In 2008, anime fans around the world would have loved to trade places with Catherine St. Onge, better known by her stage name, Himeka. The then-27-year-old Canadian singer had just won a national anime song contest in Japan, besting over 3,000 rivals to secure a recording contract and guaranteed theme song performance for an upcoming anime series.
Unfortunately, fame is a fickle thing. Unable to secure commercial success or a new work visa, Himeka had to return to Canada in 2014, even as she wistfully stated she wanted to remain in Japan forever. A year later, though, she’s singing a very different tune, tweeting that she “probably shouldn’t have come to Japan” in the first place and regrets her time in the country.
From 2007 to 2013, anime satellite television broadcaster Animax held an annual singing competition called the Animax Anison Grand Prix. The winner of the competition, which was open to contestants all across Japan who sang covers of preexisting anime themes, would receive a recording contract with Sony Music Japan and be featured as the vocalist for a future series shown on Animax, which is partially owned by Sony Pictures Entertainment Japan.
While six of the seven Anison Grand Prix winners were Japanese, the contest’s second iteration was won by Himeka, who had moved to Tokyo to pursue a career in the Japanese music industry that same year. After her unexpected victory in the summer of 2008, Himeka’s debut single, “Asu e no Kizuna” (“Bonds to Tomorrow”) was used as the opening theme for the TV anime adaptation of video game publisher Sega’s Valkyria Chronicles.
▼ Himeka’s most recent song, 2014’s “PRECIOUS”
After the heady rush of her early successes in Japan, though, the road began to get bumpier for Himeka. In 2010 she released an album of anime covers, but it wasn’t until 2011 that her first album of original songs, himekanvas, went on sale. This was followed by a trickle of video game and anime theme performances (usually at a rate of one or two a year), but the outlook wasn’t good for Himeka’s long-term singing career in Japan.
Complicating things further was the fact that after her five-year deal with Sony Music Japan was up, the company declined to offer her a new contract. Without steady work, Himeka was unable to renew her visa, and in June 2014 the singer sent out a tear-jerking tweet on her way to the airport.
HIMEKA (@HlMEKA) June 09, 2014
“I’m about to get on the plane to go back to Canada. I don’t want to leave Japan-my heart will always remain here. I will keep singing. I’m going to do my best in my new projects, too. Through the power of space, I’ll come to Japan again! I love you all! Thank you, thank you so much for all of your words of support! I will be a singer forever!”
Himeka still had a brave face four days later, when she tweeted from Canada that she deeply desired to remain active as a singer in Japan, and asked that interested labels contact her through her email address.
HIMEKA (@HlMEKA) June 13, 2014
A ray of light seemed to come in October of 2014 when Himeka released a six-track mini album of Japanese songs, titled PRECIOUS, in download format (which can be sampled and purchased here). Still, in the Japanese music world, physical releases are the major source of income for music companies, and thus the primary impetus for them to approach artists about recording new songs. Sadly, PRECIOUS doesn’t seem to have been the start of a Japanese comeback trail for Himeka.
Roughly a year after returning to Canada, though, it sounds like Himeka might be ready to lay her Japanese music dreams to rest. Last week, still in Canada, she tweeted that she would be relocating and, as of August 19, starting two new lines of work simultaneously.
HIMEKA (@HlMEKA) August 18, 2015
However, as Himeka’s tale has shown us, success doesn’t always wait in the places we want it to. On August 20 she announced that the second type of work didn’t suit her, and that she would be concentrating instead on the other (while not revealing what either vocation is).
HIMEKA (@HlMEKA) August 20, 2015
With all she’s gone through in the past year, it’s only natural that Himeka be feeling frustrated. On August 24, she took to Twitter to vent about her time in Japan in a series of since-deleted Japanese-language tweets:
“Before coming to Japan, I was treated like garbage. And then when I went to Japan and became a singer, I was treated the same: like garbage. Like garbage, no matter what I do. I even received a message that said ‘I want you to die,’ In time, I couldn’t understand what the purpose of all my hard work was.”
“Maybe I shouldn’t have come to Japan. I regret everything about it…the bullying by the industry was emotionally painful. Even if my dream was used and terrible things were done to me behind the scenes, I still kept doing my best for the sake of my dream and my fans, but all that remains now are unhappy feelings. I should never have entered that contest.”
“When I won that contest, they probably thought ‘Because she’s a foreigner, we can sell her music! It’ll be good publicity for our company and the contest!’ That’s all that they were thinking about. It had no relation to talent. They don’t care about moving people through music. What’s necessary is business matters. There is no ‘true’ in that industry.”
Regardless of whether the Animax Anison Grand Prix is judged purely on the basis of vocal talent or not, the sample of Himeka’s singing in the video above is a strong argument that she is indeed a capable performer. And while there’s no denying the novelty of being a non-Japanese, and a Westerner at that, drew extra attention from the Japanese media (which even nicknamed her “The Black Ship of Anime Songs,” in reference to the “Black Ships” of Commodore Matthew Perry that opened up Japan to the rest of the world in the 1800s), that had to be something Himeka expected going in, given how few foreigners are involved in the Japanese music scene in general and its specialized anime song corner in particular.
Much like being a professional athlete means resigning yourself to spending the largest chunk of your life on the practice field, or living in a foreign country requires making peace with linguistic failures and cultural befuddlements, being a professional singer with a major label is as much about dealing with the industry machinery as it is singing in front of fans. As attractive as the end results may be, not everyone is of the personality type that’s happy handling the day-to-day aspects of working towards those goals, and in the end some people will find that, for them, the negatives outweigh the positives.
Nonetheless, when your dream gets cracked or broken, the shards can be painful. Here’s wishing Himeka all the best in the next stage of her life, and that whether she’s singing or silent, she’s smiling.