijiki, which consists of a traditional list of seasonal terms for the creation of haiku.
In addition to Saijiki, 3776 has a lot of other releases, including singles, EPs and live works, available at the OTOTOY store. It has also had some distinctive lineups, but the most recurring one, which recorded Saijiki and the previous album 3776 wo Kikanai Riyuu ga Aru to Sureba (2015), is easy to recognize looking at the group’s official channel.
This lineup consists of singer Chiyono Ide (or Chii-Chan) and producer Akira Ishida. Both had already worked together on the Idol group produced by Akira previously, the TEAM MII, an AKB48-inspired group that lasted for about a year between 2012 and 2013. In addition to the 3776 partnership, the two collaborate on the Minanaro Extended project, which already has two live releases; and (supposedly) Chiyono’s solo career, which released three concept albums on life in high school.
Between March and May 2021, I talked with Akira an Chiyono about the project. You can check everything below.
Akira, I know that you were very inspired by the success of AKB48 to create your own works with the TEAM MII and after with 3776. What aesthetic elements from Idol music specifically attracted you to this musical universe?
Akira Ishida: AKB48 was just one of the triggers for me, but I had wanted to make idol music before that. However, it is certain that AKB48 influenced me. I remember they were performing in a small venue. I was impressed by sharing the same space with them, so their musical composition wasn’t very important to me.
In the beginning, you emailed locations across the country, looking to create a local idol group. Was it hard to find a locality interested in supporting your project?
AI: I remember it wasn’t too hard for me at that time. I received a reply when I emailed about one third of the local governments in Japan. I think it took just about three days to send the emails. I strongly believe that I was very lucky, and I am grateful to the person who responded.
Just to be clear, when you mentioned the “local governments” that you emailed, were you talking about the 47 prefectures in Japan or were you talking about other administrative divisions (such as cities or districts)?
AI: I emailed prefectures and cities. The number of local governments that I sent emails must have exceeded 500 at least. By the way, I remember that I received several other replies besides Fujinomiya City. Their replies were: “we’re sorry, we don’t need such an offer” or something like that. But even so I felt happy with such replies, because almost all of them didn’t even reply.
The TEAM MII only lasted one year, and then the project 3776 was born, named after the height of Mount Fuji. And in the same year the mountain was declared a World Heritage Site. Was this event the main reason for you to come up with the concept of a Mount Fuji related group?
AI: It was not. To be honest, I didn’t think too much about it. The TEAM MII name was no longer available, so I had to think of another name. TEAM MII also had songs about Mt. Fuji, so I thought about naming it after Mt. Fuji. I think that the World Heritage registration was a lucky occurrence.
Do you remember why the name was not available anymore?
AI: I forgot that detail. Maybe that had to do with some issues with copyright. And I thought it was very natural that the name would not be continued. The members of TEAM MII, especially people who quitted at that time, must have thought that was natural, too. Because TEAM MII’s existence as a group was limited to a year. If the name had continued, the fact that they quitted on the way would have remained, and they would hate it. There were other reasons why it was natural. For example, ‘M’ of ‘MII’ was ‘M’ of Fujino-‘M’iya. Since we had nothing to do with Fujinomiya [in 3776, that considers itself in a free translation of the email profile as a “Mt. Fuji Local idol group”, with no close relations with the specific city as TEAM MII did], it would not be natural to use the name.
Well, 3776 started as a group with several members, but after some seasons it became only you and Chiyono Ide, with the two albums of the group recorded in this formation. What were the reasons for the departure of previous members? Was there any preference of yours for the group size to be reduced to its current configuration?
AI: The reasons they left the group were different, but I think they were trivial. In short, their professionalism was weak, but I think that may not always be necessary for a local idol. I was particular about 3776 being a group, so I was going to get out of the solo state eventually. Then I recruited members several times for that, but none of that worked.
Now, I ask Chiyono, who has been a member of 3776 since 2013. How did you find out about the project and how did you get in as a member? Did you already make music and dance before that?
Chiyono Ide: 3776 is a successor of the idol group called TEAM MII to commemorate the 70th anniversary of Fujinomiya City , and I was a member of TEAM MII. After leaving it, I personally went to see  live performances, so I was asked by the producer to join.
The sound of the 3776 is quite experimental, with a sound aesthetic that is usually labeled as Art Pop or Progressive Pop in the West, in addition to elements of Alternative Rock in the arrangements. Chiyono, did you already have contact with this kind of music before you were part of the project, or was it something that you built together with the influence of Akira?
