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Shinji Sato (born 佐藤伸治, Satō Shinji; February 16, 1966 - March 15, 1999) was a Japanese musician born in Tokyo, Japan and was best known as the vocalist, guitarist and songwriter for his rock group Fishmans. Sato was also notable for his production work in the band, as well as with musicians such as MariMari. Sato was largely known for his unique stage presence, falsetto vocals and dedication to his craft. When Sato passed away, he was 33 years old.

Sato at wedding

Sato (right) performing with his older brother (left) at their uncle's wedding.

Sato was born and raised in the Setagaya area. In his youth, Sato was very active and sporty, taking after his older brother. According to his mother, Nobuko Sato in The Fishmans Movie, he was "a child who didn't listen... he had a sense of independence, but he didn't listen very much and went his own way. He spoke honestly." In grade school, he played baseball as player 38. He was good childhood friends with Yo-King (Yoichi Kuramochi) who referred to Sato playfully as "Sato-Shin-kun", who remembers him as chic, cool and easygoing, similar to Fishmans' music. Sato's first time performing in front of an audience was in the sixth grade, where he sang at his uncle's wedding. Beside him, his brother played guitar (then in the eighth grade). It was also in grade school where Sato bought his first instrument, a blue bass guitar. He acquired the instrument independently from his family, who questioned his purchase. He grew defensive and professed his love for the bass guitar, that the color was blue because that was his favorite color.

Growing up, Sato found himself listening to a lot of western music, specifically reggae and hip hop. Sato enrolled in Meiji Gakuin University some time in the 80s, and soon joined musical collective Song Lights [ソング・ライツ] where he would eventually meet Kin-Ichi Motegi and Kensuke Ojima. It was during this period that Sato grew a fascination specifically with Japanese dub producer Kazufumi Kodama, who founded reggae band Mute Beat. Sato's roots belong in rock group 時間, a band he participated in from 1985 before founding Fishmans with his two aforementioned friends in 1987. Later Sato would also meet Yuzuru Kashiwabara in the same club, and would meet Hakase-Sun in 1990 while performing alongside his band Mustang A.K.A.. Sato would continue with Fishmans for the remainder of the 80s and a great majority of the 90s, releasing a multitude of works under the band and performing in dozens of live performances, serving as the group's lead writer and vocalist, as well as secondary guitarist. He would periodically publish his own written poetry through Fishmans' own Pool magazine, under sections titled De La Poet.

In a monologue regarding Sato from Fishmans' Pool, Vol. 22, Masaki Morimoto said of him circa 1998:

Satoshrinefinal

Image of shrine dedicated to Sato as seen in the office for Neri, as seen in Pool Vol. 22.

3 p.m. on a hot summer Sunday. After yesterday's recording, I put my sleep-deprived body on my scooter to Matsumizaka studio to pick up my things and return to dreamland. The glass door with the red sheet on it was unlocked, and I wondered, "isn't the recording studio supposed to be closed?" I entered the first-floor room, where the two sofas are located, which was empty at that time and filled with a stifling dampness that is more unpleasant than the outside air. I sensed someone on the second floor. For some reason, I sneakily put the notebook I had left behind in my backpack while being careful not to make any noise, and I hurriedly left without being noticed by the person above me. Suddenly, the sound of the door on the second floor opening. And I was startled by the sound of one person's footsteps coming down. He seemed to be recording the vocals alone, wearing shorts and a cap, shirtless, his lean but healthy brown skin sweating like rainfall, he raised his right hand tiredly. He smiled. The sweat on his skin at that time, the energy that surpasses the strong sunlight that you could feel from his smile. And the temperature and humidity that day, the noise of the cars on the street, the color of the sunlight shining into the room, and the fact that he had turned off the air conditioner and recorded his vocals without telling anyone. Everything on that day left an unforgettable impression of summer on me. The image of him at that time is the image of an artist in me.

While Sato was willing to participate in the band as a collective, Sato's creative process became increasingly demanding around 1997. Ojima and Hakase left the band in the mid 1990s, and the band's producer ZAK departed in mid 1997. ZAK's departure followed the particularly difficult production of the band's final album, 宇宙 日本 世田谷, for which Sato brought demos that were so near to completion that the group had little idea how to build on them. In fact, the demo recorded for In The Flight was released as-is on the final album. This was contrary to the band's typical work flow, as they typically collaborated on major parts of the songs, building their songs together. This final album was almost released as a Sato solo project, but instead they treated it as a two-sided work: the first four songs were treated as a Sato solo work, while the final four are more comparable to proper band projects.

Sato became increasingly paranoid about those around him feeling indifferent toward him. Around 1998, Sato once accused band manager Akiko Ueta of planning on leaving the band, despite her having not made any such plans. He also once argued with the band during rehearsal, claiming to support guitarist Michio "Darts" Sekiguchi that only himself (Sato) and Honzi had the band's best vision in mind. This paralleled increasing fears from the band members that Sato was entering a depressive phase, drummer Kin-Ichi Motegi actively avoiding asking Sato what he meant in the lyrics for the band's final song, ゆらめき In The Air. Multiple sources theorize this song might have alluded to suicidal ideation from Sato, as well as the final song from their previous album, Daydream. Late in 1998, bassist Kashiwabara announced his departure from the band come 1999, and the group planned a final tour with him, titled 男達の別れ.

