TOKYO, Japan – Jenny Shima is an actress, singer and model, and for the past five years has been the host of a radio show on Japan’s NHK network for which she combines music and translates famous Japanese songs into English and performs them on the show each month.
Additionally she performs commercial songs and narrations, and acts in commercials, music videos and TV shows. Most recently she appeared in Dr. X, a popular TV series in Japan similar to Grey’s Anatomy. She also records voices and songs for apps, games and animations.
Q: How old were you when you first started singing, and where did you make your singing debut?
Jenny: I was raised in a really musical family, so singing was a part of my life since I can remember. I would say the first time I ever sang on a stage in front of an audience would be at church. My brother and I were always doing duets; looking back it was such a comfortable setting to practice singing in front of people.
Q: Where did you grow up?
Jenny: I grew up in Crown Point, Ind., about an hour outside of Chicago. Our home was on a big lake, so summers were spent skiing, swimming and fishing, and winters were spent ice skating and sledding. We were always on our bikes outside, putting on plays in our backyard … it was a wonderful place to grow up.
Q: Did you attend college or earn any degrees?
Jenny: I graduated high school from Interlochen Arts Academy. That school changed my life. Shout-out to my acting coach, David Montee, who taught me the most and truly made me believe in myself more than any other teacher. After graduation I was offered a scholarship for the Hartford Conservatory; however, I was also offered my first professional job at Walt Disney World. I had learned so much from Interlochen, I was just anxious to get more experience. So I took the job offer (assuming I would go back to school later at some point) and never looked back.
Q: Why did you pursue singing as a profession? Was there a defining moment when you knew this is what you wanted to do?
Jenny: For a long time I actually planned on being a classical pianist. I started playing piano when I was 4 years old. I was extremely disciplined and entered lots of competitions all the way up through high school. As I got older, I put a lot of pressure on myself in my competitions. If I missed a single note, I had failed. I think I was about 15 when I stepped up to the piano at a competition, judges all seated waiting for me to start … and I couldn’t play. I couldn’t think of where to begin. I was terrified.
At that time I was starting to get into musical theater as well and realized it was much more freeing. There really weren’t mistakes, it was how you played off each other. It felt more natural to me, and I never once found myself feeling nervous to take the stage. I was always excited for it. I think that was how I slowly realized that I wanted to focus more on music and theater. It’s funny because to this day I’m probably technically a better pianist than I am a singer, but I guess it goes to show you have to go where your passion is.
Q: Your mom has a background in music. Did this have a strong influence on you?
Jenny: Yes, it had a huge influence on me. My mother was always singing, and encouraging my brother and I to practice harmonies during car rides. I’ve been told my voice sounds like her the older I get, which is pretty nice to hear seeing as I always wanted to sing like her since I was a little girl.
Q: Did you take voice lessons while growing up?
Jenny: I didn’t take any vocal lessons until I was about 17, when I attended Interlochen Academy. Up until then my lessons had been focused on piano, cello, and some dance. I had never worked on classical vocal music or even practiced breathing techniques. The breathing exercises really were quite challenging and ultimately taught me how to sustain myself vocally.
Q: How many years have you been a professional singer, and what was your first professional gig?
Jenny: Well, I started working professionally when I was 18, so almost 20 years now. My first professional job was singing in a show at Walt Disney World’s (then) MGM studios. It was my first professional audition. Somehow amid the anxiousness of it all, I had flown down to Florida and left my contacts at home. I’ve since had LASIK, but at the time I had horrible eyesight. I really couldn’t see the faces of who I was auditioning for, let alone have any chance at gauging what they thought of my performance. So it was all a lovely surprise when I got that phone call offering me a contract! I still laugh thinking about how badly I couldn’t see.
I started out singing in a show called Doug Live, and then moved on to perform roles in Beauty and the Beast, Cinderella’s Surprise Celebration, Hoop-Dee-Doo Revue, Storytime with Belle, Goofy’s Country Dancin’ Jamboree, and Cinderellabration. I left Disney for a short while and sang on a Royal Caribbean Cruise ship, The Voyager of the Seas. I was then asked to open the new Hong Kong Disneyland park in a show called The Golden Mickey’s. From there I moved back to NYC and eventually was asked to head back overseas to sing in a show at Tokyo Disney called Big Band Beat. I continue to work for Tokyo Disney from time to time doing special event shows such as Valentine Nights, and various TVCM recordings.