CI: First of all, I’m not involved with music production at all. All is done by one producer. I wasn’t very interested in music before joining, so I came into contact with such songs through the activity of 3776.
So I take the opportunity to ask both of you: what are the artists, japanese or not , that inspire you, or that you tend to listen to a lot?
AI: I think that I tend to listen to music in a wide and shallow way. Even if I start to like an artist, I often get bored quickly. Also, I often have a favorite artist or music only during a single production. For example, during the production of the Saijiki album I liked listening to various DJ mix albums, for example DJ Krush, JAZZANOVA, Patrick Forge, et cetera. I was very inspired by these DJ albums during the production.
CI: I am often impressed by the cute music with bass pressure, like gentle music that tickles the ears. I’m listening to songs from different artists, so it’s difficult to nominate.
Let us now talk specifically about your albums. The first album, 3776 を 聴 か な い 理由 が あ る と す れ ば (3776 wo Kikanai Riyuu ga Aru to Sureba), was described as “A modern ode to Fuji-san” by an article from my country. “Modern”, and I would add, millimetrically thought out. I say this because you keep a consistency of the concept in the lyrics even working with different arrangements, and even by the use of time counting, such as the fact that the disc has exactly 3776 seconds. It is true that many of the tracks had already been recorded or released before, but how long did it take for you to finish this first album in 2015, with all these details in mind?
AI: The album production started on the first day of September 2015. I had to finish it in early October, so the album production period was about a month. I was planning to make an album of the songs we had released so far, so it shouldn’t have taken long. But it became difficult because I came up with various concepts, including the element of 3776 seconds. I also had to create and record new songs.
The title of the album stands for something like “If there was a reason for not listening to 3776”, that of course references the second track “登らない理由があるとすれば”. But talking about the title itself, I would like to understand if this is sort of a joke, or if there was really any kind of fear on your part regarding the reception of the album, because it is perhaps very different from the other Idol groups?
AI: The title of this album was announced before I came up with the concept of the album I mentioned earlier. To be honest, there is no deep meaning. However, I was only thinking about the CM [acronym for commercial message] planning for the album release. I wanted to make videos in which various people answered the “reason” in a good or bad way, and I needed the title name to do this video project.
Out of the twenty tracks, there are two that caught my attention and that I would like to highlight: “湧玉池便り” and “3.11”. The first is a song about a lake, originally recorded by TEAM MII, and here with a sort of electronic dub feeling. Chiyono’s interpretation also differs from the original, going into a much more dreamlike and melancholic mood. I wanted to ask, Akira, what led you to make this re-recording with this new sound?
AI: In putting together a “3776 seconds album,” I had to insert a song with a long playing time in that part. Also, within the overall flow, I wanted a slow song for that part. There are several concepts in this album, one of which is to mobilize the elements of the songs from previous albums. Each song in the length uses a lot of sampling from the previous 3776 and TEAM MII songs. This song also has such a meaning. However, this is a cover, not sampling. For the above reasons, the song ended up with this mood.
And as for another track, “3.11”, it references in its title the date of the Great East Japan Earthquake, in March 2011. And though it deals with a very traumatic event, it is a song with a fast tempo and an upbeat atmosphere, with lyrics that talk about “hugging tightly” in the face of adversity. How was it for you, Chiyono, to address that theme in a song?
CI: 3.11 was such a big event in my life, so I was very nervous to sing about it. We value the desire to live our lives with great care. In a good way, I think it’s better to do something fun in the near future without thinking about the [distant] future.
Now, Akira, let’s talk about Saijiki, which was my first contact with your work. I will start by asking you about the artistic structure . The album is described as a kind of DJ Mix coordinated by you, andthe songs seem to be always merging with each other and creating a sense of unity. How did you choose this more fluid sound? Was there any other album that you were inspired by?
AI: I mentioned earlier about the DJ mix albums that I referred to. I wanted to make an album that would be more fluid than “If there was a reason for not listening to 3776,” because I felt it was incomplete in terms of fluidity.
Chiyono, on this album you have a repertoire that consists of, besides the original songs, folk pieces like “Sakura Sakura” and nursery songs like “雪やコンコン” and “ほたる来い”. But far from being just a reproduction, they were all reimagined, in this more electronic context, with polyphonic beats and textures. How was the choice of these songs? Was it a lot of work to do these rereadings?
CI: I thought it was a very interesting selection because it selected both popular songs in Japan and not well known songs locally in Japan. The songs with difficult arrangements were very hard to sing.
If your 2015 work had already been thought out in detail, in Saijiki you raised the bar even higher. How long did it take you to get it all right? Was it challenging to work with these creative rules in mind?