Sato's last musical performance would be on December 28, 1998 @Akasaka Blitz while performing with Fishmans. Before the concert, manager Ueta described Sato as "away from everyone, even in the dressing room during the tour. He was concentrating hard by himself... We had everyone, even his family, out of the room, except for the staff... Everyone felt sentimental about Yuzuru-san, so there was almost no conversation." Regarding ゆらめき In The Air, manager Ueta said of Sato that "he became oxygen deprived, so I rushed out to buy some oxygen sprays. During the recording, he kept breathing in the oxygen spray every little bit he sang. He also seemed to be in a lot of pain during the "男達の別れ" tour. He had to have a few oxygen sprays at each show. He used to say the air was so thin. So after each show, he was often in a daze." Motegi would later describe the concert as proof that Fishmans was a good band.

Before the concert, Sato wrote a letter to his mother regarding his attitude toward music and the upcoming performance. He wrote, "you don't have to make compromises in your work, but it is important to be grateful and humble. I must hope for the future of music and keep challenging myself. If I stop, it's over. I want to sing good songs now while feeling good. I want to do fun shows. All I want now is a beautiful show."

Sato funeral performance

Image taken from Fishmans' performance at Sato's funeral. Note the lead vocalist microphone stand left alone with Sato's hat on top.

Shinji Sato would pass away less than 3 months later on March 15, 1999 at 4 PM. He was 33 years old. There is much confusion, mystery and secrecy regarding Sato's cause of death, however his official cause of death is listed as "heart failure". The two leading theories about his death involve either suicide or death by lung failure induced by a case of the flu. Suicidal ideation is not out of the question, as even after the December 28 concert, drummer Motegi claimed Sato was distant. He relayed that, in the band's 21st issue of Pool, Sato told a fan that "he wanted to go somewhere quiet", and that Motegi read this and "had a really bad feeling about him. I got nothing but a bad feeling. My desire to see him kept growing in February... I think I told our manager that Sato-chan might really be in trouble. I told her I thought he might really go far away." As for band manager Ueta, she calls herself "naïve" in how suddenly Sato passed away, claiming she didn't expect it at all. According to Motegi, it was raining that day.

As for Sato passing away from lung failure, there is a decent amount of evidence for this. Sato's reported trouble with oxygen in late 1998 might have been worsened by his high falsetto and intense performances, doubled by the fact he was a frequent smoker. Japan had an increase in deaths from influenza in the winter of 1999, so Sato's pre-existing lung issues may have been exasperated by a rough case of the flu. This might have compounded onto a growingly depressed Sato, who might not have treated such an illness with the seriousness it might have deserved. Regardless, details regarding his death are sparse, and all there is are theories.

Sato's music is still posthumously performed by the remaining members of Fishmans to this day. Ojima, Hakase, ZAK and Kashiwabara returned to the band almost immediately after Sato's death to perform at his funeral. At the funeral, it's reported that both friends and fans alike attended to mourn the loss. Since then, Fishmans performed a memorial tour in 1999 titled フィッシュマンズ的組合 (Fishmans Union), and a reunion tour in 2005, The Long Season Revue. The latter of these tours was one of the last to include support member Honzi, who passed away in September 2007 after a battle with cancer. Motegi remarked after her death that he felt Fishmans could truly not go on, however the band's performances still continued into the 2000s. In 2011, Fishmans properly returned with the May 3, 2011 @Hibiya Open-Air Concert Hall concert. This performance was later distributed physically in full, with internal splash art reading "FISH IS BACK!". In 2019, Fishmans performed the February 19, 2019 @Zepp Tokyo concert, during which they performed ゆらめき In The Air for the first time since December 1998. For this performance of the song, the band used vocals performed by Sato on December 28, 1998. This was achieved by ZAK digitally isolating the vocals from the night's performance and playing them overtop the band's actual performance that night, creating the illusion that Sato was singing over the night's performance. While the song was performed, the lead vocal microphone was left alone mid-stage.

Subwayhat

Sato as he appears in The Long Season Revue book, along with his Subway hat.

Sato jacket

Sato's jacket, filmed in 2019. It remains hanging in Sato's mother's home, in Sato's room.

Notable about Sato was his demeanor: during live performances, he was often seen wiggling around on stage and generally acting cartoonish and silly. This may have partially inspired the band's name, if not for the Mexican wrestler Fishman, which Sato was fond of. It's said that Sato's demeanor was somewhat "fish-like" according to fellow band members. Beyond this, Sato also commonly dresses in a light whimsical fashion and has a multitude of distinct clothing choices and items. Notable among them is his iconic Subway-themed bowler hat (seen to the left), which may have been homemade, seen in the music video for Slow Days. Another is his corduroy jacket, covered in pins and fishing patches.

Shinjigrave1

Sato's grave. Because this is a more modern photo, the wooden post (visible behind the gravestone) is no longer holding the white sign currently propped up against the plastic bin to the right.

Sato's grave is located at Kasamori Cemetery, located at Chonan, Chōsei District, Chiba 297-0125, Japan. Beside his grave is a plastic bin of Fishmans memorabilia and photos of him. Behind his grave's headstone is a small white sign, this having his name and "Fishmans" on it.

Trivia[]

  • Sato owned multiple pet squirrels throughout his life. Unfortunately, many of them ran away. Their names were all "Masa" or "マサ".
  • Despite specializing in guitar and cornet later in life, Sato's roots in musicianship also lie in playing the drums, such as during his work with 時間.
  • According to Kin-Ichi Motegi, apparently Sato was the only member who could actually fish.

Gallery[]

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