After a hectic few days, Shinjiro Atae takes a moment to breathe. Dressed in a black t-shirt and sitting back in his Los Angeles apartment, the 34-year-old singer is still processing the rush of attention he’s been subject to for the last week.
“I did not expect this kind of attention, at all,” Atae tells Billboard over a Zoom call. He gestures behind his camera and smiles; “That’s why I even had to bring my mom here for support.”
The J-pop idol — best known as a founding member of the popular group AAA — has good reason to be overwhelmed; on July 26, the singer officially came out to his fans as gay during a live event in central Tokyo. “I feared that even if I could accept the truth that I am gay, the world would never accept me as an aritst,” he said during his tearful speech in front of a captivated audience of over 2,000 attendees. “I’ve come to realize it is better, both for me, and for the people I care about, including my fans, to live life authentically than to live a life never accepting who I truly am.”
It was a welcome surprise for many to see an artist like Atae open up so frankly about his sexuality — especially in a genre where representation for LGBTQ people remains sparse at best. While Atae had braced himself for the worst, he was pleasantly surprised when he saw dozens of messages coming in from queer fans around the globe, congratulating him on his announcement. “Even when I read some mean comments, they still give me hope,” he says. “They make me think, ‘Oh, I want to help them too.’”
Originally, Atae had no intention of announcing his sexual orientation in front of a live audience — when writing his 2022 memoir Every Life Is Correct, But Incorrect, the J-pop star says he intended to reveal in its pages that he identified as gay. But something about that format felt impersonal, and he says it was “too important” to make sure that his fans understood him.
Atae compares his thought process to a split with a significant other. “If you break up with your boyfriend or girlfriend, you don’t say ‘I want to break up’ over text,” he explains. “You want to do it in person; you want them to hear it come from your mouth.”
Knowing that he was gay from an early age, Atae describes a feeling of fear that pervaded his life. At first, it was a fear of both not knowing himself and being too scared to look inward. “I just didn’t want to accept what [my sexuality] meant for me,” he said. “It took me a while to even accept myself.”
It wasn’t until a fateful first trip to Los Angeles, where Atae saw two men on the street openly kissing, that he finally felt he could be honest with himself. A few years later in 2016, the singer officially moved to L.A., splitting his time between his new home and Japan, where he was still performing with AAA.
The move proved to be very necessary for Atae — he explains that topics like mental health, LGBTQ issues and sexual identity are largely “not discussed” in Japanese culture. Today, Japan remains the only G7 country that has not legalized same-sex unions, and only recently passed a much-diminished bill aimed at preventing discrimination on the basis of sexuality or gender identity.
Despite his complicated relationship with his country’s policies, Atae makes it abundantly clear that he loves his homeland. “I love Japanese culture — it’s lovely and very respectful,” he explains. “Straight people in Japan just don’t know much about LGBTQ [culture], and that makes it really hard to come out.”
After coming to terms with his identity and coming out to his mother, Atae began to plot out how he would come out to his fans. Late in that process, a thought occurred to the idol: Why not help his fans understand through his art?
The result of that thought is “Into the Light,” Atae’s first solo single since announcing his artistic hiatus in 2021. Throughout the soaring ballad, the singer unfolds his own story, singing that he”spent so long being these versions of myself/ I forgot who I was, I was somebody else.”
It’s a path that Atae didn’t see himself taking for a long time. “Initially, I didn’t plan to come back to my career as a singer after coming out publicly,” he says. But naming artists like Callum Scott, Sam Smith and Elton John as his inspiration, the J-pop star decided that if they could succeed while being openly gay, then so could he. “If they hadn’t come out, then maybe I wouldn’t be here,” he offers bluntly.
Teaming up with songwriters like LGBTQ singer Wrabel to help him pen the song, Atae finally felt like he was in control of his narrative again. “I wanted to release this song, not only for myself and other LGBTQ people, but for anyone who is stuck struggling with something.”
Now, he’s able to look forward and chart out his next moves in the industry. Making a new album and going on a solo tour both make Atae’s immediate to-do list, as is returning to “the same venue where I came out” to perform new music, he says. But for now, Atae knows he did right by himself, and by his fans. “I really just wanted them to know that, if they’re struggling, they’re not alone.”