Q: How many years have you lived in Japan? What took you there?
Jenny: Close to 10 years now! I can’t believe it has been that long as the time has flown by. I originally came here to work for Tokyo Disney. I had opened the Hong Kong Disneyland park, and that was my first time in Asia. I loved the experience, so when I was asked to go to Tokyo, I was thrilled about the opportunity. By the time my contract had finished, I had already met my husband. I moved back to New York and quickly realized I wanted so badly to be back in Japan. But I knew I didn’t want to work for Disney full time anymore. So I then moved back to Japan on a model work visa.
Q: What was your Walt Disney World audition experience like? Where did you audition? How long are the contracts? How does the Hong Kong and Tokyo experience differ from/compare to Walt Disney World in Florida?
Jenny: I first auditioned for Disney in Florida, and later on when I was living in NYC I auditioned there for the Tokyo Disney contract. Every audition usually involved singing first, then a monologue and a dance sequence. Sometimes they would skip the monologue and have you go straight into learning a section of the show. They gave me music to learn on the spot and some dialogue as well. That can be nerve-racking I guess, but somehow it’s always the part I enjoy the most. I like the spontaneity of it. You can really show your personality and also give them a sense of what it might be like to work with you during that time.
At the end of the day, something that’s easy to forget when you walk in that audition room is that they WANT it to be YOU!
If you think of it less as being judged and more as they are looking for all the things that are right about you for the part, I think you can enjoy the whole process a lot more. And do NOT stress if you don’t feel like they smiled during your performance or little things like that. It’s not their job to perform for YOU. They are focusing on what they are looking for; it can be tedious and exhausting. So don’t expect lots of pleasantries going into it. Those things are not necessary to book a job.
Q: Do you have any rituals when preparing for a vocal performance? Vocalises, specialty drinks, meditation?
Jenny: I vocalize and actually just have conversation to help warm up my voice. Stretching/yoga is always good to help me warm up, too. As for drinks, I’m a big fan of hot water with fresh lemon and lots of ginger.
When I sang for Royal Caribbean Cruises, I worked with another singer I admired, and I remember asking her what she did to vocally prepare before her shows. She replied, ‘Honestly, I like to drink a can of Coca Cola.’ Ha! So clearly what works for some doesn’t necessarily work for others.
Q: How often do you audition for shows/events?
Jenny: I still do from time to time. It depends on the audition. Since I became a mother I have become more selective with what auditions I will go to. I’m pretty fortunate in that I have worked here for a while now, so a lot of my jobs come through clients and producers and choreographers who call up my agent asking to book me without any audition. That is the majority of my work now.
Q: How do you prepare for an audition?
Jenny: I guess it depends what the audition is for. If there is script or a song that I need to go in with, then I focus on making sure I know those lines or that song like the back of my hand, so I can be as comfortable as possible when I’m in the room. I don’t think I’ve ever tried to go in to impress with a flashy song or something I think they want to hear; I always prepare what I know is MY strength, or my personal best. I guess it’s similar to wearing what you look best in. Who cares if a tight miniskirt is the trend, if it’s not what you look best in, why wear it? I think the same way about auditions. Present your best authentic self.
Q: Do you find singers being generally supportive of one another, or are they too competitive?
Jenny: Gosh, it really depends on the person. I think performers, in general, can have a lot of insecurities. I mean, who doesn’t? That being said, I think the better the artist, or the more experienced he or she is, the more he/she realizes there’s enough room for all of us. We all have something unique to bring to the table.
Sometimes it’s your turn, and sometimes it isn’t. It’s the perseverance and hard work that keeps you grounded in the business and not worrying about bringing someone else down.
Q: How many years have you been bilingual in English and Japanese? How did you learn Japanese?
Jenny: I’m still learning every day. The Japanese and English languages couldn’t be more different from each other. And I’m not gonna lie, I actually enjoyed not understanding everything my first couple of years in Japan. I know that may sound strange, but think about all the times you go out to eat or wait in a line and you have to listen to all the conversations going on around you. I had none of that. Also, because the Japanese culture is so peaceful and polite, it was just a beautiful place to live in curiosity, and every day felt like an exciting adventure.
It was probably after I started to meet Takuya’s family and friends that I realized I wanted to speak well. I wanted to communicate with them on my own and have relationships that didn’t depend on the other person knowing English. In the beginning it was difficult because I was SO afraid of making mistakes. I’m not sure why, but saying something wrong in Japanese felt so embarrassing to me. I found myself just being quiet in social settings because I didn’t want to make a mistake.
