This 82-Year-Old Grandma DJ's Story Is Stranger Than Fiction
While your grandparents are heading to bed, Sumiko is picking out her outfit for the night.
Photos by the author
"I was at Electric Daisy Carnival yesterday," Sumiko Iwamuro says as she takes her sunglasses off. Wearing bright red lipstick, shimmery eyeshadow, and a leopard print T-shirt, Sumiko is sitting in the meeting space of a DJ school in Tokyo that she attended four years ago. "I listened to Afrojack on the beach with a glass of champagne," she continues with a smile. "The seabreeze felt so good that I fell asleep! It was a little embarrassing."
Considering Sumiko is 82 years old, the fact that she spent a weekend at a massive EDM festival, which took place last month in Japan, is impressive to say the least. Her embodiment of my #GrandmaGoals made me wonder if I should be disappointed in myself for bailing on club nights and binge watching TV on Fridays at 23.
Sumiko, who goes by the DJ name Sumirock, has probably popped up on your timeline more than once this past month after her story as an octogenarian Japanese dumpling maker-turned-DJ went viral in the international media. Her amazing life as an octogenarian DJ and restaurateur has caught the attention of local media for several years now, landing her dozens of Japanese interviews and a TV commercial deal with cell phone carrier Y!Mobile in 2014.
"I started going to my friend's monthly party Tokyo Decadance about 12 years ago," Sumiko says about how she got into dance music. "I'd been to concerts before, but I'd never been exposed to club music. Everyone who came to Tokyo Decadance was so free and stylish—I thought the parties were so fun."
Before long, Sumiko was ready to take on the decks herself. "Four years ago, my friend asked me if I wanted to DJ," she says. "I didn't hesitate for a second. That's when I started taking lessons [at this DJ school] and learned how to use a CDJ."
Thanks to her musical family, Sumiko's interest in music started at an early age. "My father was a jazz drummer who played a lot for the US military, so his influence made me listen to jazz, pop and classical music," she recalls. Growing up at the end of World War II and the subsequent Allied occupation of Japan, Sumiko says media outlets were in short supply, and her main source of music was the radio. "After the occupation ended, my father put his music career to rest and started his restaurant. I was so busy helping that I couldn't go out, even if I wanted to. I never got to go to a disco! I missed out on that entire era."
Still, Sumiko's wide-ranging musical interests endured, and now, when she gets into the DJ booth, party-goers shouldn't expect their usual dose of predictable techno or house.
"I play techno, rock, chanson, jazz, classical… all sorts," Sumiko tells me. "I always open with the Astro Boy anime theme song because it's used at my hometown's station and I want to pay respect to my roots."
"After that, I like to put in Kraftwerk somewhere towards the beginning, then mix in more upbeat tracks," she continues. "I try to stay between 128-135 BPM. My favorite artist is probably Chet Baker, but these days I play a lot of Zedd and Adam Beyer. I like this French band called Punish Yourself too—they're really cool."
While my grandparents are getting cozy in their pajamas at 8PM, Sumiko is picking out her outfit for the night. "The promoters give me an earlier slot, usually between 1:30 to 2:30AM," she tells me. "Parties are the most fun after 2AM, but I can only make it until 4AM or so. I'm just too tired from working. When I DJ in Shinjuku, I live pretty close so I just bike home."
Besides making DJ appearances at the Tokyo Decadance parties, Sumiko is a monthly fixture at DecabarZ, a bar in Shinjuku that describes itself on its website as "the only place where a traditional Japanese salaryman has drinks with Gothic rock bands and cute Harajuku Lolitas."
"The party I play is kind of pervy… It's called Opparadise ("Titty Paradise"), Sumiko says with a grin. "I have a strong heart, so nothing shocks me. People who are into different styles of music and fetishes come. It doesn't really feel like Tokyo; about half the visitors are non-Japanese."
"When I'm DJing, I don't think about how old I am. I feel free."
The octogenarian DJ has created so much buzz within Japan and around the world that she gets about three booking inquiries everyday. Last year, Fuji Rock Festival, the Japanese equivalent to Glastonbury or Coachella, wanted her to join the star-studded bill, alongside acts like James Blake, Disclosure and Baauer. But while most artists would kill to play at Fuji Rock, Sumiko just wasn't feeling it: "It's hot and muddy, plus you have to walk around a lot. Ugh, I just don't like that. I'd rather play at a club all night."
Sumiko's energy is admirable for someone of any age, nevermind an 82-year-old. But equally impressive is how she maintains a full-time job as a restaurant co-owner and chef on top of her DJ gigs. Established in 1954, the Chinese restaurant Gyoza-sou Muro, owned by her and her family, has been at the center of her life since Sumiko was 19.
"I was helping out from the very beginning, as soon as my father started the restaurant," she explains. "I worked there all the time [when I was younger] and we barely had days off back then. Right now, I work from 4PM to 11PM, six days a week. We're blessed to get so much business, but it's very busy."
The restaurant is a local favorite in the Takadanobaba neighborhood, and has even been described by some online reviewers as a "legendary" dumpling shop in Tokyo. While her brother is in charge of making the dumplings, Sumiko takes care of cooking up every other dish on the menu, from stirfrys and beef noodles to deep-fried pork ribs.
"Working at the restaurant and DJing are really similar actually—you've got something round in front of you, you put things in, take things out, hold them down," Sumiko says, moving her hands forwards and backward, almost like she's dancing. "It's hard to be on my feet all the time, but I like to stay moving." While she's always had a passion for music, Sumiko's creative exploration truly begun when she was able to spend time with herself after her husband's death in the mid-90s.
"If there's something that prevents me from doing what I want to do, it's only an issue of time or money—nothing else stops me," she declares. Spending time with her husband was a priority when he was alive, she says, so she didn't really pick up hobbies until after he passed away. "When he died, I started to challenge myself more. I thought, 'I'm gonna go get my driver's license!' and went to get lessons," Sumiko laughs. "I studied oil painting, the cello and French. I got to travel too, since my husband didn't like to. I went to New York and Key West alone. I had no problem getting around!"
When I die, it's going to be in the kitchen of my restaurant, the DJ booth, or the dancefloor.
Sumiko tells me she is often asked how she's still able to go out at age 82, but age is never a concern for her—and she still has a long list of things she wants to experience.
"In my head I know that I'm 82, but I never think about what I can and can't do at my age. When I'm DJing, I don't think about how old I am. I feel free," Sumiko says. "Right now I want to learn how to play the cello and do horseback riding. A big dream of mine is to DJ at a small club in New York. That would be so cool!"
The real question, she adds, is why everyone else isn't partying as hard as her.
"I feel like I don't see too many young people at the parties I go to these days. It feels like young people aren't as curious anymore," she laments. "Are they afraid of trying something new and failing? I never feel that way. You never know if you'll like something until you give it a try."
As the two DJ school students hover over their CDJs trying to beatmatch tech house tracks in the room next to us, Sumiko looks on and taps her fingers on the table. Turning to me with a smile, Sumiko casually imparts her last wish to me.
"I've already decided that when I die, it's going to be in the kitchen of my restaurant, the DJ booth, or the dancefloor. I don't think it would be so bad to fall to the floor while dancing, and just die right there."