AI: Certainly it took time. I think it took more than two months to make this album, including the composition of the three new songs. I had to throw a lot of things away to follow the rules, like the tempo and key of the original songs. Including these things, it was difficult.
There are pieces of classical music that are sampled on the album. Some examples are the theme of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony – 4th Movement and the first movement of Beethoven’s “Moonlight Sonata”, with the latter making an organic crossfade with Debussy’s “Clair de Lune” (which makes perfect sense, considering that both songs talk about the moon). These are all very popular classical themes, for sure, but I would also add that the concept of the song-cycle comes from classical music, with several songs articulated around a theme or a collection, and this is kind of what happens in Saijiki. What was the extent of classical music’s influence in your work?
AI: I didn’t study classical music formally. Of course I like it. The reason why I added elements of classical music to Saijiki is because I added them to the first songs “Merry Christmas & Happy New Year” and “New Year is Very Good” [in Japan, playing Beethoven’s 9th Symphony is a well-established year-end tradition]. The influence of adding that element to the latter song, which is a Japanese traditional nursery rhyme, was especially great. And after that, I got to make some songs by combining a Japanese traditional nursery rhymes with Western classical music.
I have to say that my favorite “month” of the album is the March one (弥生三拍子ト調). And I swear that is not because it is the month of my birthday, though I must confess that the song しゅんみ [Shun-min] which is on that track puts me in a really peaceful, heavenly mood. Do you have any favorites among the twelve tracks?
AI: Thank you. I tried to think about it, but there is nothing in particular.
CI: I also like “Shun-min” the most. Your music taste is good!
Chiyono, on the subject of samplers, I would like to understand how the creative process of these vocal polyphonies in Saijiki happens. Do you write some type of note or score with these indications for the voice, or do you build only from several recordings, as in the live concerts?
CI: As I said, I’m not involved in music production. In the recording, I sing and speak as instructed, but sometimes you are instructed to sing according to the notes, and sometimes you sing as you feel. It may have been difficult to understand, but the atmosphere of the recording is like this.
In addition to the main project 3776, you have the Minanaro Extended, which consists of a liveset open to further experimentation. I was able to follow some of these recordings through your channel, and I find the synergy you two share in this type of work very fascinating. Was this project a necessity that arose from the complexification of the music that you both produced? In your opinion, what are the main differences between it and the regular 3776 production?
AI: As I mentioned earlier, when 3776 was in solo form, I was planning on returning it to group form for some time. The “3776 Extended” style was an attempt to do something I can only do during the solo form period. I didn’t define the “3776 Extended” style in detail, but if I define it again now, the difference may be in whether or not there is improvisation.
Listening to the Minanaro Extended performances, I can see a vision of composition based on a “song-process”, which is molded from the sum of the lines of you both, Akira and Chiyono. Somehow, it reminds me of the vision that the American composer Steve Reich exposed in an essay in 1968, entitled “Music as a Gradual Process”, in which he said he was interested in “compositional process and a sounding music that are one and the same thing”. Of course, there are different contexts, but is this thought a clue to understand the essence of your live performance on Minanaro Extended?
AI: Putting aside difficult subjects, I like Steve Reich’s music, and I think I was influenced by it. It is possible that some element appeared without my knowledge. Anyway, the “3776 Extended” style has always been an experiment in which I keep doing things I want to try in a live performance.
Chiyono, in addition to Minanaro’s projects, you also have your solo work, with three albums recorded since 2016. It is noteworthy that all three cover the theme of school life. In your first album, you even sing about student archetypes for each of the nine quarters of high school. How was this work conceived? Was it a reflection of your own daily life, since you were entering high school when you started recording solo?
CI: The theme of her first album is “What kind of high school student will you be?” when she was in junior high school. Then, her second album was produced under the theme of “the result of actually becoming a high school student”, and her third album is based on the theme “I didn’t become such a high school student, but I could have become such a high school student.” [When I asked about the use of 3rd or 1st person pronouns in the answer, Chiyono stated that “There is no particular meaning, but since the parallel world is different from the real world, I think that you are potentially recognizing yourself as someone else”, so I kept it as she originally wrote].
And in real life, what is your daily study routine like? I would also like to take the opportunity and ask, since I know that you will be 20 years old in 2021, if you plan on graduating from college or if you are already doing it.
CI: I was studying like a normal person when needed. After graduating from high school, I am studying at a vocational school.