But after realizing the silence was not going to stick, I made the decision not to care about making mistakes anymore.
That was when I really started to improve and eventually was able to hold my own in Japanese conversations. It was through the mistakes that I would retain it and improve quickly. My reading improved mostly from my radio show; the scripts are all in Japanese, and I had to sort of jump right in and learn how to follow along.
Q: How did you meet your husband?
Jenny: How long can I gush? Before my husband, Takuya, focused on photography full time, he was touring with his band, Buddhistson. I was living in Hong Kong at the time he was touring. I had been listening to his music nonstop and was already such a fan. I was quite nervous meeting him!
We were friends for years until Disney brought me over to work in Tokyo. I messaged him to let him know I would be moving to Japan. He would invite me to local festivities, and music festivals, etc. I just loved being around him. To me he was the most talented artist I had ever met – and man, was he easy on the eye. On top of that he was gentle and kind, and so incredibly humble. He had my whole heart so quickly. Falling in love with Takuya was like breathing for me … I didn’t have to think about it. I was his, and he was mine, and the rest would fall into place. I know, he’s my husband. But yeah, I’d do anything for that man.
Q: You and your husband work together and travel the world together frequently with your baby girl, Velvet Jean. What’s it like working together? What’s your trick for managing your work schedules and making time for each other and Velvet Jean?
Jenny: Well, the traveling and working together started off with singing on Buddhistson’s latest album, Slowdance. Takuya asked me to sing on some of the songs, and I was so honored. I had never really sung in a rock band before, and before I knew it, we were touring around Asia.
It’s still funny to me, Takuya thinks I’M the professional one, and yet, the most nervous I have EVER been to take stage was with his band! I suddenly realized I had never really performed on stage as myself. That’s a whole new ballgame. Or at least it was for me. I have such great admiration for artists who create their own work and then get up and perform it for an audience. It’s so intimate.
You can’t hide behind a character, it’s just you and your soul fully exposed.
That to me is a true artist, and it definitely didn’t come natural to me. But when you see Takuya up on that stage … totally mesmerizing. Ahh … I’m gushing again, right? But it is interesting to think after all my years of performing on stage in front of huge audiences, I was now trying to wrap my head around how Jenny would stand at the mic. How would she move on stage? There was no direction! I became aware of everything, and it was incredibly intimidating. So working together in that way, we both gained a great respect for each other’s artistry.
As for our traveling together, it basically started with the band touring. We loved traveling together and experiencing new places together. It was natural for Takuya to do his photography wherever we went, so I just luckily got to be a part of that. When you are totally at ease with the person behind the camera, I think that comes through in the photos. To this day, nobody takes a better picture of me than Takuya does, and I suppose that’s a big reason why.
We secretly want to live in a Winnebago someday and just travel the world. Road trips are our happy place! After Velvet Jean was born, we just knew we wanted to introduce her to that lifestyle. Traveling, although it can be more exhausting with a kid, is so incredibly rewarding. Seeing your child experience new places, and new cultures … it just brings so much color to our world.
As far as the balance of managing our schedules and our family time, that is definitely a work in progress. We don’t send our daughter to any sort of daycare or have much help other than from my mother- and father-in-law once in a while. So most of the time, we alternate our work schedules. My husband watches Velvet Jean on my radio show days, and I’m with Velvet Jean when he’s at the studio shooting.
I hear of couples having ‘date nights,’ and I’m like, ‘Well, that would be nice!’ But then we also know this time with Velvet is so precious, and before we know it she will be in school. So our ‘date nights’ for now are typically a night of Netflix with some cheese and crackers after we get Velvet to bed. You pour so much of your energy into your child, it really is hard to find the time for just each other. But when we do get it, we also cherish it more, too.
Q: How has your life changed since Velvet Jean was born? Do you expect her to have a career in the arts?
Jenny: Our daughter definitely brought a new dimension of love to our lives. It’s truly all the things you hear about, a love you simply can’t imagine until that little human is born and you’re holding her in your arms. I remember thinking of all the things I would be teaching her, but never did I think how much it would be the other way around. I have learned SO much from being Velvet Jean’s mommy. Seeing the world through the eyes of a child is magical.
