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Groundbreakers | Kanata Okajima: J-Pop Songwriting Genius Now Aiming for Eurovision Victory

Kanata Okajima, who has written for BTS, TWICE, and Namie Amuro, is a mother of two. With unstoppable drive, she sets her sights on the Eurovision Song Contest.



Japanese women are making changes globally in the world of enterprise, finance, technology, academia, politics, sports, the media, and more. If they were ever invisible, certainly they are not now. What inspired them to step forward into their roles today? Are their dreams and aspirations different from the generation of their mentors? What comes after them? This time, JAPAN Forward set out to interview songwriter Kanata Okajima for the new series "Groundbreakers."

Unfamiliar with the name "Kanata Okajima?" Don't fret, because chances are you're already grooving to her tunes without even knowing it. Behind the scenes, Okajima is the mastermind crafting the melodies and penning the lyrics that resonate globally. Her musical prowess has propelled artists to the zenith of the charts, including BTS' sensational hit "Crystal Snow," which reached number one in 17 countries worldwide.

The accolades speak volumes. In 2017, Kanata was bestowed with the prestigious Excellence Award at the Japan Record Awards for her work on Daichi Miura's electrifying anthem "EXCITE." Fast forward to 2020, and she's weaving lyrical magic for SMILE-UP's (previously Johnny & Associates) Snowman with the enchanting track "Kissin' My Lips." With over 150 chart-toppers on Oricon, her influence in the music industry is undeniable.
In a recent interview with JAPAN Forward, Okajima shared insights into her formative years, her multifaceted career, and her dream to win the Eurovision Song Contest someday. Excerpts follow.

Daichi Miura (center) and Kanata Okajima pose for a photo in the studio. (© Kanata Okajima)

First Crossroads

In your book, 'The Road to Your Dream Isn't a One-Way Street,' you mentioned wanting to become a singer-songwriter at age 15. What did music mean to you back then?

I think music was my savior, especially at that time. It was my healing. When I felt sad, when I felt miserable, or when I felt that I was not needed by the world, the only thing I could do was sit in front of the piano, find some chords, and write some melodies and lyrics. And then I would sing and cry, cry and sing till the morning.

That was the only way to express my feelings, but I never showed that music to somebody. I was only writing and singing to myself. Also, that was when I spent the most time listening to music again and again, with headphones, really seriously.

Kanata Okajima's book, 'The Road to Your Dream Isn't a One-Way Street.'

In your book, you discussed a 'crossroad' moment and the difficulty in choosing your music career path.

It was when I submitted [my application] to the music school. My family was not from the music industry, so the only information I had was maybe from newspapers, and some TV, it was so limited. I only knew about becoming an artist or singer-songwriter, so I thought those were the only two choices I had.

But if I had met a person — a musician, producer, an A&R (Artists and Repertoire) — much earlier, I might have gone through that path [of becoming a songwriter] directly.

Since I didn't know much about the music industry, I just went the [music school] way.

You also wrote in your book, 'The more people you meet and listen to, the more perspective you gain.' What did you mean by that?

If you make a mistake or your dream doesn't come true, that doesn't mean it's the end. Especially when you're young, once you make a mistake or end up on the wrong path, you think, "Oh my gosh, it's the end."


But definitely, it's not. There are so many backups. On the other hand, it's so hard to know the backups if you don't meet people. I think luckily, since I didn't go to high school, I had a chance to meet many types of people who have different ways of living.

(Crystal Snow © Yoshimoto Music Publishing Co. Ltd., Hybe Co. Ltd.)

Shaping Music Culture

You've had a major influence on what people in Asia listen to. Artists and groups like BTS, TWICE, Crystal Kay, Daichi Miura, SixTONES, and BoA are just some of the big names you worked with. How do you reflect on your impact?

It feels crazy and surreal. Sometimes I still feel like I'm living in a dream or a bubble. Because I struggled so much in my younger days, I cannot believe I'm keeping this career and making music for all these legends and the coolest people in the world.

I know it's happening. But still, I can't feel the realness that much. Also, because songwriters don't perform, we don't get that "ahh" kind of feeling from fans directly. So that's why I love going to gigs. Maybe that's the only time I see the fans or people that listen to my music. Then I think, "Oh my goodness, everybody's really enjoying it. What an honor." Then I get recharged and write again.

Writing camp in Taiwan (© Kanata Okajima)

In your junior high school days, you liked karaoke so much that you borrowed CDs and watched TV dramas and commercials to learn new music. How do you think this experience impacted your career, and what do you think is your strength?

At that time, I listened to so much J-pop. I was especially influenced by the chart hits. The essense of a hit J-pop track became natural to me. It really helped when I started writing lyrics for other artists.

I write my music really subconsciously. I don't write using logic that much. So that can be my strength. I don't think too much. My writing is more like a "response." I just get it, feel inspired, and write.

Kanata Okajima carrying her baby while working on a track. (© Kanata Okajima)

Motherhood and New Challenges

Besides being a successful songwriter, you are also a busy parent. What keeps you from burning out?

In the beginning, I was really scared to share that I was pregnant. So I actually hid that I was pregnant until the last minute.

I sent some messages to A&R like, "I'm giving birth [soon], and maybe I will rest for a month, but I'm sure I'll be back really soon. So please, don't forget [me], and please don't think my career is ending."

When I had a conversation with a producer and talked about my pregnancy, he said, "Ah, so finally, you are going to slow down."

And I was like, "No!" I didn't imagine that I would have to slow down. Of course, I'll give my love 100% [to my baby]. But I wanted to keep my career, too.

I was so scared and almost burned out because I did too much to keep both. That meant I pushed myself so much to say "yes" to all the projects I was involved in. I wanted people to think, "Wow, she just gave birth, and she's getting even more powerful."

But I was [asking myself], "What am I doing?" I was missing out on so many moments that could have been spent together with [my first son]. I was struggling a lot.


But after a year, I realized I couldn't do 100%. During the daytime, I work on my music, but nighttime and all the weekends are for family. I needed to make this a commitment, so I announced to everyone that this was my [work-life] balance.

I believe that music can be [a source of] healing and motivation to live. So I keep writing [music] for somebody's tomorrow.

Why did you decide to write for the Eurovision Song Contest?

I lived in Sweden when I was 29 to 32. That was when I [encountered] the Eurovision Song Contest. I was fascinated and wanted to write music for it. But then my father passed away, so I decided to go back to Japan.

I'm definitely happy living in Japan. But I asked myself, "What would the next challenge be?" I wished I had a chance to write for Eurovision — that was what popped up in my brain.

When I asked my husband, he said, "Okay. Why not? It's not too late. Take up the challenge." I was like, "What about our two kids? I think I have to go alone." And he said, "Yeah, it's okay. I think it's going to be fun for us, too."

So I contacted a couple of A&R that I knew were successful in Eurovision. Luckily they [approved] and liked my career. Also, they thought it could be interesting to have some Asian influence on the Eurovision or Eurovision artists.

From last year [2023], I started joining Eurovision writing camps. So far, it's been great — it's definitely a different way of writing. Meeting many new talents and artists is so inspiring.

There's a room called the "green room" where songwriters and artists can go when their songs are selected. It's a long path [to get there], but getting to know many European artists again is really exciting. Getting in the greenroom and winning number one will be my next goal.


Keep Knocking

As our conversation drew to a close, Kanata concluded with an empowering message:

"Life is better than you think. As you knock on various doors, you may eventually encounter a door that feels just right. The important thing is to never stop knocking."Kanata Okajima


Author: Galileo Ferrari