The Latest Japanese Star From Hawaii

Sumire Matsubara at a modeling shoot on Oahu's North Shore. Photo courtesy Leslie Lee

Sumire Matsubara at a modeling shoot on Oahu’s North Shore. Photo courtesy Leslie Lee

Sumire Matsubara is fast becoming a household name in Japan, garnering rave reviews as an actress, model, dancer and pop singing sensation. Since 2012, Matsubara’s entertainment career has skyrocketed, and the artist is emerging as the newest superstar in the Land of the Rising Sun.

Matsubara is the Japanese female counterpart of David Lettermen on late night TV, in a show called Saturday Night Chubo!, which airs on TBS with one of Japan’s funnymen/actor Masaaki Sakai.

“It’s the equivalent of David Letterman or Jay Leno hosting a talk show with Selena Gomez or Ariana Grande,” explains Matsubara. She also just wrapped up two successful musicals at Tokyo Imperial Theatre – the first was the Japan premiere of A Tale of Two Cities, where she played Lucie Manette, and Anything Goes, in which she portrayed Hope Harcourt.

Part-time Hawaii resident Paul Yonamine, who has worked in Japan for many years and is my resident expert on Japanese affairs, confirms Matsubara’s growing fame and popularity. “We see her on television constantly, and she has developed quite a following. Her bilingual ability and charm is resonating very well.”

This class of 2009 Punahou alumna is no stranger to cat-walks and red-carpet premieres. She’s best known as daughter of Japanese actor and television personality Junichi Ishida and his actress wife Chiaki Matsubara. Her parents’ high-profile divorce was finalized in 1999. Years prior to her preteen days were challenging.

“It was hard growing up in Japan until age 7 because of all the paparazzi who would follow us everywhere, including the ‘bad media’ when my parents first separated. When Mom and I moved to Hawaii in 1997, it felt as though I had moved to heaven,” she says.

Moving to a foreign country and speaking little English proved to be another obstacle she had to face.

“My mother and I adjusted … it was such a wonderful experience. Growing up in Hawaii Kai in my teens was truly a blessing, and I cannot thank my mom enough for bringing me to Hawaii and encouraging me to pursue a brighter, successful future. Of course, I also would have had an amazing experience had I been raised in Japan, but I am honored to call Hawaii home,” she says.

“Attending Punahou was definitely a big stepping stone toward reaching my goals,” she adds. “My education helped me to work my behind off so I can do what I love to do. Acting, singing and dancing aren’t just about knowing your lines, melodies and moves. They are much more and all about training yourself in other areas of education and the arts.”

Take ballet, for example. She has been in pointe shoes since age 8, and performed the most-complex choreography through high school and in college at Musical Theatre and Acting School at Carnegie Mellon University in Pennsylvania. “My fondest memories of Hawaii would be going to the beach, hiking, spending time with family, and all of the Nutcrackers and ballet recitals I did.”

When asked who kick-started her drive for the arts, she recalls, “I’ve had so many amazing teachers at Punahou. Paul Palmore (Drama Department chairman) and Alicia Scanlan (middle school music teacher), are just a couple of the many great, influential people I had to guide me.”

Punahou’s solid fine arts program, mixed with various local Broadway productions, gave her the extra energy to kick, dance and sing her heart out, which elevated her continuing passion for theatre. Jazz, tap, hip-hop, hula and ballroom dancing helped enhance her singing and acting success as a teen. Her accolades include a two-time Actor’s Award and the prestigious President’s Award at Punahou School, proof positive that she is both beauty and brains.

Her high school Broadway credits include Once On This Island, The Mikado, Pippin and Beauty and the Beast. In college, she played the heroine in a traditional Japanese play titled Goemon, as the character Princess Chacha. She also portrayed Susan in Tick, Tick … Boom!

Being in the limelight in Hawaii and Pennsylvania is nowhere near what it’s like being covered and smothered by the Japanese press. The paparazzi are in full force as she is tracked and followed almost everywhere she goes. Her popularity was boosted big time by her hit song Season in the Sun, which drew more than 1 million views on YouTube, and is featured in a commercial.

Matsubara visits her mom, brother Oliver Bauer and stepfather Paul Bauer every few months, but her schedule has become so hectic now. The former Hawaii Kai resident is using her time in Japan to gain more modeling and acting experience. “I want to build a bridge between American and Japanese entertainment. I think that every country has something to teach and share with the others, both artistically and educationally.”

While her career thrives in Japan, she has aspirations of Hollywood. “I would love to go back and forth in the future.”

She aspires to work in both Asia and America with occasional access to her home state.

“The Islands are so, sacred, and the Hawaiian people are full of life – so free.” Matsubara misses the Aloha State daily, and adds, “My heart will always belong to ‘da aina.’ I absolutely miss all the ono kine grinds and beautiful scenery, but I know I will get to live there again someday.”

Stay tuned. Sumire Matsubara dreams of a crossover career in film to perhaps someday join her list of favorite American film stars: Meryl Streep, Robert De Niro, Jennifer Lawrence and Leonardo DeCaprio.