I like to think I’m much more present and patient and compassionate since giving birth to Velvet. I’m constantly watching her ways, thinking I would love to take credit for all that she is, but the truth is, she was her own unique person from the start. All I have done and hope to continue doing is to simply nurture that.
As far as a career in the arts, I definitely don’t expect it of her, but I would surely not be surprised if she chose that path. She loves music and dance and likes to think she rocks out on a guitar just like her daddy. Her current favorite artists are Bjork, Nirvana, Grace Vanderwall and the Carpenters – a pretty solid reflection of her personality. Ha! I heard once that a parent’s most important job, other than to surround your child in love, is to help him/her discover what he/she loves. I already see that to be true. I simply want to introduce her to as much as I can so she can decide what it is that SHE loves.
Q: You’ve done voice-over work for companies such as Google, Uniqlo, Disney, Panasonic, Olympus, etc. You’re also the voice provider for VOCALOID’S Cyber Diva, the Pokemon Tournament video game, Let it Die video game, the voice of the princess on Netflix’s Snack World, and the voice of Allison Snow for Bandai Namco’s VR “Summer Lesson,” to name a few. How did you find out about doing voice-overs in Japan?
Jenny: I had done some voice-over work back when I was living in Florida, working for Walt Disney World. I did some cable commercials and some stuff for Cartoon Network in Hong Kong. I started to really focus more on voice-over work when I moved to Japan. It’s something I enjoyed, it paid well, and I loved the hours!
After I became a mother I focused much more on recording because it was work I could do that didn’t take all day, so I could spend as much time with my daughter as possible. I knew I wanted to be a very present mommy and still keep a career going. Keeping a freelance status with a stronger focus on my recording work has really allowed me to do that. Velvet frequently comes with me to recordings and makes friends with the sound engineers – usually by covering them in stickers. I’m so grateful she can make herself comfortable in any situation. It’s been fun having her see what I do as well.
Q: You’re also a commercial, editorial and beauty model. Do you have a favorite shoot? How did you get started modeling in Japan?
Jenny: I first started modeling when I was living in Hong Kong. I had never ever imagined being a model of any sort. I ignorantly had the mindset that a model was merely a pretty face. I was fortunate to be introduced to one of my dearest friends, Quist, while living in Hong Kong. Quist was a young photographer wanting a foreign model for some shoots, and somehow it fell into place with me.
I learned SO much from Quist about modeling and quickly realized it was quite similar to creating a character in a play. I was telling a story through photos. When I was able to connect the technicalities of modeling and the storytelling of it, I not only gained a great deal of respect for it, but I also enjoyed it immensely. As far as a favorite shoot, I would probably go with shooting half-naked in Iceland!
Q: Do you have a full-time gig? How do you manage your full-time gig with all the extras?
Jenny: I have my weekly radio show that’s been running for five years now. Outside of that I am all over the map with my work from commercial songs and narrations, to acting in commercials, music videos and TV shows. I recently wrapped a role in which my character gives birth on the season finale of a popular series here in Japan called Dr. X, which is sort of like Japan’s Grey’s Anatomy. I still model from time to time, and I record voices and songs for apps, games and animations. The variety really is what keeps me on my toes and keeps it fun, too.
Q: Do you have an agent, a manager, or both, and do you have separate representation for acting, singing and modeling? How important is it for artists to have one? And how do you know which agency to select?
Jenny: I’m currently signed with eight agencies. Some for modeling, acting, voice-over work, narration work, and singing work. My radio show is through an agency as well. I know that seems like a lot of agencies, but I do think it’s important to have separate representation for each craft. Some of the agencies cater to both modeling and acting, or voice-over work as well as singing jobs. It depends on the agency. It’s important that you feel comfortable with the agency and your managers there because they are the ones who will be putting you up for the job. My agency managers are like family to me.
Q: Was there ever a time you didn’t get the gig? How did you handle the rejection?
Jenny: Yes, of course! There are by far more jobs that I didn’t get than ones than I did. I was up for hosting a new MTV show out of New York just after I got married, and it couldn’t have been more promising. They flew me out to NYC and brought me in to meet all the producers. It went so well and things were in the process for us to move out there. As I did some final screen tests, I specifically remember being asked if I could be more like Jon Stewart. Ha! Now I’m a big Jon Stewart fan, but I don’t see myself ever being comparable to him. In the end, someone higher up at MTV had a different image for the show, and it went to a male host in the end. That one stung pretty bad. But as much as all the stars had seemed to align for that job, it made me realize there are so many factors that come into play in this industry.