I want to clarify a mystery here. In Chiyono’s solo project, many of the compositions are not co-signed by you, but by other composers. But their names are nowhere to be found on the internet when looking for more information. So many people over the internet believe you are still the main composer and arranger, this time under pseudonyms. Is it true? If so, why was it done this way? Was it to make a clear separation between 3776 and Chii-Chan’s solo career?
AI: Putting aside whether they were really me or not, I’m sure I wanted to make a clear difference. I wanted the solo project to be a pure idol project regardless of who the composer was. So I wanted to ask another composer as much as our budget allowed. It’s up to you to imagine if they are me. If asked, I would answer no.
3776 is a project strongly rooted in Japanese cultural values, but somehow, your sound has managed in recent years to resonate with many people from the rest of the world (myself included). When did you first hear about this international interest in the group? Did you expect to receive this kind of recognition at any time?
AI: From the early days, I was aware that there was a reaction from some foreigners. I think the first time I noticed that was when I received an order from England for the “Overture” CD. However, I didn’t expect it to spread so much.
I have a question about the project reception, especially outside Japan. Although each case is unique, I come from a country that is also not an english-speaking one, and outsiders often think of our music as “songs about beach, summer, football, etc.”. And by escaping from the basic standards of what is understood as Pop music and articulating with cultural references deeply related to your country, perhaps your work may also slip into stereotypes and face some difficulty being translated in other places. So how exactly do you see the reception of your music from the outside? Are there things that Japanese fans can easily understand by listening to your music that people abroad can’t?
AI: I still don’t know the reaction or the differences outside of Japan in detail. I want to know that to some extent, so I think I should get used to english a little more. However, this is not limited to inside and outside, but I think you don’t need to understand my music perfectly. I hope you enjoy it, no matter what misunderstandings there may be.
I have lately realized that you have been announcing collaborative subtitles in english and spanish on your videos… Is this a result of the dialogue with foreign fans?
AI: First of all, regarding english subtitles, I was trying to do it myself. Even now, when I first upload english subtitles for a song, I translate it myself. However, a fan always emails me a mistranslation check every time after uploading. He is an american who can understand japanese and english. I met him at a live venue in Japan. Regarding spanish, a mexican fan who I didn’t know offered it by email. A translation file that can be uploaded as it was included, so I am uploading them.
Your music is not fully on any streaming service as of now, and found only on the OTOTOY store. I know that in Japan, physical media (CDs, DVDs, vinyl) is still very representative in terms of sales, while in most countries in the West streaming services dominate the market more and more. How do you see this difference? Are you interested in having your music available on streaming platforms like Spotify, Bandcamp?
AI: I also recognized that streaming services were widespread, but since I started as an idol producer, I realized the value of selling CDs at live venues and having idols sign them. In addition, I never imagined that my music would be accepted all over the world. However, now that 3776 is accepted by the world, I think it is also necessary to join streaming services such as Spotify, so I’m starting to make a concrete plan.
Were there invitations — before the pandemic, of course — for concerts outside Japan? At some point in time, would you accept that?
AI: We haven’t had any invitations. If there was an invitation from somewhere, I would like to accept it.
Speaking of that, what was it like for both of you to go through the catastrophic year that was 2020, probably not being able to perform live and staying away from the fans? What has changed in the group’s routine since then?
AI: 2020 was the year when Chiyono graduated from high school. Since Chiyono’s environment changed so much, some of the activities of 3776 were scheduled to end. But before that, this pandemic came and many things were put on hold.
In any case, we can’t work like we used to, including live performances, so I decided to make PVs [promotional video, an acronym used in Japan for music videos] since I wanted to use this period to spread the already released albums to more people. I thought it would be good for the albums to spread around the world, whether or not our activity continued. That’s why I added English subtitles to them.
Four years have passed from the first to the second 3776 studio album (2015 to 2019). At this rate, will the third album be released in 2023?
AI: I can’t imagine. But anyway, even if a new album is born, I think the style will be different from that of the past.
Thank you very much for your attention and responses. In closing, I want to ask you to say to everyone who will eventually read this interview: what are the reasons that people have to listen to 3776 right now?
AI: People of the world,
According to the world news, Japan’s reputation appears to be steadily declining. I certainly think this is so for some people, especially the Japanese rulers.
But if you want to understand Japan, I hope you will recognize that Japan also has interesting things. I think the music of 3776 will be one of the ways to help. If there’s a reason to listen to 3776, I think this might be it.
…Actually, if I answer seriously, there is no such thing. I tried to think of something. Thank you.
CI: I think you’re living a difficult life with corona disease, but please watch the video where you can easily see me and cute characters who introduce Saijiki on YouTube every month. I think you can rest assured!