If you spend your time focusing on why you didn’t book that last audition you thought you nailed, or stressing over what you could have done differently, it really is nothing more than wasting your energy … energy that could be put toward getting the next one. Let those stings make you more resilient, and then keep movin’ right along.
Q: Do you have a favorite genre of music for listening?
Jenny: As for listening, my current favorites are Radiohead, Bjork, Nirvana, Buddhistson, Mates of State, Jimmy Eat World, Mitski, Stars, Jonsi, Ben Folds, Erykah Badu, Mel Gibson and the Pants, Girlpool, Sleigh Bells, The Gloria Record, and The Asteroids Galaxy Tour.
Q: How high of a priority is it to network in the global entertainment community?
Jenny: I’m probably not the best to answer this question because I am not a big fan of networking. Ha! I’m definitely a social person, but not in the going to parties or coordinating dinners kind of way. While some people may be completely in their element in that kind of atmosphere, that sort of thing always feels forced to me.
Q: What inspires you?
Jenny: Authenticity. That, and people who are able to reinvent themselves.
Q: What is the most challenging aspect of your job?
Jenny: Staying on top of all the different aspects of it. I remember a time where I thought I wasn’t amazing at one thing, but I was good at a few things. I thought if I really wanted to make it in this industry I should focus on ONE thing, whether it be acting, or singing, or piano, etc. But my career path didn’t lend itself to one particular art form, and now looking back, I’m so glad I kept that balance in my life.
It turns out, I work a lot BECAUSE I can do more than just one thing. At the end of the day, we are multifaceted human beings, and that’s a good thing! The more I learned to embrace the fact that my strength was the combination of all these elements, the more confidence I had, which ultimately fueled my passions.
Q: What show or performance or venue is on your bucket list? What would be your dream job?
Jenny: My dream job at this stage would be to land a nice role in a TV series. There is so much great storytelling through these TV dramas now, I can imagine being a part of something like that would be such a wonderful experience. Not to say there hasn’t ever been good TV in the past because there has (shout-out to The Sopranos and 6 Feet Under!), but specifically seeing more diverse and complex roles for women in recent years is truly inspiring.
Q: To what or whom do you credit for your success?
Jenny: I definitely give so much credit to my parents. They have given me so much support and encouragement throughout my career. They are very proud, to an embarrassing level, I’m not gonna lie.
I once visited them and went for a jog in the neighborhood while my parents were walking the dog. I saw a car pull over to them ahead of me, assuming they were asking for directions, and as the car passed by me the driver slowed down and said, ‘We heard about your new TV commercial with Tiger Woods coming out soon! Way to go!’ Just total strangers, but Mom and Dad couldn’t resist.
There was also a time when I had practically memorized the Ellen DeGeneres HBO special, Here and Now, in its entirety. My parents would be barbecuing in the back of the house, and I would be performing all these bits word for word. Mom and Dad were laughing so hard they told me I should really think about being a comedian … I would say, ‘OK, but you understand none of this material is mine, you guys. It’s all Ellen DeGeneres, I’m just copying her. You know the main job of a comedian is to actually come up with the funny material, something I know nothing about.’ They said, ‘Well, honey, you really have such good comedic timing, I really think it’s something you should consider.’ That night still makes me giggle. What parent actually wants their kid to be a comedian?!
For me, it was just another example of how much my parents believed in me. As silly as it sounds, I now find it incredibly endearing, and I sure am grateful I was brought up in it.
Q: What is next for you? What goals have you not reached yet?
- I’m currently working on a children’s album, so I hope to finish that within a year or so.
- I played a role in the new William Olsson-directed I Am Not A Bird film coming out later this year. I’m also in the early stages collaborating with my friend Quist on a clothing brand.
- My husband and I would love to go back and forth between Japan and the states for work. It’s slowly but surely happening, but that’s definitely a big goal for both of us.
Q: What advice do you have for anyone wishing to pursue a singing career in Japan?
Learn Japanese! You can always have a translator on jobs with you, but the more you can communicate, the better you can build relationships with composers, clients, etc.
The other thing I would simply say is to be on time. That’s good advice for any job, but especially in Japan. Be professional, be kind, be humble.
Voice of Allison Snow in Bandai Namco’s “Summer Lesson” VR game:
Connect with Jenny: